from the disinformation-nation dept
For years, we’ve noted how one of the greasier lobbying tactics in telecom is the co-opting of civil rights groups to provide the illusion of broad support for what’s often awful policy.
Such groups are given cash for a shiny new event center in exchange for parroting any policy position that comes across their desks, even if it dramatically undermines their constituents. As a result, we’ve shown how time and time again you’ll see minority coalitions like the “Hispanic Technology & Telecommunications Partnership” supporting awful mergers or opposing consumer-centric policies like more cable box competition or net neutrality.
This week the tactic popped up again courtesy of the Arizona Daily Star, which ran an op-ed by the League of United Latin American Citizens Council (LULAC) smearing Biden FCC nomination Gigi Sohn. Sohn’s nomination has been fought against tooth and nail by the telecom lobby, which obviously doesn’t much like the idea of a functioning FCC staffed with people who actually care about consumer protection.
The editorial makes a bunch of utterly baseless accusations about Sohn, including the claim that Sohn has a “deeply problematic track record on media diversity issues.” Sohn’s enjoys significant, bipartisan popularity in telecom and media policy circles, and anybody who knows Sohn knows this accusation isn’t true. The only evidence provided to support the claim is this:
As a senior staffer at the FCC in 2016, she masterminded a plan to give Google a government permission slip to steal, repackage and monetize TV programming without paying one cent to its creators.
Diverse creators screamed in opposition, with the strong support of civil rights leaders, creative industry unions and diverse lawmakers on Capitol Hill. But Sohn ignored these warnings entirely, pushing her own Big Tech-aligned ideological agenda over any concern for how her proposal would impact vulnerable, underrepresented communities.
The author’s misrepresenting the Wheeler FCC’s doomed attempt to tackle cable box monopolization, which attempted to force cable giants to deliver their existing content over streaming boxes as an app. We wrote about it at length at the time, noting that false claims that this was somehow an attack on minority voices or copyright (a Comcast and AT&T lobbying feint) were a major reason it was scuttled.
The FCC’s goal was to kill the cable box monopoly and save consumers about $20 billion annually in bullshit rental fees. I wasn’t sure it made sense because cable companies will ultimately die off just by the nature of streaming evolution. But framing it as a handout to “big tech” is an intentional misrepresentation designed to agitate and misinform folks already pissed at big tech. It’s a nice touch.
This kind of stuff is a particularly popular tactic among AT&T telecom and lobbying guys. Sometimes they’ll create entirely fake consumer or civil rights groups. Other times they’ll compromise existing groups by doling out funding, then nudging them to support policies that run in stark contrast to the interests of constituents (fewer consumer protections, more mergers, opposing qualified regulatory appointments).
And it’s not just minority groups. A wide variety of groups take telecom cash to parrot AT&T or Comcast positions, whether it’s rural Texas school associations, the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association or even “balloonists.” The goal is the creation of an illusory sound wall of support for what are usually unpopular policies (again, like cheering on shitty mergers or the dismantling of consumer protections).
In this case, LULAC is a major partner with AT&T on all sorts of initiatives. Now does that automatically mean the organization can’t have its own, incorrect positions? No. But should this financial relationship be disclosed in an op-ed attempting to scuttle the nomination of an FCC Commissioner pick that AT&T is extremely opposed to, especially its history of bad faith tactics on this front? Uh, yeah.
LULAC (again, entirely coincidentally to be sure) has mirrored AT&T’s policy interests on every major policy of note, whether it was the attacks on net neutrality, or the benefits of competition-crushing megamergers (like AT&T’s doomed acquisition of T-Mobile). Again, maybe LULAC just really loves supporting monopoly positions. Or just maybe there’s money to be made as a marionette.
Other Hispanic groups, including Fuse Media Inc. and the Hispanic Federation, have supported Sohn’s nomination. But there’s a handful of groups, all of which coincidentally have financial relationships with AT&T (again, entirely coincidental to be sure!) that have attempted to scuttle the nomination without disclosing financial tethers with telecom and cable companies.
This stuff routinely works because papers and news outlets can’t be bothered to disclose financial conflicts of interest (The Hill and Forbes are particular dumpster fires when it comes to this practice). So readers consume this missive about Sohn, see it’s from a civil rights advocate, and automatically assume it must be true. It’s a gross tactic, and it’s been popular in lobbying circles for twenty-five years.
Obviously pointing out that some civil rights groups and leaders may have been compromised in this fashion is a delicate affair, which is why the press just avoids the headache entirely, providing additional cover for K Street policy and lobbying shops and the corporations who fund the operations.
The timing of this op-ed is notable, given that Sohn is getting close to a final confirmation vote in the Senate. Since every single Republican opposes the nomination (flimsily justified by false, manufactured AT&T and Rupert Murdoch claims she “supports censorship“), her appointment will require full support from Senate Democrats.
The false narrative that Sohn has a “deeply problematic track record on media diversity issues” could be intended to pre-emptively justify or motivate Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) to vote down the nomination.
My disclosure: I’ve worked with Sohn in the past on projects related to telecom monopolization through Georgetown University. I know for a stone-cold fact she’s a massive champion of media diversity.
It’s worth remembering that the Trump appointment of Nathan Simington, a white male who arguably had little experience in telecom, was accomplished in 28 days. Sohn, a popular, hugely experienced LGBTQ female with a long track record of opposing media consolidation, supporting media diversity, and opposing telecom monopolization, has faced a nomination gauntlet a year and a half long.
That speaks for itself.