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John Nichols

John Nichols

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"The Single Most Important [Media] Policy Debate"

"This innocuous-looking document initiates the single most important public policy debate that the FCC will tackle this year," Federal Communications Commissioner Michael Copps explained Wednesday, as the commission issued the "Notice of Proposed Rulemaking" that initiates the next big fight over media ownership rules in the United States.

"Don't let its slimness fool you," added Copps. "It means that this Commission has begun to decide on behalf of the American people the future of our media. It means deciding whether or not to accelerate media concentration, step up the loss of local news and change forever the critical role independent newspapers perform for our country."

The commission's decision to issue the notice marks the beginning of an epic battle in the long struggle over whether to loosen ownership rules in a manner that would allow individual media companies to effectively take control of mass communications in cities across the country. But the precise nature of the fight was left unclear by FCC chairman Kevin Martin, who is guiding the rulemaking process.

Martin, a Bush administration appointee who is closely tied to a White House that wants to rewrite media ownership rules in a manner that will allow for a dramatic new wave of consolidation of ownership at the local level, is expected to use the process that began Wednesday to try and advance the agenda of the media conglomerates that in 2003 sought unsuccessfully to eliminate long-standing barriers to media monopoly. In a strategic shift, Martin is not proposing specifics rule changes at the start of the process. Rather, he is inviting comment on the broad issue of media ownership with the goal of then proposing and implementing specific rule changes after the public comment period is finished.

Martin hopes to avoid the public outcry that greeted the last attempt by the FCC to rewrite ownership rules -- and that, ultimately, thwarted the implementation of changes that would have allowed for massive new consolidation of ownership at the local and national levels.

Martin's attempt to confuse the rulemaking process by refusing to outline the rule changes he hopes to implement by the end of the year generated criticism even before Wednesday's FCC meeting finished. "The manner in which the Commission is launching this critical proceeding is totally inadequate," said Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein. "It is like submitting a high-school term paper for a Ph.D. thesis. The large media companies wanted, and today they get, a blank check to permit further media consolidation."

Copps and Adelstein, the FCC's stalwart defenders of media diversity, competition and localism, made their concerns known by dissenting in part against Martin's rulemaking initiative. Martin had the votes on the five-member commission -- on which Democrats Copps and Adelstein are outnumbered by the chair and two other Republicans -- to create a process that satisfies the media conglomerates. But he may not be able to deliver the changes that the corporations want.

At the top of the corporate wish list is the elimination of the "cross-ownership" rule that prevents a single company from buying buy up all the daily and weekly newspapers, as many as three television stations, as many as eight radio stations, the cable system and primary internet sites in the same metropolitan area. This "company town" scenario -- known in FCC parlance as "cross-ownership" -- was agreed to by the commission three years ago, despite broad public opposition. Only when Congress and then the courts intervened did the scheme get tripped up.

Martin's new rulemaking process is another attempt to get rid of the FCC's bar on cross-ownership. Yet, even with Martin's attempt to obscure the debate, the likelihood is that opposition to this specific rule change will come through loud and clear during the 120-day public comment period that and in the "half a dozen" public hearings that the chairman anticipates.

"The prohibition against owning a local broadcaster and a local newspaper in the same market is critical to preserving what the Supreme Court called ‘antagonistic sources of news' at the local level," says Linda Foley, president of the Newspaper Guild-CWA, the union that represents newspaper reporters and editors. "While some argue that the onset of digital communications provides many sources for national and international news, the vast majority of Americans get local news from either their local TV stations or their local newspaper. Our members know firsthand that the goal of media consolidation is to gain economic efficiencies. The result is merged news operations and reduced numbers of reporters covering local stories."

Foley's message will be amplified by a broad national campaign to assure that the FCC gets the message that Americans want to maintain media competition in their hometowns.

Unlike in 2003, when opposition to the rule changes proposed by the FCC majority built slowly over a number of months, this time the opposition is already organized. With the announcement of the rulemaking process came the debut of a new StopBigMedia.com coalition that includes Consumers Union, the Consumer Federation of America, the National Council of Churches, the Leadership Council on Civil Rights, Public Citizen, the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, the Future of Music Coalition, Free Press and other church, labor, consumer, community and media reform groups.

In addition to challenging moves to rewrite ownership rules to benefit big media companies, the coalition will police the rulemaking process. If Martin continues to manipulate it in a manner that confuses issues and undermines debate, coalition members say that any rule changes the chairman might get approved by the FCC will be challenged in the Congress and the courts.

"The essence of democratic government is to give the people a chance to effectively participate in writing the rules under which they live," says Mark Cooper, the director of research for the Consumer Federation of America, a veteran observer of the regulatory process. "This Notice denies the public the opportunity to comment on the actual rules that will govern the media in America, since no rules are proposed. If the Commission does not allow further comment, the courts should reject this sham."

The likelihood of Congressional intervention remains real, as well. Moments after rulemaking notice was issued, Congressman Maurice Hinchey, the New York Democrat who chairs the Future of Media Caucus, declared that, "In 2003-2004, the FCC ignored the hundreds of thousands of Americans who expressed their opposition to the proposed rules during the public comment period, and only held one public hearing outside of Washington to hear what the public had to say. This was a grave mistake, and one that the Commission should not repeat. The American public has a right to know the full implications of these proposals and they have a right to be heard by the FCC. I will continue using the power of my office to ensure that this is a lengthy, open and transparent process."

Ideally, of course, the FCC will hear enough from the American people during the four-month comment period to recognize that there is no public support for regulatory shifts that help big media to get even bigger. That recognition might make even Kevin Martin -- an ambitious Republican who would like to run for the governorship in his home state of North Carolina -- think twice before using his position of public trust to do the bidding of the communications conglomerates.

The Next Big Fight Over Media Ownership

The Federal Communications Commission will again attempt to do the bidding of big media this year, with a scheme to rewrite ownership rules in much the same manner as it did in 2003. FCC chairman Kevin Martin is expected to announce Wednesday that the commission will embark upon a rulemaking initiative that will seek to make it possible for one company to own all daily and weekly newspapers, as many as three television stations, as many as eight radio stations, the cable system and primary internet sites in the same community. This "company town" scenario -- known in FCC parlance as "cross-ownership" -- was agreed to by the commission three years ago, despite broad public opposition. Only when Congress and then the courts intervened did the scheme get tripped up.

But big media companies, which hope to reap massive profits by creating one-newsroom towns where a handful of "content providers" produce all the local print, broadcast and digital coverage of government, culture, sports and community affairs, did not accept defeat graciously. In collaboration with friendly FCC commissioners, they kept looking for an opening that would allow them to renew their demands. And they think they have found one now that the five-member commission -- which had a GOP vacancy for months -- has a newly-minted 3-2 Republican majority. [Republican commissioners, now led by Martin, have generally sided with big media companies in recent years, while Democrats Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein have been stalwart defenders of divisity and competition.]

Martin, a Bush appointee with extremely close ties to a White House that has long wanted to implement rule changes favored by the generous campaign donors who own the nation's largest communications firms, has calculated that in an election year when the country's attention is focused on issues such as the war in Iraq, immigrations and mounting trade deficits, it will be possible to slip significant rule changes past an American public that is passionately opposed to them.

The FCC chair is a smarter politician than his predecessor, Colin Powell's son Michael. But Martin may have miscalculated.

Even before tomorrow's announcement of that the commission will attempt again to rewrite the rules in a manner that allows for greater concentration of ownership of local and national media by fewer companies, Martin was being challenged by members of Congress.Led by New York Democrat Maurice Hinchey, who chairs the Future of American Media (FAM) Caucus that was organized after the last fight over ownership rules, sixteen House members launched a preemptive strike in a letter to Martin.

The House members wrote:

We have noted with interest recent reports that you intend to revisit the issue of media ownership... If the FCC does in fact consider this issue, then we hope that the Commission will strengthen existing rules, and not further damage an already weak structure intended to protect diversity in American broadcasting. Put simply, we believe that any action on media ownership similar to what was proposed by the FCC in 2003 would be an unmitigated disaster.

Since their enactment in the 1940s, our media ownership rules have been a vital safeguard, ensuring that the power to inform the public is not inappropriately concentrated among a relative few. But since the 1996 Telecommunications Act, we have seen a significant relaxation of the media ownership caps limiting the number of outlets that one company may own in a single market. The unfortunate effect has been consolidation of newspapers, television channels, radio stations, and other media under the control of a handful of giant media conglomerates. The resulting monopoly situations have forced independent broadcasters out of business, limited minority ownership, and denied the American public the wide array of content they deserve.

The FCC's 2003 proposal to weaken the local TV ownership limits, national TV ownership caps, and newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rules would have delivered a fatal blow to our media ownership infrastructure. For example, if these rules had been enacted, a single corporation would have been.allowed to acquire as many as threetelevision stations, eight radio stations, and the only daily newspaper -- all within a single city. While such action would not have caused a media blackout per se, it would have essentially reduced content to a single source, rather than providing communities with the full array of information that should truly be available. As you know, millions of Americans and dozens of Senators and Representatives have contacted the FCC to express their concern about the proposed rules. The Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals echoed these concerns by remanding the issue back to the Commission in June 2004.

As Members of Congress who are deeply concerned about the impact that further media consolidation would have upon our democracy, we believe that the Federal Communications Commission should fulfill its intended role as a strong defender of diversity in broadcasting. We hope that the FCC will move to strengthen existing ownership rules to guarantee an array of content and wide variety of viewpoints for everyone seeking news, information, and culture across our country.

In addition to Hinchey, House members signing the letter included: California's Anna Eshoo, Barbara Lee, Diane Watson, Henry Waxman and Lynn Woolsey, Hawaii's Ed Case, Illinois' Jan Schakowsky, New York's Louise Slaughter, North Carolina's David Price, Ohio's Sherrod Brown and Marcy Kaptur, Oregon's Peter DeFazio, Vermont's Bernie Sanders, Washington's Jim McDermott and Wisconsin's Tammy Baldwin.

Both Sanders and Brown are ahead in the polls in contests for Senate seats from their respective states, while most of the other signers are ranking minority members on key committees and subcommittees.

Translation: This time, the FCC is going to be watched by thoughful members of Congress from the start, just as it will be dogged by a media reform movement that is dramatically bigger and better organized than in 2003. To be sure, the fight will be a serious one. And determination of Martin -- whose long-term political ambitions are no secret -- to deliver for the White House and the big-media companies it favors should not be underestimated. But if the letter from Hinchey and his colleagues is any indication, the FCC chair's not going to be able to sneak new ownership rules past anyone. In deed, Martin might find that he has created an issue that -- instead of being obscured by the 2006 election campaign -- will be central to it.

Who Supports the Troops?

The February Le Moyne College/Zogby International survey of U.S. troops serving in Iraq found that 72 percent of them thought United States forces should exit that country by the end of 2006.

On Thursday, the U.S. Senate decided not to call for the withdrawal of combat troops by year's end when it shelved a measure proposing that "only forces that are critical to completing the mission of standing up Iraqi security forces" remain in Iraq in 2007.

After a stilted debate, the Senate voted to block the amendment 93-6.

Every Republican in the Senate voted for the amendment, which was advanced by their party leadership in as part of a coordinated political push by Karl Rove and the White House political shop to mock and minimize the debate about the war and create the impression that there is broad support for the long-term occupation of Iraq. So, too, did most Democrats, who chose not to oppose the latest administration strategy, just as they refused to challenge the Republicans prior to the disastrous 2002 and 2004 elections.

Who were the six senators who refused to play Rove's game and voted for the "Bring the Troops Home" amendment?

Barbara Boxer of California.

Robert Byrd of West Virginia.

Russ Feingold of Wisconsin.

Tom Harkin of Iowa.

Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts.

John Kerry of Massachusetts.

On the day when the 2,500th American died in the Iraq quagmire, the Senate was asked to approve the sentiment of the troops who say that it is time for them to get out of the middle of a foreign civil war.

The vast majority of senators decided to do the bidding of the president who deceived them about the "case" for war and who then played politics with national security and the lives of the young men and women who wear the uniform of the United States.

Only six members of the chamber charged with serving as the ultimate check and balance on the fools' missions of failed presidents chose to support the troops. Boxer, Byrd, Feingold, Harkin, Kennedy and Kerry will, of course, be vilified by Rove regenerated attack machine for having done so. It will be suggested that they sent the wrong message to the troops by voting as they did.

At the end of the day on which the American death toll topped 2,500, however, the only message the six senators sent to the troops was this: We agree with you.

Another Blank Check for Perpetual War

The Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives maintained its track record of providing absolutely no checks and balances on the Bush administration's warmaking this week, when it voted 351-67 to authorize another $66 billion in "emergency" spending for the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

While the House will hold a symbolic "debate" on the Iraq imbroglio Thursday, that endeavor has been so constrained by the House Republican leadership that it will be of no more consequence than the discourse in a mock legislative exercise for high school students – although, in fairness to the students, a mock Congress would undoubtedly take the Constitutional imperative of shared responsibility for warmaking more seriously than does the actual Congress.

What was truly frustrating about the House vote on the emergency funding was the general failure of the Democrats – who have again delayed announcement of their agenda for this year's election campaign – to mount a coherent opposition to a war that an overwhelming majority of Americans characterize as a mistake.

Of the 351 votes to continue no-strings-attached funding of the Bush administration's wars, 204 came from Republicans while 146 came from Democrats. Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders cast the final vote in favor of the "emergency" funding package, which also included $28.5 billion for Hurricane Katrina assistance, border security and farm subsidies.

Democrats who voted in favor of the spending included Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Rahm Emanuel, D-Illinois. Fresh from a primary campaign in which she made anti-war sounds in order to fend off a challenge from the left, California Democrat Jane Harman returned to her pro-war voting pattern. And Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin, who is locked in a tight Democratic primary contest for his state's open Senate seat with anti-war candidate Kweisi Mfume, also voted to hand the Bush administration another blank check.

Voting against giving the administration everything it asked for and more were 48 Democrats and 19 Republicans. The Democrats included most of the members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, including co-chairs Barbara Lee and Lynn Woolsey, both of California. The Republican votes came from two camps: war foes such as Texan Ron Paul, Tennessee's John Duncan and North Carolina's Walter Jones Jr., and budget "hawks" such as Arizona's Jeff Flake and Wisconsin's James Sensenbrenner, who opposed what they saw as pork-barrel spending in the disaster-relief expenditure.

A few of the Republican fiscal conservatives were courageous enough to complain about the blank-check character of the war funding. "I support our troops, I support the war on terror, but I do not believe we should finance the war through emergency supplemental appropriations," Texan Jeb Hensarling said when explaining his "no" vote. "That approach evades whatever spending discipline we have."

More pointed were the remarks of anti-war Democrat Dennis Kucinich, of Ohio, who began his remarks on the House floor by declaring, "Mass death on the installment plan. That's what this supplemental vote to keep our troops in Iraq is all about."

Kucinich, who recently one a landslide Democratic primary victory against an aggressive and well-funded challenger, argued that, "The Administration went into Iraq without an exit strategy not because they are incompetent, but because they have no intention of leaving.

"We are spending hundreds of millions building permanent bases in Iraq. The Administration recently announced deployment of no less than 50,000 troops in Iraq far into the future. We are looking at the permanent occupation of Iraq.

"And so the long cadence of lies has led to Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and Haditha, soon to be replaced by more lies and more tragedies."What can you say when you are watching your nation descend, sleep walking, into something like the lower circles of hell in Dante's Inferno?

"You can say stop it! You can say enough blood is enough blood!

"You can stop it! Bring our troops home!

"You can say no to any more funds for this war! And then we can begin a period of truth and reconciliation about 9/11 and Iraq. Begin the healing of the soul of America."

While the bases will be permanent, the period of truth and reconciliation has been indefinitely delayed.

Now, What About Cheney?

Now that the long speculation about whether White House political czar Karl Rove would be indicted for the role he played in exposing the identity of a CIA operative is done, perhaps the investigation of the Bush administration "hit" on Iraq War critic Joe Wilson can focus in on the fundamental questions that have been raised by the machinations of key players in the administration with the apparent goal of punishing a former diplomat for exposing White House misstatements and misdeeds.

The attention to Rove's involvement in the effort to reveal the identity of Wilson's wife, veteran Central Intelligence Agency operative Valerie Plame -- after Wilson, a former ambassador, revealed that key players in the Bush administration had to have know that elements of their "case" for attacking Iraq had been discredited -- was always something of a distraction. Of course, as David Corn and others have ably illustrated, Rove's actions demanded scrutiny. But the fury that so many Democrats feel toward Rove caused them to obsess on the question of whether he would be indicted, rather than to recognize that the critical indictment was that of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff and a key advisor to President Bush on national security matters.

It is Libby who faces trial in January 2007 on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. And it is Libby, the neoconservative true believer who was the administration's willing henchman in defense of the Iraq endeavor, who connects this scandal to his old friend Cheney in a way that Rove, the political puppeteer, was unlikely ever to have connected it to Bush. Thus, from the time of Libby's indictment, the question that always mattered most was not: Will special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald indict Rove? It was always: Will Fitzgerald connect the dots that lead to Cheney?

No top office within the administration was better positioned than Cheney's to gather the information that was used to attack Wilson and his wife and to peddle that information to the press. In fact, as Joe Wilson told me in an interview about the leaking of his wife's name that we did early in 2004, "With respect to who actually leaked the information, there are really only a few people -- far fewer than the president let on when he said there are a lot of senior administration officials -- who could have done it. At the end of the day, you have to have the means, the keys to the conversations at which somebody might drop my wife's name -- deliberately or not -- a national security clearance, and a reason to be talking about this. When you look at all that, there are really very few people who exist at that nexis between national security and foreign policy and politics. You can count them, literally, on two hands."

Wilson added that, without a doubt, "the vice president is one of those people."

We now know just how right Wilson was. Libby has been indicted. And that documents related to that indictment are filled with references to meetings with Cheney on the very day that Libby began calling reporters as a part of a push to discredit Wilson. We have a copy of a column Wilson wrote for The New York Times with notes from Cheney attacking the former ambassador and making reference to his wife. We have transcripts of Libby saying that he acted with "approval from the President through the Vice President" when he distributed previously classified information -- specifically, portions of a National Intelligence Estimate regarding Saddam Hussein's purported efforts to develop nuclear weapons -- to the media as part of the move to discredit Wilson.

At this point, it is unclear whether Fitzegerald will see his investigation through to its logical conclusion. But there can be no question that, with Rove off the hook, the administration and its media echo chamber will be doing everything in their power to constrain the special counsel. The White House wants this inquiry shut down.

But shutting it down now would prevent an examination of what Representative Maurice Hinchey, D-New York, correctly refers to "the heart of the CIA leak case."

Hinchey leads a group of several dozen House members who have urged Fitzgerald to officially expand his investigation to include an examination of the motives behind the leaks by Libby, focusing in particular on the question of whether the administration's intent was to discredit Ambassador Wilson's revelation that Iraq had never sought uranium from Niger or other African countries. If that is proven to be the case, Hinchey has argued, "President Bush and other top members of his administration knowingly lied about uranium to the Congress, which is a crime."

The New York congressman, who is the most determined Congressional watchdog with regard to the administration's misuse of intelligence information, was never one of those who waited for the Rove shoe to drop.

After the April revelation that Cheney's former chief of staff said he was authorized to go after Wilson by the president and vice president, Hinchey said: "If what Scooter Libby said to the grand jury is true, then this latest development clearly reveals yet again that the CIA leak case goes much deeper than the disclosure of a CIA agent's identity to the press. The heart and motive of this case is about the deliberate attempt at the highest levels of this administration to discredit those who were publicly revealing that the White House lied about its uranium claims leading up to the war. The Bush Administration knew that Iraq had not sought uranium from Africa for a nuclear weapon, yet they went around telling the Congress, the country, and the world just the opposite. When Ambassador Joseph Wilson, Valerie Wilson's husband, publicly spoke out with proof that the administration was not telling the truth on uranium, the administration engaged in an orchestrated plot, which now reportedly includes President Bush, to discredit Ambassador Wilson and dismiss any notion that they had lied about pre-war intelligence."

As Hinchey has argued for months, Libby's testimony about the authorization he received from Bush and Cheney must be seen in the context of a mounting body of evidence that rules, regulations and laws were bent far beyond the breaking point by the administration. The fact that Karl Rove has not been indicted does not eliminate that body of evidence. Nor does it resolve questions about Cheney's involvement in the scandal, or about the motivations of the president, the vice president and others who sought to discredit Ambassador Wilson for telling the truth. And it ought not serve as an excuse for shutting down an inquiry that has yet to examine "the heart of the CIA leak case."

Murtha vs. Hoyer

When the House of Representatives voted Thursday on the question of whether to allow old media companies to colonize and control the internet, the two men who would like to be majority leader in a Democrat-controlled Congress split their votes.

House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, the Maryland Democrat who has long been seen as the heir apparent for the majority leader post if Democrats regain power, stuck to his usual pattern: He did as the lobbyists for the largest corporations – and their allies in the Bush administration – asked.

Congressman John Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat who has indicated that he will challenge Hoyer for the No. 2 position in the party caucus if Democrats retake the House in November, did the opposite.

Hoyer voted for the corrupt "Communications, Opportunity, Promotion, and Enhancement Act of 2006, which the telephone and cable companies are using as a vehicle to create a two-tier internet in which the sites of corporations and candidates that pay high fees to broadband providers are easily accessed while the sites of small businesses, community groups and independent thinkers will be difficult – perhaps impossible – to reach. Murtha voted against it.

It wasn't the first time that Hoyer and Murtha have split on fundamental questions.

While Murtha has been an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq, Hoyer has steered a cautious course far closer to that of the Bush administration.

Last December, Murtha voted against making the PATRIOT Act permanent. Hoyer voted in favor of the move, and in so doing gave the Bush administration everything it was asking for with regard to the controversial law.

The point here is not to suggest that Murtha's a perfect progressive -- in fact, he's really an old-school New Dealer who breaks with liberals on some social issues -- or that Hoyer is Tom DeLay in Democrat drag. For instance, while Murtha's been a more consistent critic of corporate-sponsored free-trade pacts than Hoyer, both men have lifetime records of voting with the AFL-CIO around 90 percent of the time.

But when Hoyer ran against Nancy Pelosi for the position of House Whip back in 2001, there was no question that Pelosi was the progressive choice while Hoyer erred right. Lori Wallach, the director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch and a key player in Washington debates on trade policy, noted that, "Hoyer has repositioned himself--one can only assume for political purposes--as the DLC, business candidate in this race."

No member of the House leadership has more consistently echoed the talking points of the corporate-sponsored Democratic Leadership Council than Hoyer, who once told a DLC event that Democrats lost control of the House in 1994 because "too many Americans believed that our party had become weak on crime and national defense, incapable of making hard decisions on welfare reform and fiscal policy, and irrevocably wedded to the idea that all of our problems could be solved by government and more spending."

Even now, while Hoyer is often praised by the Bush-friendly DLC, Murtha gets savaged. After Murtha called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq last year, the DLC accused the decorated Vietnam veteran of "offering surrender" -- while Hoyer was quoted as saying Murtha's approach "could lead to disaster."

The DLC has good reason to favor Hoyer. The Democratic whip has worked with Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Rahm Emanuel, D-Illinois, to thwart the candidacies of anti-war Democrats such as Illinosian Christine Cegelis in primaries this year -- just as the two have worked over the years to help corporate-friendly Democrats beat those who challenge the K Street agenda.

The Hoyer-Murtha race is an abstraction at this point. Unless Democrats develop a coherent message soon, there is no guarantee that they will be a majority in search of a leader come November. But if they do become a majority, and if they want that majority to mean anything, Democrats would be wise to consider the opportunity that Murtha offers to distinguish their party on issues such as the war, the Patriot Act and media monopoly.

House Rejects Net Neutrality

The First Amendment of the Internet – the governing principle of net neutrality, which prevents telecommunications corporations from rigging the web so it is easier to visit sites that pay for preferential treatment – took a blow from the House of Representatives Thursday.

Bowing to an intense lobbying campaign that spent tens of millions of dollars – and held out the promise of hefty campaign contributions for those members who did the bidding of interested firms – the House voted 321 to 101 for the disingenuously-named Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act (COPE). That bill, which does not include meaningful network-neutrality protections creates an opening that powerful telephone and cable companies hope to exploit by expanding their reach while doing away with requirements that they maintain a level playing field for access to Internet sites.

"Special interest advocates from telephone and cable companies have flooded the Congress with misinformation delivered by an army of lobbyists to undermine decades-long federal practice of prohibiting network owners from discriminating against competitors to shut out competition. Unless the Senate steps in, (Thursday's) vote marks the beginning of the end of the Internet as an engine of new competition, entrepreneurship and innovation." says Jeannine Kenney, a senior policy analyst for Consumers Union.

In case there was any question that Kenney's assessment was accurate, the House voted 269-152 against an amendment, offered by Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey, which would have codified net neutrality regulations into federal law. The Markey amendment would have prevented broadband providers from rigging their services to create two-tier access to the Internet – with an "information superhighway" for sites that pay fees for preferential treatment and a dirt road for sites that cannot pay the toll.

After explicitly rejecting the Markey amendment's language, which would have barred telephone and cable companies from taking steps "to block, impair, degrade, discriminate against, or interfere with the ability of any person to use a broadband connection to access…services over the Internet," the House quickly took up the COPE legislation.

The bill drew overwhelming support from Republican members of the House, with the GOP caucus voting 215-8 in favor of it. But Democrats also favored the proposal, albeit by a narrower vote of 106 to 92. The House's sole independent member, Vermont's Bernie Sanders, a champion of internet freedom who is seeking his state's open Senate seat this fall, voted against the measure.

Joining Sanders in voting against the legislation were most members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, including its co-chairs, California Representatives Barbara Lee and Lynn Woolsey, as well as genuine conservatives who have joined the fight to defend free speech and open discourse on the internet, including House Judiciary Committee chair James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin, and Intelligence Committee chair Pete Hoekstra, R-Michigan.

The left-meets-right voting in the House reflected the coalition that has formed to defend net neutrality, which includes such unlikely political bedfellows as the Christian Coalition of America, MoveOn.org, National Religious Broadcasters, the Service Employees International Union, the American Library Association, the American Association of Retired People, the American Civil Liberties Union and all of the nation's major consumer groups.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, opposed COPE, while House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, and Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, were enthusiastically supported it.

Among the Democrats who followed the lead of Hastert and Boehner – as opposed to that of Pelosi – were House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer and Maryland Representative Ben Cardin, who is running for that state's open Senate seat in a September Democratic-primary contest with former NAACP President Kweisi Mfume. Illinois Democrat Melissa Bean, who frequently splits with her party on issues of interest to corporate donors, voted with the Republican leadership, as did corporate-friendly "New Democrats" such as Alabama's Artur Davis, Washington's Adam Smith and Wisconsin's Ron Kind – all co-chairs of the Democratic Leadership Council-tied House New Democrat Coalition.

The fight over net neutrality now moves to the Senate, where Maine Republican Olympia Snowe and North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan have introduced legislation to codify the net neutrality principles of equal and unfettered access to Internet content into federal law.Mark Cooper, the director of research for the Consumers Federation of America, thinks net neutrality will find more friends in the Senate, at least in part because the "Save the Internet" coalition that has grown to include more than 700 groups, 5,000 bloggers and 800,000 individuals is rapidly expanding.

"This coalition will continue to grow, millions of Americans will add their voices, and Congress will not escape the roar of public opinion until Congress passes enforceable net neutrality," says Cooper.

Cooper's correct to be more hopeful about the Senate than the House. But the House vote points up the need to get Democrats united on this issue. There's little question that a united Democratic caucus could combine with principled Republicans in the Senate to defend net neutrality. But if so-called "New Democrats" in the Senate side with the telephone and cable lobbies, the information superhighway will become a toll road.

La Lucha Continua: Solidarity Across Time

Solidarity, if it is to mean much, must exist not merely in a white-hot moment. It must extend across the arc of history, at least until damage wrought in a particularly dark time is undone.

Certainly, it matters when Americans express their momentary concern for victims of particularly egregious U.S. policies in foreign lands, as millions of U.S. citizens did when the Reagan administration was funding Contra armies, death squads and dictatorships across Central America. But when the focus of policymakers in Washington shifts from one troubled location to the next, it is often the case that the attention of American activists moves with them to the next "hot spot."

One group that has refused to ignore the wreckage left behind by the Reagan administration's misdeeds of the 1980s, and the corporate misdeeds that have followed in their wake, is the U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities Network. The group provides a model of solidarity across the decades. Its 25 chapters in the United States have continued to work with the Salvadoran communities with which they partnered 20 years or more ago, promoting sustainable development, opposing free trade agreements and raising the alarm when corporations take advantage of those agreements to exploit workers and the environment in a country that has suffered far too much exploitation.

An example of how the U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities Network's solidarity model works will be seen Friday at the annual shareholders meeting of Au Martinique Silver Inc., a Canadian-registered mining exploration firm that is promoting development of a gold mine in the Salvadoran department roughly equivalent to a state of Chalatenango. The mining scheme has stirred broad opposition in Chalatenango, where farmers fear that waste from the mining operation will pollute local rivers and water supplies with arsenic and cyanide.

Fifteen mayors in the department and the overwhelming majority of parish priests in the heavily Catholic region have expressed opposition to the project, arguing that it would devastate local agriculture and fisheries. So strong is the opposition that, last year, 300 residents of remote communities in the region formed a human chain to block Au Martinique teams from entering their towns.

Unfortunately, there is little media coverage of development disputes in rural El Salvador. So Au Martinique continues to tell its shareholders and potential investors in the mining project that the company is working "hand-in-hand with the local communities to assure a partnership in economic development and good environmental stewardship." At the same time, the company is signaling that even if the locals don't want to walk "hand-in-hand" with the multinational corporation, the project will advance because, in the words of an Au Martinique prospectus, "the Republic of El Salvador has one of the lowest risk profiles for investment in all of Latin America" a reference to the fact that El Salvador's conservative government is more willing than most to do the bidding of foreign corporations.

In Chalatenango, sentiment toward Au Martinique's exploration project has been anything but welcoming.

"The people in the communities aren't in favor of the mining project," explains Esperanza Ortega, a nominee for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize who lives in the community of Arcatao in Chalatenango. Ortega argues that it is exceptionally "important to talk to the investors, talk to the people funding this project and tell them if they come into this zone they are going to have a lot of problems. ..." But, of course, it is not easy for residents of a mountainous region that is far even from the Salvadoran capital of San Salvador to get that message across to the investors and funders.

That's where the U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities solidarity commitment comes in. Some of the group's strongest partnerships are located in Chalatenango. For instance, the based Madison-Arcatao Sister City Project has formalized the relationship between Madison, Wisconsin, and the municipality of Arcatao in Chalatenango to such an extent that mayors, city council members and legislators regularly travel back and forth between the communities. Working with the University of Wisconsin and local hospitals in Madison, activists here have helped their partners in Arcatao develop clinics and a host of local services. They have also successfully lobbied their members of Congress to oppose trade agreements that would harm workers and the environment in El Salvador and other Latin American countries.

"Our relationship with Arcatao was rooted in mutual opposition to U.S. military policies in the '80s, but we have recognized for a long time that exploitation of the region by corporations that do not respect the needs of the people can be just as devastating," says Marc Rosenthal, a Madison nurse and union activist who has regularly visited the region over the past two decades. "The people in Chalatenango have real fears about what this mining project will do to the region, and everything I've seen tells me that those fears are well grounded. So we're going to make sure that they are heard."

When Denver-based Au Martinique convenes its shareholders meeting on Friday, organizers and activists with the U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities Network will be there. "Since the company has not informed its shareholders about the local opposition, we have decided to bring the Chalatenango anti-mining campaign directly to the directors and shareholders of this company," said Dennis Chinoy, a U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities Network activist from Bangor, Maine. "Investors need to be aware that this is a very risky project and that we will continue our campaign until the company has respected the wishes of the local communities and withdrawn its investment."

For those who recognize "solidarity" as something more than a slogan, the determination of the U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities Network to make sure that the voices of protest from El Salvador continue to be heard in the corridors of corporate and political power provides an inspiring reminder that there are activists who still understand both the meaning and the duty of the phrase la lucha continua.

To learn more about the U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities Network, visit http://jeffbogdan.net/usessc/index.php

No Majority for Discrimination

President Bush threw what was left of his influence on Capitol Hill behind the move by social conservatives to amend the Constitution to discriminate against gays and lesbians. But when the votes were counted Wednesday, the president was not even able to muster a majority in the Senate.

When the critical test came on the election-year proposal to amend the Constitution to essentially ban same-sex marriage -- along with a number of other basic protections for gay and lesbian families -- only 49 senators voted to move the amendment forward.

That was far short of the 60 votes needed to invoke cloture, close off debate and force a vote on the actual amendment. And it was a full 18 votes short of the 67 needed for the Senate to approve a Constitutional amendment.

On a more politically pragmatic level, Wedesday's tally put the ban one short of a majority in a Senate that is supposedly on the side of the president who has gone out of his way to make same-sex marriage an issue. So significant was the failure that White House press secretary Tony Snow felt compelled to report that Bush was not "despondent" over the result.

Perhaps he should be, as Bush's inability to keep even his own partisans in line on an issue he has chosen to make something of a focal point of his second-term agenda was striking.

Seven Republicans -- Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Susan Collins of Maine, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, John McCain of Arizona, Olympia Snowe of Maine, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and John Sununu of New Hampshire -- voted with 41 Democrats to block cloture. [Two of the Republicans who opposed cloture, Gregg and Specter, had previously been amendment supporters but switched to the opposition Wednesday.] Only two Democrats who happen to be up for reelection this year in socially-conservative states, Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Ben Nelson of Nebraska, voted with 47 Republicans to end debate.

Notably, the three senators who did not vote Wednesday -- Democrats Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, and Republican Chuck Hagel of Nebraska -- have all expressed opposition to amending the Constitution to ban same-sex marriage. Hagel has been particularly blunt, telling a Nebraska newspaper in 2005, "I'm a conservative. I believe the sanctity of the Constitution of the United States is very important, I don't think you need a constitutional amendment defining marriage. That's a state issue."

The amendment, which Senator Ted Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, correctly identified as "an instrument of bigotry and prejudice" will continue to rattle around the Capitol -- look for a meaningless House vote on the issue next month -- as Republicans try to use it as a tool to energize the party's increasingly listless base. Senator Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, explained during the cloture debate, "This is not about the preservation of marriage. This is about the preservation of a [Republican] majority. I think, sadly, most people realize there's political motivation here."

Wednesday's vote cannot provide much inspiration for the GOP, however. With so many of its own senators voting to block the amendment's progress -- including incumbents such as Chafee and Snowe who are up for election this year -- the Republicans are going to have a hard time suggesting that expanding their party's majority in the Senate will move the country any closer to a federal ban on same-sex marriages, civil unions and other protections for gay and lesbian families.

Indeed, there has been a good deal of grumbling within the Republican Senate caucus -- as evidenced by the seven dissenting votes that were cast Wednesday -- about the wisdom of trying to gin up a debate on social issues when the attention of the American public seems to be so firmly fixed on the war in Iraq and concerns about the strength of the economy and health care costs.

That won't stop social conservatives from pushing their discrimination amendments. They'll win in some states, as they did Tuesday in Alabama, where voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment Tuesday to ban same-sex marriage. But a similar amendment is on the ballot in Wisconsin this fall, and polls and pattersn suggest that it could be the first such state-based proposal to lose. More significantly, the high-profile, high-spending amendment fight in Wisconsin is expected to stir interest in the fall election on the part of young people and other traditionally low-turnout populations that Democratic strategists think will be drawn to the polls to oppose the amendment but stay around to vote for Democrats.

There's no question that playing the discrimination card has helped Republicans by drawing socially-conservative voters to the polls in recent years. But the low-road approach seems to be wearing thin, even for Republicans. McCain, who some had predicted would vote for cloture and the marriage ban in order to improve his prospects among the social-conservative voters who will be key players in the 2008 Republican presidential nomination process, cast a firm "no" vote and then took a swing at the core argument for the amendment, telling the Senate, "Most Americans are not yet convinced that their elected representatives or the judiciary are likely to expand decisively the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples."

That is true. It is also true that support for discrimination against gays and lesbians is waning in America, especially among younger voters. Time and experience are moving citizens toward what the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, referred to as "the better angels of our nature" -- and away from the notion that sowing devisions and encouraging discrimination will somehow make either families or the Republic stronger.

Citizens 1, Corporations 0

In states across the country Tuesday, primary elections named candidates for Congress, governorships and other important offices. But the most interesting, and perhaps significant, election did not involve an individual. Rather, it was about an idea.

In Northern California's Humboldt County, voters decided by a 55-45 margin that corporations do not have the same rights -- based on the supposed "personhood" of the combines -- as citizens when it comes to participating in local political campaigns.

Until Tuesday in Humboldt County, corporations were able to claim citizenship rights, as they do elsewhere in the United States. In the context of electoral politics, corporations that were not headquartered in the county took advantage of the same rules that allowed individuals who are not residents to make campaign contributions in order to influence local campaigns.

But, with the passage of Measure T, an initiative referendum that was placed on the ballot by Humboldt County residents, voters have signaled that they want out-of-town corporations barred from meddling in local elections.

Measure T was backed by the county's Green and Democratic parties, as well as labor unions and many elected officials in a region where politics are so progressive that the Greens -- whose 2004 presidential candidate, David Cobb, is a resident of the county and a active promotor of the challenges to corporate power mounted by Democracy Unlimited of Humboldt County and the national Liberty Tree Foundation -- are a major force in local politics.

The "Yes on T" campaign was rooted in regard for the American experiment, from its slogan "Vote Yes for Local Control of Our Democracy," to the references to Tuesday's election as a modern-day "Boston Tea Party," to the quote from Thomas Jefferson that was highlighted in election materials: "I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country."

Just as Jefferson and his contemporaries were angered by dominance of the affairs of the American colonies by King George III and the British business combines that exploited the natural and human resources of what would become the United States -- and wary of the machinations of those who would establish an American economic royalism -- so Humboldt County residents were angered by the attempts of outside corporate interests to dominate local politics.

Wal-Mart spent $250,000 on a 1999 attempt to change the city of Eureka's zoning laws in order to clear the way for one of the retail giant's big-box stores. Five years later, MAXXAM Inc., a forest products company, got upset with the efforts of local District Attorney Paul Gallegos to enforce regulations on its operations in the county and spent $300,000 on a faked-up campaign to recall him from office. The same year saw outside corporations that were interested in exploiting the county's abundant natural resources meddling in its local election campaigns.

That was the last straw for a lot of Humboldt County residents. They organized to put Measure T on the ballot, declaring, "Our Founding Fathers never intended corporations to have this kind of power."

"Every person has the right to sign petition recalls and to contribute money to political campaigns. Measure T will not affect these individual rights," explained Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap, a resident of Eureka who was one of the leaders of the Yes on T campaign. "But individuals hold these political rights by virtue of their status as humans in a democracy and, simply put, a corporation is not a person."

Despite the logic of that assessment, the electoral battle in Humboldt County was a heated one, and Measure T's passage will not end it. Now, the corporate campaign will move to the courts. So this is only a start. But what a monumental start it is!

Sopoci-Belknap was absolutely right when she portrayed Tuesday's vote as nothing less than the beginning of "the process of reclaiming our county" from the "tyranny" of concentrated economic and political power.

Surely Tom Paine would have agreed. It was Paine who suggested to the revolutionaries of 1776, as they dared challenge the most powerful empire on the planet, that: "We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation similar to the present hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of the new world is at hand, and a race of men, perhaps as numerous as all Europe contains, are to receive their portion of freedom from the events of a few months."

It is time to renew the American experiment, to rebuild its battered institutions on the solid foundation of empowered citizens and regulated corporations. Let us hope that the spirit of '76 prevailed Tuesday in Humboldt County will spread until that day when American democracy is guided by the will of the people rather than the campaign contribution checks of the corporations that are the rampaging "empires" of our age.

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