by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon
A March 30 article at The Root lauded former Atlanta mayor Shirley Franklin for her alleged efforts to bridge the digital divide. But why did its author Kris Broughton fail to ask the former mayor and current corporate operative any informed questions? Why did he fail to mention that the Alliance For Digital Equality is a known PR front group for the powerful telecom industry? And what else did he forget to tell us?
Shirley Franklin and the Digital Divide: Fronting For Telecoms At TheRoot.Com
by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon
“If they did that for motorists on a street corner it would be prostitution. But when a black blogger and “journalist” does it online, it.s called The Root.”
Public relations is manufactured news. Though it isn't talked about much, a great proportion of what we thin of as “news items” don't originate from curious or crusading reporters scouring the globe, or even their home towns for the nuggets of information citizens need to make sense of the world. They come from public relations professionals mostly working for wealthy and powerful corporations. Right now in the U.S., according to John Nichols and Robert McChesney, there are about four PR people to every one working reporter. Many editors are OK with broadcasting or printing public relations puff pieces on a new drug or supposed initiative as straight news, and many “journalists” are content to co-sign the fluff, and cash the check.
If they did that for motorists on a street corner it would be prostitution. But when a black blogger and “journalist” does it online, it.s called The Root. A March 30 article at The Root by Kris Broughton titled “Shirley Franklin Helps Close the Broadband Divide” is as pure an example of lazy journalistic whoring as we've seen this week.
Assuming that author Kris Broughton got the same email from Franklin's publicist that I did, offering a possible interview with the former Atlanta mayor, he failed to do the most basic research on who Franklin was shilling for in DC, and what that group's policy aims and funding streams were. There is no evidence Broughton bothered to bone up on the causes of the digital divide and what the pressing communications issues are that effect minority communities, so that he might ask the penetrating questions needed to hold the wealthy and powerful corporations Shirley Franklin represents to account. He might just as well have let Shirley, or more likely one of her PR stooges on loan from AT&T, Verizon, Comcast or wherever, write the story.
If Mr. Broughton was playing the part of a real journalist, he might have gone to SourceWatch to research the Alliance for Digital Equality, the outfit for which Franklin is some kind of Senior Advisor, and which paid for her DC trip. If he did he would know that ADE is a front group apparently organized and paid for by Big Cable and Big Telecom corporations.
“Its 2007 tax return (Form 990),” according to SourceWatch, “...had an operating budget of over $2 million, of which no money was allocated for fundraising, nor hiring of employees. In fact, the total compensation for board members exceeded the amount of all program-related expenses.”
Evidently, ADE is rolling in cash, and the law does not oblige it to disclose its funding sources. But they are not exactly a mystery. Black and brown telecom execs are strongly represented on its board, and many other board members have strong historic ties to AT&T and other telecom industry giants. Also, ADE's policy positions and rhetorical poses, especially its opposition to network neutrality and specious claim to want to bridge the digital divide, fit the exact profile of a telecom-funded PR operation on the part of Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, Time-Warner, with black and brown corporate execs on its board. The Alliance For Digital Equality is clearly a corporate-funded front organization pursuing corporate welfare, bailouts and preferential laws and rules for its funders disguised as some kind of benevolent public service.
Mr. Broughton is no fool either. He knows this. But he asked no questions about ADE, or its funding or its legitimacy.
If Mr. Broughton knew or cared about the broadband needs of minority communities, or took seriously a journalist's obligation to acquaint his audience with them, he might have pointed out that telecom companies ever since the 19th century invention of the telephone have pursued a business model that made their services scare and expensive, rather than cheap and plentiful. They jealously guarded and extended monopoly patents and delivered phone service to businesses and affluent areas only for decades, neglecting poor areas, small towns and rural districts. This, as Paul Starr explains in Creation of the Media, was the predecessor to the digital divide, an analog divide.
Universal phone service to small towns, rural areas and poor neighborhoods was only established after public outrage at the telecoms built to sufficient levels to neutralize their ability to buy judges and votes in the legislatures. When cable came on the scene in the late 20th century the corporations deployed the identical business model, shortchanging and overcharging poor and minority areas, bypassing small towns and rural areas altogether. The internet backbones, invented and until the 1990s built and maintained chiefly by people on the government payroll, were practically given away to the same greedy corporations who had to be forced into universal phone and cable service, and who pursued their historic business model of overcharging, underserving and bypassing minorities, the poor and rural areas. Predictably the analog divide became a digital divide.
“If he were pretending to be a journalist, Mr. Broughton might have asked how ADE's unblinking opposition to network neutrality helps minority communities.”
Assuming Mr. Broughton actually bothered to interview Franklin, instead of co-signing an article written by her flacks, he might have inquired why people ought to believe ADE's and for that matter Comcast's, Verizon's, and AT&T's declarations that they want to end the digital divide, since they engineered it. He could ask why they don't just use their super-profits to build out to minority areas and be done with it. This kind of thing, calling public and corporate officials to account, is the duty of journalists. But putting powerful people on the spot is not what they do at The Root.
If he were pretending to be a journalist, Mr. Broughton might have asked how ADE's unblinking opposition to network neutrality helps minority communities. He might have reminded Shirley Franklin that the inexpensive phone cards people use to call their relatives from Maine to Mexico and Seattle to Jamaica route calls over the internet, and the end of network neutrality would mean AT&T and other phone carriers would be able to block or impose their own surcharges on cards or other internet communications coming from anywhere but their own digital plantations. But again, asking direct, penetrating questions seems not to be Mr. Broughton's style or what they do at The Root.
Broadband access will be as important to economic development, to medical and educational services, to job growth in minority communities in the 21st century as paved streets and roads. Network neutrality, publicly owned and operated broadband and wi-fi networks are the only way to accomplish this. The countries that have higher broadband penetration and faster overall broadband speeds than in the US either have networks owned by the government, or regulations that mandate cheap, fast service to everybody, and allow local towns and governments to build and operate their own. The telecoms know this. Shirley might know it. Mr. Broughton and the editors at The Root might or might not know it, but he won't print it because that's not what they do.
What they do over there is infotainment, along with misleading corporate PR puff pieces. When powerful corporations need to tell black people what to think, they pay guys like Mr. Broughton to co-sign, or to write it up at The Root. I posted a comment to Mr. Broughton's story at TheRoot when it went up posing some of these questions. It was promptly deleted. Oh well.
Like we said when that kind of thing is done outdoors on street corners it's called prostitution. When it's done indoors, those institutions are called whorehouses, and their inmates, well, you get the picture. And when it's done online with a black face, it's done at The Root.
Bruce Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report, and is less afraid than some to ask the questions journalists ought to. He is based in Atlanta and can be reached at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport.com.