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Craig Aaron

Craig Aaron

Posted: September 4, 2009 09:52 AM

Want to Change the Media? Be a Lobbyist

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Last week, I was invited to speak at the National Alliance of Media Arts and Culture conference in Boston. This organization of media and arts leaders represents hundreds of thousands of community media centers, arts educators, artists and filmmakers. Here's some of what I told NAMAC about the importance of artists and media makers getting involved in politics and policymaking:

I'm here to report on what's happening in Washington.

Washington is changing. It has been a different place. Even that swampy, muggy August weather hasn't seemed so disgusting this year. There's still optimism in the air.

I'm here to tell you that if you care about media and the arts, it matters who is in the White House. It matters who controls Congress.

Maybe most of all, it matters who gets appointed to those sometimes invisible but oh-so-important places like the NEA, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Federal Communications Commission.

That's because decisions being made right now -- and in the next few years -- at the White House, in Congress, and at these agencies are going to shape the future of all media for a generation.

They will decide ...

... If the Internet will remain open and free;

... If everyone will share in the benefits of broadband;

... If we're going to have a world-class public media system; and,

... If we'll have any hard-hitting public service journalism.

The good news is we now have friends in some of these key jobs. You know them. They will read your e-mails and return your calls. They want your ideas. They want to do the right thing.

Yes, Washington is changing. But there is a whole lot of Washington that still needs to change.

At Free Press, we often find ourselves going up against big phone and cable companies like Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Verizon and AT&T.

We recently looked at just the first six months of the Obama administration. And we found that those four companies and their trade associations alone had hired more than 500 lobbyists -- that's one for almost every member of Congress -- and spent more than $45 million. And that's just what they report.

Not too long ago, I heard that when AT&T tried to have a meeting of all of its lobbyists in Washington, nobody's office was big enough. They had to rent out a movie theater.

If you took all the public interest lobbyists working in Washington full time on media and arts issues ... they could still share a cab.

The only way we'll defeat organized money is with organized people. That's what Saul Alinsky said. But I think there's another secret ingredient.

It's a resource that we have in abundance here today: It's creativity.

And that creativity can change policy.

The Series of Tubes

Let's talk about Network Neutrality.

For those who don't know, Net Neutrality is the fundamental principle -- which has been part of the Internet since its inception -- that allows you to do whatever you want, go wherever you want, download whatever you want when you go online. Net Neutrality means no discrimination or interference by phone or cable companies with any content, applications or services.

I call Net Neutrality the First Amendment of the Internet -- and if you're an artist or media maker, it's going to be as important to you as the Bill of Rights.

Without Net Neutrality, the big phone and cable companies could decide which Web sites load fast and which don't load at all; they could block access to independent video or art they don't like; they could make it hard to find certain content simply because it competes with their own movies and music and Web sites.

You might remember that we came very close to losing Net Neutrality forever back in 2006. There was a dangerous bill in Congress. It had passed the House. It didn't look good.

One day, I was sent a link to this video in my e-mail. It was of this guy dressed up in a ninja suit talking about Net Neutrality -- sort of.

There was something about "bacon juice" and "Robin Williams' cousin," and he defined the Internet "as people in funny hats making things that people like" -- which, come to think of it, is a pretty good definition. But it was the kind of message that never would have gotten past the consultants and policy wonks.

At least a million people watched that video. And before long, there were dozens of new videos going up about Net Neutrality every day. Millions of people contacted Congress.

Fast forward a few months, and there was a big vote in the Senate Commerce Committee on whether to protect Net Neutrality. And it ended in a tie -- which actually meant that we had lost, again.

But Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, then the chairman of the committee, who was against Net Neutrality, was so mad about the tie vote that he started ranting.

He started yelling about how his staff had "sent him an Internet" on Friday, but he didn't get it until Monday. And about how the Internet was "not a truck," it was a "series of tubes." Remember, this guy was writing the laws to shape the future of the Internet.

None of the reporters in the room wrote about it. But a blogger who was in the room recorded the rant and put it on the Internet.

It went viral. People started passing it around, and making T-shirts that said "series of tubes" on it, and re-mixing Stevens' rant as a techno dance tune that 2 million people downloaded on YouTube. And then the Daily Show got hold of the clip and started mocking him. It got so embarrassing that the Republicans abandoned the bill.

The Internet's Future

The lesson here is that artists and media makers -- working with activists and bloggers and policy wonks -- took this obscure issue and helped put it on the national agenda. Obama even talked about Net Neutrality on the campaign trail.

Now in 2009, that's not enough. We have to move from defense to offense. And we've got to remember that it's a lot easier to stop a bad thing from happening -- to throw a wrench into the system -- than it is to pass the bills and create good policy.

Net Neutrality still isn't safe. But there's a new bill in Congress -- HR 3458, the Internet Freedom Preservation Act -- that will protect the open Internet once and for all. It needs co-sponsors. It needs your creativity. It needs to pass this year.

That's not the only Internet issue, of course: 40 percent of Americans still don't have high-speed Internet access. They are stranded on the wrong side of the digital divide.

The economic recovery package did include $7 billion to expand broadband -- and that's a big start. But we're still 22nd in the world in broadband adoption. Other countries have Internet that's 50 times as fast, and they pay half as much.

Crisis and Opportunity

We also need to talk about traditional media, where most people still get their news and entertainment. Years of mega-mergers and concentration have consolidated distribution channels and destroyed local art and music scenes.

Runaway media consolidation has left media companies deeply in debt and journalism in crisis. Tens of thousands of journalists have lost their jobs in the past two years; newspapers are shutting down; and local coverage is being replaced by the same cookie-cutter content coast-to-coast.

But that crisis gives us an opportunity, a chance to re-imagine our current public broadcasting system and rebuild it as new public media that are committed to newsgathering and community service.

We need to start by expanding our definition of public media. Yes, it's PBS and NPR. But it's also community radio and Low Power FM stations, public access cable channels, noncommercial satellite networks, and independent producers, publications and Web sites.

Did you know that we now spend just a little more than $400 million per year in public money on public media?

That works out to just $1.37 per person. Throw in the budgets for the NEA and NEH, and you're still looking at pocket change. By comparison, Canada spends $22 per capita, and England spends $80.

Or think of it this way: Each of us in this room spent $565 to bail out AIG.

Imagine what our new public media system could be with even just $5 per person. ...

The Creativity Stimulus

Unfortunately, when the stimulus bill was being debated earlier this year, media and the arts were mostly shut out. The NEA did get $50 million. But public broadcasting missed the boat.

And yet, when Obama released his budget, the leaders of public broadcasting sent out statements thanking him just because he didn't cut their funding.

We can't settle for spare change any longer. There's going to be a second stimulus package at some point. And when it comes, we need to make sure it's not just an economic stimulus. It should be a creativity stimulus, too.

We need to put people to work building roads and repairing bridges and laying those high-speed Internet fiber lines. But we also need to put people to work running community organizations, and writing plays, and making art. The artist's paycheck is every bit as important as the banker's paycheck or the auto worker's paycheck.

What we need now is real change, not more spare change.

If you want real change, not spare change, you can't beg for it.

If you want real change, not spare change, you have to stand up.

If you want real change, not spare change, you have to get involved.

If you want real change, not spare change, you have to be at the table when decisions are made.

If you want real change, not spare change, you're going to have to fight for it.

If you want real change, all of us are going to have to become lobbyists.

If we can harness just some of the creativity and energy in this room and channel it toward making policy change, we will win. And when we start winning on these media issues, we will start winning on all of the other ones that matter, too.

Let's get to work. Let's work together. Thank you.

Follow Craig Aaron on Twitter: www.twitter.com/notaaroncraig