On the Media

Obama vs. McCain on media policy 2008.

Barack Obama and John McCain

Someone—lots of people, actually—have been editing Sarah Palin’s Wikipedia entry, but chances are, none of them is John McCain. Over the past weeks and months, some members of the mainstream media and many bloggers have grown obsessed with a single question: Does John McCain truly not know how to operate a computer? While entertaining (see “McCain makes historic first trip to Internet”), it’s also a pretty silly discussion. The 1930 version of this game might have been, “Roosevelt can’t drive a combine harvester—can we trust his agricultural policies?” What, exactly, does knowing how to Twitter illuminate?

Behind this superficial buzzing lies something deeper, however—an interesting split between McCain and Barack Obama on what might broadly be called their media policies. What are their positions on how Americans communicate and get information—and what role, if any, does government play in overseeing that process?

Over the course of history, media and communications policies have sometimes proven the very mark of a government: Just ask Joseph Goebbels. The Nazis, in case you’ve forgotten, put media “reform”—or, rather, state propaganda—at the top of their agenda, fashioning German radio into the “towering herald of National Socialism.” In the United States, communications policies can shape a presidential legacy. Herbert Hoover oversaw the creation of American radio and NBC, John F. Kennedy (not Al Gore) began funding the original Internet, Lyndon Johnson begat PBS and NPR, and Richard Nixon oversaw the deregulation that led to cable television. The future of the Internet and the way Americans communicate will be shaped profoundly by the 2008 election. It will be a legacy for the victor.

Both campaigns have “tech plans” that include plenty of feel-good generalities. But behind them lie fundamental differences between the candidates and a rift between their main advisers. The essential difference lies in the view each candidate takes toward private power over the public media. McCain and his advisers put their faith in the private sector’s ability to provide a full and healthy information environment, and regard most government intervention as counterproductive. Camp Obama, meanwhile, believes in the need for serious oversight over what it perceives as real potential for abuse. This philosophical divide will translate into real differences over the next four years.

The first division appears over the question of “media consolidation” or “big media.” By “the media” here, I mean all the firms that create and handle information (the New York Times, Google, and that blogger next door) and those who move it around (AT&T and Comcast). Here’s the thorny question: Is it a problem if a tiny handful of firms—say, News Corp., Comcast, and others—own much of the media world? It is almost certain that McCain and Obama administrations would differ on the answer.

McCain’s principal adviser on such matters is Michael Powell, a formidable thinker whose ideas, influenced strongly by the Chicago antitrust school and Robert Bork, have held great currency during the Bush years, especially when he was chair of the FCC. Powell and McCain believe it’s better to approach the media industries in basically  the same way as any other industry, with the implication that media consolidation is a natural process best left alone. President Bush doesn’t care if, say, Miller Brewing wants to buy out Pabst Blue Ribbon—so why should he care if Fox (News Corp.) wants to buy NBC? Other than in cases of blatant price-fixing, grossly anti-competitive conduct, or exposed female nipples, this media policy holds that government generally ought to let the industry do as it likes.

The Obama camp starts from the premise that the media and information industries are special—that like the transportation, energy, or financial industries, they are deeply entwined with the public interest. That means they warrant a level of scrutiny beyond that accorded the market for low-alcohol beer. Why? Control over media and communications, the argument goes, translates too readily into political power and influence over speech. If a few companies have the power to control who and what gets heard, they can suppress or amplify news and wield a private control over democracy of the kind that terrified Thomas Jefferson. The public might also want a little more from their media than what the private sector delivers without oversight. Reasoned debate or shows like Sesame Street don’t always generate the ad revenues of, say, Dancing With the Stars.

It’s not fair to say that McCain’s camp ignores these facts altogether. Rather, it believes that trying to prevent media consolidation and attempts to favor “good” content will tend to backfire. Consider last year’s takeover of the Wall Street Journal by Rupert Murdoch as a test case.  Camp Obama might have tried to help the Bancroft family fend off Rupert Murdoch, while Camp McCain would be inclined to trust the market.

That’s the “big media” debate, but in a sense, the whole PBS vs. Fox thing is itself growing obsolete as fewer people watch either. Instead, today’s media policy is rapidly morphing into a debate over the future of the Internet—and here again the candidates offer divergent ideas of what that future should be.

Camp Obama thinks of the Internet as an incredibly successful public research project that was thrown open to the American public and entrepreneurs to dramatic effect. The open design of the network, in this view, is like a magic crystal placed at the center of the network by government scientists. As such, it is a resource that warrants special protection. The Internet has succeeded, says the Obama Web site, “because it is the most open network in history. It needs to stay that way.”

Translated into the lingo of our day, this means Obama’s camp is “pro-net neutrality.” In the interests of disclosure, so am I—and in 2007, when the Obama campaign ran its proposed net-neutrality language by me, I approved of it. Being pro-net neutrality means that Obama and his advisers believe basic anti-discrimination rules (a modern version of the “common carriage” rules that make phone companies and innkeepers serve all comers) will preserve the open nature of the Internet—and keep it safe for unapproved speech and surprising innovations like Wikipedia and YouTube.

Camp McCain starts from a different ideological place: one that takes the Internet as, essentially, a very cool “product.” As a product, the Net is less a public resource, and more something provided by the private sector in whatever form it considers best. In this sense, Camp McCain sees the Internet as more like cable television on steroids than some imaginary commons of the ether. What channels should be on cable is mostly a question for Time-Warner and Comcast—so why shouldn’t Internet providers make the same kinds of decisions?

That’s the view McCain pushed in 2005, when he co-sponsored a bill  that allowed Internet blocking “on notice.” If McCain’s bill had become law, a cable or phone company could in theory block, say, the video site Hulu.com by providing notice in the “service plan.” Interestingly, in that bill at least, McCain put himself at odds with more moderate Republicans, like Kevin Martin, present chairman of the FCC, who recently punished Comcast for just such consumer blocking. McCain (though he wavers in interviews) has put himself firmly in the anti-net-neutrality camp. According to his Web site, McCain might forbid some blocking, but in general, “John McCain does not believe in prescriptive regulation like ‘net-neutrality.’ “

So, which candidate is on the side of the market? Both McCain and Obama would claim that their views on the Internet and net neutrality are “pro-market.” McCain calls it “prescriptive regulation” to dictate to cable or phone companies in what form they must provide the Internet. Conversely, Obama’s camp says that a neutral Internet, like other public utilities, is the base line over which the free market operates.

That latter approach is better known as the “infrastructure” view of the Internet—the idea that the Internet is itself a necessity upon which the economy is built. More generally, it is the view that communications, along with energy, money, and transportation, are industries inevitability affected with a public interest, because the whole economy depends on them. Obama would probably hope to leave as a legacy, if not a chicken in every pot, a fiber-optic cable in every home.

Camp McCain is far more suspicious of such thinking and fundamentally does not see the Internet as essential infrastructure in the same way. Instead, Camp McCain dreams of a competitive market in Internet services, and so if Obama sees the Internet as a road, McCain takes it as a car: something that consumers will buy if they want it. In fact, in 2001, Michael Powell compared the Internet to a luxury car: “I think there is a Mercedes divide. I would like to have one, but I can’t afford one.” Any too-ambitious government project to put a fiber cable in people’s homes, thinks Camp McCain, is likely doomed to failure.

Ultimately, most of the difference in Obama’s and McCain’s media policies boils down to questions about whether the media is special and a dispute over how much to trust the private sector. Camp McCain would tend to leave the private sector alone, with faith that it will deliver to most Americans what they want and deserve. The Obama camp would probably administer a more frequent kick in the pants, in the belief that good behavior just isn’t always natural.

Tim Wu is a supporter of Barack Obama, but the views expressed here at not necessarily those of the Obama campaign.