By BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon
On March 21 AT&T announced its intent to gobble up T-Mobile and control, with Verizon, three quarters of the US cellular market and most of the wireless internet. NNPA, representing 200 local black newspapers, serving corporate power instead of local communities and families, instantly endorsed this massive corporate power grab. What does this say about our class of black media misleaders, and what should we do about it?
NNPA: Black America's Watchdogs, Or Lapdogs For AT&T?
By BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon
The black press ain't what it used to be. Ida B. Wells, who died seventy years ago this week, is surely rolling in her grave. With the black church of its day, the 19th and early 20th century black press was one of the few African American leadership institutions not dependent on white capital or philanthropy. This gave Wells, as a newspaper publisher, a unique freedom to speak and live the truth unmatched by other black leaders of her time..But those days are gone.
Back in the day, African American newspapers built a national black community by delivering news to black audiences and allowing our grandparents and great-great grandparents to speak to each other and to the world in their own voices. That's the exact opposite of what the black press, black radio and TV, and many online “black” web sites do today. In the modern black press, radio, TV and many bloggers voices not towing the corporate line are silenced, ignored or ridiculed. For them, the black community does not exist, except as a market to be sliced, diced and delivered to advertisers. And black newspapers have few bigger advertisers than the telecom industry, and AT&T.
On March 21 AT&T announced plans to buy T-Mobile, giving it and Verizon about three quarters of the U.S. wireless phone market. The very next day, NNPA, the National Newspaper Publishers Association, claiming to represent more than 200 black community newspapers nationwide, deserted those communities to spring into the laps of their masters with this reeking endorsement of the proposed merger.
WASHINGTON, March 21, 2011 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Danny Bakewell, Sr., Chairman of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, has released the following statement in response to news that AT&T will acquire T-Mobile USA:
"Yesterday's announcement of the proposed merger of AT&T and T-Mobile takes us a tangible step closer to our goal of cementing broadband as 'the great equalizer' it bears the potential to be and increasing jobs and economic opportunities for minority and rural communities.
"In recent years, we have born witness to unprecedented support from government, industry, public citizens and the media to increase broadband access and adoption. That support has been amplified when we talk about the power of mobile broadband to provide access to communities who, whether for geographic, social and economic reasons, have remained disenfranchised from the digital revolution in which America is presently immersed.
"With this new opportunity on the horizon, we can rest assured that those in greatest need of broadband can access it, and that their use will be of the highest quality, most efficient networks possible to facilitate their communications and socio-economic needs."
National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA): The National Newspaper Publishers Association, also known as the Black Press of America, is a 69-year-old federation of more than 200 Black community newspapers from across the United States.
SOURCE National Newspaper Publishers Association
You'd think an outfit of 200 newspapers could spare a reporter or two to examine whether this giant merger and the resulting duopoly would actually benefit anybody. You'd be wrong. NNPA's endorsement came not out of honest reporters seeking the facts, but from the mouths of corporate public relations firms at prnewswire.com, who artfully crammed a double digit number of lies and misstatements of fact into its mere 149 words.
Black Agenda Report almost certainly has a thinner budget than most of NNPA's affiliates. (That's a subtle hint to drop us a one-time or continuing donation via credit card or PayPal.) But we'll take a first crack at what an honest black journalist looking at the AT&T merger might tell you.
Big corporate mergers don't create jobs, they destroy jobs. This is elementary. If there's a T-Mobile store and an AT&T store in your neighborhood, soon there will be one store. If there's an AT&T cell tower and a T-Mobile tower, soon there will be one. The same for a layer of executives, advertising firms, contractors, engineers, customer service reps, line supervisors, accountants, and the allied bureaucracies every corporation generates.
Wireless phone bills are going up, not down. Industry spokespeople tell you the opposite, but who are you going to believe? Talking heads on TV, or your own monthly bill, with incomprehensible new charges, changes, increases and penalties every month? We report. You decide.
Fewer cell phone companies to choose from means less choice, worse service and higher prices for consumers. This is pretty much elementary too. AT&T and Verizon combined will have nearly 75% of the U.S. cell phone market, and almost 98% of the GSM network, which is the international standard, forcing visitors and international businesses who want to adapt their cell phones to go with AT&T or Verizon or do without. The big players in a duopoly market are free to create scarcity of any service and charge more for it, which has been the telecom business model since the days of Alexander Graham Bell. Before there was ever a digital divide there was an analog divide, and with only two big players in the U.S. wireless market the digital divide will persist and assume new forms.
Spending $37 billion in cash and stock to cannibalize T-Mobile does not help AT&T to upgrade or expand service to underserved areas. After the merger AT&T will fire many of the people and retire substantial network assets. If AT&T wanted to deliver more service to more people it would use those billions to grow and upgrade its existing assets and hire more people, instead of buying out competitors.
The AT&T-T-Mobile merger will lock down the wireless web, without network neutrality as the private plantation mainly of two corporations, AT&T and Verizon. The wireless web is where much of the future internet expansion will occur, and again, Verizon and AT&T will have three quarters of that. Since the Obama administration's FCC has formally abandoned any notions of applying network neutrality to the wireless web the future of the internet will be pretty much in the hands of AT&T and Verizon.
Innovation and competition on the corporate plantation that the U.S. wireless web will become will be a thing of the past. AT&T is the worst among U.S. cell phone providers when it comes to restricting the capabilities of handsets and software on its network. For example, ever wonder why you have to buy mobile internet separately for your laptop and your cell phone? Hint: it's not a technical reason, it's an economic one. Manufacturers and programmers are already producing phones and apps that do a lot more things on foreign networks than U.S. wireless carriers permit. Look for the innovation gap to grow, and the U.S. to fall behind.
The black and the poor will be hit hardest, with higher prices and more limited internet access than the affluent. Blacks and the poor are more likely to depend on handheld devices for their only or principal internet access. With such network neutrality rules as do apply only relevant to the wired internet, those whose access is primarily through handheld and wireless devices will only get an increasingly small and corporate-censored version of the internet. Both AT&T and Verizon are already notorious for blocking content they disapprove, from text messaging to internet access. Beware.
The Justice Department can veto this merger on anti-trust grounds, and it probably should. Congresses and presidential administrations a century ago knew that unlimited power of a few greedy corporations over important areas of life was inherently dangerous. They put laws in place to stop it. The Obama Department of Justice can squelch this anti-competitive merger at any time. Only a massive wave of public anger can make them do it. Are we up to that?
The FCC can block this merger on public service grounds and probably ought to. AT&T, Verizon and the rest did not invent the electromagnetic spectrum, and they don't own it. The FCC is supposed to administer the spectrum in the public interest. A blind person can pretty much see that handing over the wireless web to a greedy duopoly is not in the public interest.
It's a political question, and the political landscape, for US consumers and the black public is not favorable.
Don't expect any help from the Obama adminstration, which has already approved the massively anti-competitive Comcast-NBC merger, and which has thrown its 2008 pledges on network neutrality away. Don't expect much from about half the Congressional Black Caucus, or from the National Conference of Black State Legislators, both of which depend on corporate roundtables, corporate campaign contributions and corporate philanthropy. Even the traditional civil rights type organizations like the NAACP, LULAC, and the National Committee on Black Civic Participation are on the corporate telecom tit.
Unlike Ida B. Wells, our Black Misleadership Class can't say a word on our behalf that does not clear a corporate PR desk in advance. The fulsome and laughable NNPA endorsement is just the first note in a symphony we'll hear for the next several months, as AT&T plays black media, black radio personalities, black TV, black bloggers, black politicians, celebrities and black organizations like a piano. The music isn't ours, and neither are the voices. But they will be loud, persistent and well-paid. That's just the way it is. Ain't it time for something different?
What we'll do, and what you can do
Final approval or disapproval of the merger can take up to a year. Given the people-proof and democracy-proof nature of U.S. politics in general, and 21st century black politics in particular, the time to start moving is now.
Sign the pledge at FreePress.Net to tie yourself into the national movement to block this anti-democratic corporate merger. FreePress.Net will keep you informed with regular email and other updates of the struggle to free the wireless web.
Sign our petition here at Black Agenda Report to become part of the network that assails black elected and civic leaders and black institutions to represent black people and oppose this merger. We will also keep you up to date with twice-monthly bulletins on the struggle to oppose this merger, and present your signatures to the Obama Justice Department, the FCC and the Congressional Black Caucus.
Call a local public meeting. Almost everybody you know has a cell phone, right? They're all affected. Interested in organizing a local meeting on what black people actually want? We can help you do that too. Email us at publisher(at)blackagendareport.com.
Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report, and can be reached at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport.com. Dixon is based in Marietta GA, where he is a principal in CampaignFoundations.Com, an internet telephony and strategic communications firm, and a member of the GA Green Party's state committee.