Policy Documents

Pew's Non-Neutrality, Part 2

Scott Walter, president, Campion Consulting –
January 25, 2011

In Part 1 of this article, I gave reasons to be dubious about the Pew Charitable Trusts' claim that it is far above the political controversy that surrounds “net neutrality,” a nebulous notion whose thrust is that “media capitalists” endanger the Internet as we know it. Advocates of net neutrality want federal regulators to significantly expand their powers -- notwithstanding a federal court's decision that such an expansion is unlawful -- and write new "rules of the road" governing the Internet and broadband providers.

I’d suggest media capitalists are not the only big, wealthy, influential folks that Americans should keep an eye on. Big foundations, for example, bear watching. They are more secure financially than any media empire (just ask AOL-Time Warner, whose now-failed merger was once supposed to threaten life as we know it). And far from the spotlights that scrutinize media empires, big foundations can quietly work to change laws and herd public opinion, as well as to seduce less cunning foundations into joining them.

As John Fund of the Wall Street Journal has shown, Pew and other left-of-center donors like the Ford and MacArthur Foundations who now push for net neutrality are the same donors who poured tens of millions of dollars into the Wizard-of-Oz mirage that achieved passage of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance bill.

Before the ink had dried on that bill, these funders began propping up “media reform” efforts (including net neutrality) in multiple arenas. This time, Pew directed most of its support into research projects rather than advocacy work, but as Part 1 explained, Pew and the gang were well connected in various ways, such as a Ford-led list-serve.

Of course, the mainstream media has done little to nothing to connect the dots among funders, activists, researchers, and government officials. Why should they? As Pew president Rebecca Rimel always assures us, Pew is nonpartisan and bipartisan; its support goes only to the most disinterested experts who can help the benighted rest of us see the world more clearly. And if that weren’t wonderful enough, Pew, Ford, and the rest also shower millions on journalism of the highest quality, like National Public Radio.

'Pretense of Nonpartisanship'

You’d think that Rimel, or perhaps Susan Berresford (long-time president of the Ford Foundation, now retired) is the model for the classic statue Lady Justice: noble of brow, blind-folded, and holding out golden scales that are perfectly balanced from left to right. In reality, that left scale has a few thumbs on it, pressing with the weight of billions of dollars.

Yet the pretense of nonpartisanship, expert wisdom, good government, and objective journalism still works its Oz magic on many. The best-paid – pardon me, “most respected” – media will report any research put forth under these auspices as if it descended from Mount Olympus.

A spell is also woven for other, less prominent donors who can be induced to enter the funding stream. That’s why you are not likely to hear someone at, say, a Council on Foundations meeting ever argue against net neutrality or campaign-finance reform from the Right.

For evidence on the last point, consider the Web site of Grantmakers for Film + Electronic Media (GFEM), an affinity group sponsored by the Council on Foundations, which is dominated by the likes of Ford, MacArthur, et al. Type “net neutrality” into its home page and you’ll pull up a number of articles, all carefully selected. While one of the first dozen or so documents actually comes from a conservative source, the Christian Coalition, that piece argues in favor of net neutrality. Any grantmaker seeking an education on the topic is carefully protected from sustained criticism of net neutrality from the conservative side of the aisle. GFEM only offers sources of information that run the gamut from the polite Left to the angry Left. The angrier the source, the more it complains that the FCC’s latest net neutrality policy should be far more extreme.

Media Democracy Fund

Want further proof of the way a few big donors -- who feign pristine indifference to politics and partisanship -- herd potential donors in the direction of non-neutrality? Check out GFEM’s donors-only conference call on net neutrality scheduled for January 27. While you keep Lady Justice in mind, look at the wonders of nonpartisan expertise involved in this call. Are you a foundation staffer unsure what net neutrality is about? They’ve got you covered: “To learn more about how communications policies like net neutrality may impact your foundation’s issues, see: http://www.MediaDemocracyFund.org/impact-stories.”

What’s the Media Democracy Fund? Well, first, it’s the co-sponsor of this GFEM conference call. It’s also not exactly neutral on the issue of net neutrality but rather a pillar of the media reform movement. Its “funding partners” include, naturally, the Ford Foundation, George Soros’s Open Society Institute, and other leading lights of the Left. Its “thought leader” is Helen Brunner, who you’ll recall from Part 1 has advised “the Ford, Pew, Andy Warhol, and Quixote Foundations” on media reform.

Leading the conference call will be Jack Rosenthal and Gigi Sohn. Rosenthal currently hails from The Atlantic Philanthropies, having come from the New York Times Foundation. He works under Atlantic’s president, Gara La Marche, who came from the Open Society Institute. Ms. Sohn is president of Public Knowledge, “a Washington DC based public interest group working to defend your rights in the emerging digital culture.” Sohn is a Huffington Post blogger who previously worked at the Ford Foundation, where she “oversaw grantmaking for the Foundation's first-ever media policy and technology portfolio.” (Her current organization, funded by Ford, MacArthur, and Open Society, makes no pretense of neutrality on net neutrality: “Public Knowledge supports enforceable Net Neutrality regulation and a neutral Internet”; nor does she hide her close connections to powerful Democrats in Congress making tech policy.)

As you see, at Grantmakers for Film + Electronic Media it is indeed a small world after all. In fact, it’s possible that nearly everyone who speaks on this conference call will have received money, either as a staffer or grantee, from the Ford Foundation or the Open Society Institute. (The odds a registered Republican will speak? Infinitesimal.)
Some observers may feel a tad squeamish at the thought that America’s laws governing the Internet may be shaped by a group so sorely lacking in diversity.

Personally, I don’t doubt that things as complicated as the Internet and the broadband industry will operate imperfectly in countless ways. But one of the greatest virtues of a free civil society -- as opposed to cabals of the moneyed and the office-holding -- is that citizens and private groups, including “media capitalists,” can criticize others’ imperfections and create new and better ways of doing things without government bureaucrats silencing them.
Want real media reform? Then let a billion electrons bloom.

Scott Walter (scott@campionconsulting.com) is president of Campion Consulting, a philanthropic consulting firm for donors in the fields of education, civic literacy, and aid to the underprivileged. Reprinted by permission from Philanthropy Daily, http://www.philanthropydaily.com/?p=4547.