After more than thirty hours of jury deliberations, a Florida judge declared a mistrial on the first-degree murder charge in the trial of Michael Dunn, accused of fatally shooting Jordan Davis—an unarmed, black teenager—during a dispute over loud rap music.
While the jurors could not reach a verdict on the charge of murder, they found Dunn guilty of four other charges, including three counts of attempted murder and one count of firing into a vehicle. A sentencing date has not been set. He faces at least sixty years in prison.
In November 2012, Dunn, who is white, opened fire at an SUV carrying four black teenagers, including Davis. He continued to fire at the vehicle as it fled the scene. Three of ten bullets hit Davis, puncturing his diaphragm, liver, lungs and aorta, according to a medical examiner who testified in court this week. The teen was later pronounced dead at a local hospital.
Dunn drove back to his hotel with his fiancée, where he ordered pizza and walked his dog. He did not call the police. The next day, he was arrested at his home in Brevard County.
According to court testimonies, the incident happened after Dunn and his fiancée attended the wedding of his son, where Dunn says he had three or four “small drinks.” They stopped at a gas station for wine and chips, parking next to the teenagers’ vehicle, which was blaring loud rap music. Dunn’s fiancée, Rhonda Rouer, testified that he told her “I hate that thug music,” before she left the car for the store. An argument ensued between Dunn and the teenagers over the volume of the music. The dispute ended when Dunn pulled a handgun from his glove compartment and shot at the vehicle, fatally wounding Davis.
Prosecutors argued that Dunn, feeling angry and disrespected, acted with premeditation when he “wantonly and maliciously” shot Davis. State attorneys said Dunn “went crazy” and fired “round after round after round” at a vehicle filled with unarmed teenagers. The fact that Dunn did not call police, attorney Erin Wolfson argued, suggested “he thought he got away with murder.” The prosecution also highlighted inconsistencies between Dunn’s court testimony and what he said to police the night of the shooting.
Dunn’s attorneys argued that he shot Davis in self-defense, saying the teen threatened him with a gun—though police found no weapon at the scene. The 47-year-old software engineer said Davis posed a “clear and present danger,” claiming he saw a four-inch barrel poking out the window of the SUV, resembling a shotgun. Dunn testified that he saw Davis exiting the vehicle when he fired at him.
“I’m looking out the window and I said, ‘You’re not going to kill me you son of a bitch,’ ” Dunn testified. “And then I shot him.”
Rouer contradicted her fiancé’s claims, testifying that he did not say anything about a gun or any other weapon in the moments after the shooting.
Jurors took four days to deliberate the case. During that time, they asked for, and were granted, a twenty-minute surveillance video of the shooting. Only portions of the video were shown in court. The jury was denied access to a dummy showing bullet paths in Jordan Davis’ body because it was a “demonstrative exhibit,” not officially offered as evidence.
The racial component of the shooting has thrust Dunn’s case into the national spotlight, with some drawing comparisons to the George Zimmerman trial last year. Assistant State Attorney John Guy was on the prosecution team for both trials.
In letters from jail released by state attorneys, Dunn wrote, “This jail is full of blacks and they all act like thugs.… This may sound a bit radical, but if more people would arm themselves and kill these fucking idiots when they’re threatening you, eventually they may take the hint and change their behavior.”
Speaking at a press conference before the verdict, Dunn’s defense attorney, Michael Stolla said, “This is not a black-and-white issue. This is what he would call a subculture-thug issue. It’s not about race.”
A First Coast News report highlighted the impact the trial has had on local youth.
“I have taken off my hoodie,” 13-year-old David Daniels told First Coast News. “I usually wear it in the stores, but I’ve taken it off. And I don’t really listen to music, as in that situation. I don’t really listen to music loud, but I look around. I watch my back while I’m walking down the streets.”
Last Wednesday, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi repeated in no uncertain terms her opposition to granting President Obama authority to seek “fast-track” approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a mammoth “free trade” deal the US has been negotiating in secret since the days of George W. Bush. Fast-tracking the TPP—which Senate majority leader Harry Reid also opposes—would allow the administration to submit the treaty for an up-or-down vote, thus protecting it from any debate or discussion or amendments. Without that authority, the administration would have to take into account the vehement objections of labor unions and other opponents of the treaty, who rightly note that the pact—the text and scope of which have been zealously guarded from public scrutiny—would likely do irreversible harm to American workers and consumers; fast-tracking the TPP would allow its corporate backers and their congressional allies to run roughshod over the treaty’s opponents and avoid a much-needed debate.
If all this sounds familiar, it should: a common nickname for the TPP is “NAFTA on steroids,” and it is worth recalling now how clear it was twenty years ago (to anyone who cared to look) that NAFTA would have precisely the horrific impact on American industry, as well as on the global environment, that it has indeed had. In The Nation, writer after writer warned about NAFTA’s pernicious consequences, in terms that could easily be applied—with perhaps even more force—to the TPP today.
In our March 29, 1993 issue—after NAFTA had been signed by President George H.W. Bush but before Congress approved it—Noam Chomsky wrote in “Notes on NAFTA: ‘The Masters of Mankind’”:
One consequence of the globalization of the economy is the rise of new governing institutions to serve the interests of private transnational economic power. Another is the spread of the Third World social model, with islands of enormous privilege in a sea of misery and despair. A walk through any American city gives human form to the statistics on quality of life, distribution of wealth, poverty and employment…Increasingly, production can be shifted to high-repression, low-wage areas and directed to privileged sectors in the global economy. Large parts of the population thus become superfluous for production and perhaps even as a market, unlike the days when Henry Ford realized that he could not sell cars unless his workers were paid enough to buy cars themselves.
While President Obama has laudably dedicated the remainder of his term to reversing the alarming inequality that has gripped the country in recent decades, his push for TPP seems to demonstrate an insufficient historical awareness of the consequences of free-trade agreements. As Chomsky predicted, NAFTA has only worsened inequality, transferring unprecedented wealth and power from the working and middle classes to the bank accounts of the 1 percent:
The trade agreements override the rights of workers, consumers, and the future generations who cannot ‘vote’ in the market on environmental issues. They help keep the public ‘in its place.’ These are not necessary features of such agreements, but they are natural consequences of the great successes of the past years in reducing democracy to empty forms, so that the vile maxim of the masters can be pursued without undue interference.
In a special issue devoted to NAFTA, dated June 14, 1993, The Nation wrote in its lead editorial:
NAFTA is no simple exercise in good-neighborliness. It is a watershed in U.S.—and Mexican—economic history. To ratify the treaty is to condemn U.S. workers to more hard times, to confine Mexican workers in an economic ghetto utterly dependent on El Norte, to reduce the power of labor against ownership, to ravage the American industrial landscape and to transform forever the dream of America as a just and prosperous place of hope.
A major investigative report in the same issue, “Big $$$ Lobbying in Washington: Can Mexico and Big Business USA Buy NAFTA?” by Charles Lewis and Margaret Ibrahim of the Center for Public Integrity, explored how corporate lobbyists from both Mexico and the United States had purchased official support for a treaty sure to cause untold pain to large segments of the populations of both countries.
The debate over NAFTA, which will climax this fall when both the Senate and the House vote on the treaty, has yielded the most extensive—and expensive—foreign lobbying campaign on a specific issue ever seen in the capital. Since 1989 the Mexican government and business groups have spent at least $25 million to promote the development and enactment of NAFTA, hiring a phalanx of Washington law firms, lobbyists, public relations companies and consultants…
The Mexican government and Mexican corporate interests have used much of those millions to purchase the expensive services of a potpourri of inside-the-Beltway specialists. Former U.S. government officials, who know how to massage the Washington political system, have been snatched up and placed on Mexico’s payrolls. Indeed, since 1989 Mexican interests have hired thirty-three former U.S. officials who worked for a variety of government entities: Congress, the State Department, the Treasury Department, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and others. Their mission is to influence the political process for what is arguably the most significant trade issue to have faced the American people and their elected representatives in this century.
Why is the passage of NAFTA so important to Mexico? Because its government and corporations expect that a freshet of desperately needed U.S. investment and consumer dollars will flow into their country once the trade barriers between the two nations fall. A few million dollars is a small price to pay for what they hope will be a multibillion-dollar bonanza…
All this intensive lobbying by U.S. and Mexican interests is dedicated to drowning out any contrary or questioning voices in the United States. It is focused like a laser on the Washington power elite and aims to see that a treaty is approved that favors corporate interests.
If anything, the unprecedented secrecy surrounding the TPP negotiations in recent years demonstrates that the “intensive lobbying” by corporate powers behind the scenes is even stronger, and more insidious, this time around.
* * *
In the December 6, 1993 issue of The Nation, just after both houses of Congress approved NAFTA, Jeremy Brecher explored the broader historical context of so-called free-trade agreements in “After NAFTA: Global Village or Global Pillage?”
The North American economic integration that NAFTA was intended to facilitate is only one aspect of the rapid and momentous historical transformation from a system of national economies toward an integrated global economy. New information, communication, transportation and manufacturing technologies, combined with tariff reductions, have made it possible to coordinate production, commerce and finance on a world scale.
Resistance to such a reorganization of wealth and power, Brecher wrote, would have to begin with solidarity among the laboring classes in each country:
The beginnings of a new approach emerged from the anti-NAFTA movement itself. Rather than advocate protectionism—keeping foreign products out—many NAFTA opponents urged policies that would raise environmental, labor and social standards in Mexico, so that those standards would not drag down those in the United States and Canada. This approach implied that people in different countries have common interests in raising the conditions of those at the bottom.…
The struggle against NAFTA has shown that those harmed by the New World Economy need not be passive victims. So many politicians were so unprepared for the strength of the anti-NAFTA movement because it represented an eruption into the political arena of people who have long been demobilized. But to influence their economic destinies effectively, they need a movement that provides an alternative to the Ross Perots and Pat Buchanans. Such a movement must act on the understanding that the unregulated globalization of capital is really a worldwide attack of the haves on the have-nots. And it must bring that understanding to bear on every affected issue, from local layoffs to the world environment.
The positive developments Brecher saw coming out of the anti-NAFTA movement would begin to command mainstream attention with the protests at the 1999 World Trade Organization conference in Seattle—fifteen years ago this November. The coming debate over the TPP represents an important—and perhaps even more dire—opportunity for those interested in halting and reversing the trends described by Chomsky, Brecher and others. As Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, wrote in The Nation in July 2012:
We face a race against time—much of the TPP text has been agreed on. Will the banksters, Big Pharma, Big Oil, agribusiness, tobacco multinationals and the other usual suspects get away with this massive assault on democracy? Will the public wake up to this threat and fight back, demanding either a fair deal or no deal?
The declarations of opposition to fast-track from Pelosi and Reid represent a crucial, if preliminary, victory. The clock, however, is ticking.
* * *
Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.
In case you missed it, this week saw the first mini-scandal of the de Blasio era.
Late Monday night, a Brooklyn pastor named Orlando Findlayter was pulled over for failing to signal a turn. He was driving with a suspended license, so the police brought him to the precinct station, where it was learned that he had two outstanding warrants from a civil disobedience arrest last fall. Findlayter endorsed Mayor de Blasio and served on his inaugural committee. The mayor was told about the arrest by a City Hall aide and called an NYPD official to learn what was going on, and that official called the commander of the precinct where Findlayter had been arrested. Shortly afterward, the minister was released with a desk appearance ticket instead of being held over until court reopened in the morning. The police official de Blasio spoke with said later that by the time she called the precinct commander, he had already decided to release Findlayter.
Critics say the mayor pulled strings for a political ally—or at the very least, that Findlayter was cut a break because of his connections. The NYPD Patrol Guide says desk appearance tickets “will not be issued in the following circumstances: a) Arrest on a warrant.” But precinct commanders might have latitude to break that rule, particularly when the underlying offense is minor, he knows the person and letting him go might foster police-community relations.
In fact, statistics indicate the NYPD is becoming more and more likely to simply let people go with a piece of paper. From 2002 to 2012, the number of arrests by the NYPD dropped 8 percent. The number of desk appearance tickets jumped 314 percent—from 5 percent of the total to 21 percent. There are several possible reasons: more arrests these days are for misdemeanors rather than felonies. Keeping detainees in lock-up is expensive. State law requires the system to arraign detained people within twenty-four hours, so the police have good reason to try to limit the number of people they have to get to court each day.
Part of the uproar over the Findlayter incident stems from popular misconceptions of what is supposed to happen when someone is arrested for something.
We read all the time about how someone arrested for some terrible thing was given “ridiculously low bail.” When someone isn’t locked up to await trial, we assume the system has cut her a break. But before someone is convicted of a crime, the only thing the system is supposed to do is take the minimum steps necessary to make sure they show up for trial. Sometimes that means high bail, low bail or no bail. Occasionally it means keeping someone under lock and key. So, someone famous may get low bail because they’re unlikely to flee prosecution. It doesn’t seem fair, but it doesn’t mean they’re getting a break, exactly. Same goes for a minister whom a precinct commander knows. The guy ain’t running to Canada, so let him go. (As it turns out, Findlayter showed up for court the next day and got the warrants vacated.)
That’s not to say the system is perfect. City Limits has written a lot about how bail (even when set very low) distorts the criminal justice system and damages low-income people’s lives. New York’s court system is looking to change that.
If the Findlayter story goes into a second week, maybe we’ll learn more about whether something funky happened, though it doesn’t seem to be the case. Regardless, maybe one takeaway is that the NYPD should hold fewer people overnight, no matter what collar they wear or whom they’ve endorsed, and continue a trend of trusting people to show up for court themselves.
Read Next: Jarrett Murphy on de Blasio’s decision not to march in the St. Patrick’s Day parade
Following a fierce battle between conservative groups and labor activists, workers at a Chattanooga, Tennessee, Volkswagen plant cast their final votes today on whether to allow union representation at their factory. If they vote to unionize, the Chattanooga location will become the first foreign-owned factory organized by the United Auto Workers. Nation Washington, DC, correspondent John Nichols appeared on MSNBC’s All In With Chris Hayes to discuss the implications of the workers’ decision. The prospect of unionization and the “works committees” being planned for the plant have anti-labor politicians worried the idea could spread—so worried they’ve threatened to withhold tax incentives should the plant unionize. Nichols thinks their fear is justified: “There are a lot of folks saying [works committees] might actually sell in the south.”
The takeaway concept of Occupy Wall Street—the 1 percent versus the 99—continues to shape our perception of modern American society. Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel appeared on MSNBC’s All in With Chris Hayes, alongside radio host Sam Seder, to talk about the rising populist backlash against income inequality and the dissociation of 1 percenters from this vital conversation. As vanden Heuvel pointed out, “Until we have public financing, we are not going to be able to unravel the rigged system. The rules are built for the wealthiest."
When Penguin Books announced on February 11 that it would withdraw from India and pulp The Hindus: An Alternative History in response to a lawsuit claiming the book “has hurt the religious feelings of millions of Hindus,” it was only the latest in a series of surrenders by distinguished publishers in the face of militant Hindu fundamentalism. The book, by Wendy Doniger, a distinguished professor of religion at the University of Chicago, had been described by Pankaj Mishra, writing in The New York Times, as “a salutary antidote to the fanatics” who seek “a culturally homogenous and militant nation-state.”
Debates about alternative views of Indian history, William Dalrymple wrote in The New York Review of Books in 2005, “have in India become the subject of political rallies and mob riots.” The most disturbing precursor to Penguin’s decision came in 2005, when Oxford University Press withdrew a scholarly book, Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India, by James W. Laine, a professor at Macalester College in St. Paul. Oxford acted after an attack on one of India’s leading centers of historical research, the Bhandarkar Oriental Institute in the town of Pune, southeast of Mumbai. As Dalrymple describes the incident, “Just after 10 AM, as the staff were opening up the library, a cavalcade of more than twenty jeeps drew up. Armed with crowbars, around two hundred Hindu militants poured into the institute, cutting the telephone lines. Then they began to tear the place apart. The militants overturned the library shelves, and for the next few hours they kicked around the books and danced on them, damaging an estimated 18,000 volumes before the police arrived.”
The Institute’s crime? Laine had thanked the institute in the acknowledgements to his book, which offended Hindu nationalists because, as Dalrymple explains it, Laine wrote that the parents of the seventeenth-century Hindu leader Shivaji “lived apart for most if not all of Shivaji’s life,” adding that some Indians “tell jokes naughtily suggesting that his guardian Dadaji Konddev was his biological father.” That was taken as a suggestion that the Hindu hero was illigitimate. In respose to protests, Oxford quickly withdrew the book from the Indian market, and was promptly criticized by many leading Indian newspapers for succumbing to what one described as the “Talibanization” of India.
But the campaign against the Oxford book and author continued. The militants who carried out the attack in Pune held public meetings, Dalrymple reports, “announcing that they wanted every Indian named in the book’s acknowledgments to be arrested, questioned, and tried.” Election campaigns were underway, and the prime minister issued a “warning to all foreign authors that they must not play with our national pride. We are prepared to take action against the foreign author [Laine] in case the state government fails to do so.” The Congress Party, heir to Nehru, “announced that they had instructed the CBI (the Indian equivalent of the FBI) ’to arrest Laine through Interpol,’” Dalrymple reports.
Wendy Doniger, author of the book Penguin has just withdrawn, is no stranger to Hindu fundamentalist protests, and not just inside India. In 2003 she gave a lecture on the Ramayana, the great Hindu epic, at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, where Dalrymple was moderator. He recalled that “midway through the lecture, a man stood up, walked threateningly toward the podium, and threw an egg at Doniger, which narrowly missed her. During the questions that followed the lecture, Doniger faced a barrage of insults from a group who had come with the egg-thrower, and who maintained that as a non-Hindu she was unqualified to comment on their religion.”
After Penguin agreed to withdraw and pulp the Wendy Doniger book, PEN India declared that “the removal of books from our bookshops, bookshelves, and libraries, whether through state-sanctioned censorship, private vigilante action, or publisher capitulation are all egregious violations of free speech that we shall oppose in all forms at all times.”
Arundati Roy wrote an open letter to Penguin, which she said was “my publisher”: in The Times of India, she declared, “Everybody is shocked at what you have gone and done….Even though there was no fatwa, no ban, not even a court order, you have not only caved in, you have humiliated yourself abjectly before a fly-by-night outfit by signing settlement.”
But Wendy Doniger herself said in a statement released by PEN India, “I do not blame Penguin Books, India.” They “took this book on,” she explained, “knowing that it would stir anger in the Hindutva ranks, and they defended it in the courts for four years, both as a civil and as a criminal suit.” The “true villain” of this case, she said, is not Penguin but rather “the Indian law that makes it a criminal rather than civil offense to publish a book that offends any Hindu, a law that jeopardizes the physical safety of any publisher, no matter how ludicrous the accusation brought against a book.”
Arundati Roy replied that Penguin has “all the resources anybody could possibly need to fight a legal battle.” Had the publisher stood its ground, she told Penguin, “you would have had the weight of enlightened public opinion behind you, and the support of most—if not all—of your writers.” Many others agreed, including the National Book Critics Circle in the US, which had named The Hindus a finalist in 2009 for its nonfiction prize. It called on Penguin Books India to “reconsider its deplorable decision,” calling it “a de facto act of self-censorship that will only contribute to a further rolling back of free speech in India.”
Read Next: 2014 could be a rocky year for US-India relations.
After Jessica Valenti reported that TED Talks had featured no talks on abortion, and that they believed it did not fit into “wider issues of justice, inequality and human rights,” TED staff responded by saying that the quote was taken out of context and that they “welcome talks and conversations on abortion as a social justice issue.”
Valenti has pointed out that she was quoting directly from a TED staffer and posted a screen grab of their email exchange. Even more importantly, it is undisputed fact that TED has never hosted a talk on abortion and that it has yet to commit to doing so.
There are countless brilliant writers and activists TED could invite to speak about abortion. Use their online form to suggest your favorite reproductive justice speakers. You can also join a robust online discussion using the hashtag #AbortionTEDTalks
The issue of self-described feminist institutions avoiding “controversial” issues goes beyond TEDWomen and TED Talks. Jessica Valenti reports on the rise of feminist “empowerment elites” and what their popularity means for feminist movements.
Along with The Nation, NARAL Pro-Choice America was at the forefront of holding TED accountable. Watch its President Ilyse Hogue debate Live Action’s Lisa Rose on CNN’s Crossfire.
The long-awaited report from Ted Wells investigating Richie Incognito’s alleged racist and homophobic verbal assault against Jonathan Martin in the Miami Dolphins locker room is officially out. It is almost 150 pages, and after reading it, several points now are certain. We can safely remove the word “alleged” from the accusations against Incognito, and we can add “physical assault” to the list of offenses.
(Wells refers to the forced miming of male rape as “improper physical touching,” just one of the many euphemisms the investigator uses in an attempt to shine this turd to the best of his abilities.)
We also learn that this should not be referred to as the “Incognito scandal” any longer. This toxicity extended far beyond the two central players. Teammates on the offensive line, Mike Pouncey, John Jerry and even offensive line coach Jim Turner were all a part of this swirling whirlpool of hatred. We also learn that those “bullied” extend beyond Martin to a teammate on the offensive line and a racially taunted Asian-American trainer. (I have gone back and forth about even using the word “bullying” to describe what is a case of assault, pure and simple. My belief is that while I understand why some people believe the word both minimizes and masculinizes the offenses on display, I also believe that “bullying” universalizes it, and allows for empathy into what Jonathan Martin and others had to endure. Reading the report, if you were ever made to feel powerless because of someone’s ability to physically intimidate you, then you can understand Jonathan Martin’s reality.)
The entire report is one collective “trigger warning” of the vilest imaginable behavior. People can read it themselves here. They can also read the heartbreaking written messages Jonathan Martin sent his parents. Rather than rehash them, I want to comment on what was for me the part of the report I found to be both predictable and gobsmacking. Ted Wells has determined that this culture of bullying was entirely confined to the team’s offensive line and their coach Jim Turner, who is still employed by the team. We are also supposed to believe that Head Coach Joe Philbin and the front office knew nothing. An entire section of the report is even titled, “Coach Philbin and the Front Office Did Not Know About the Harassment.” This feels like every single report we ever see about corporate or government malfeasance from Iran-Contra to Abu Ghraib to baseball’s steroid era. The goal is always to protect and insulate those at the top, who are, by the way, commissioning the report. There is even a superfluous, entirely irrelevant section at the end of the report titled, “The Dolphins’ Plans To Improve the Team’s Workplace Conduct Policies Are Commendable.” After reading the previous 140 pages, I could only think, “Who gives a shit?”
I have never understood why being ignorant acts as a shield of blamelessness for those in power. If Philbin did not know what was happening, then he looks like a fool. If he did know, then he looks malicious. Philbin’s ignorance was described by one ESPN anchor as “hard to believe.” I agree. This is a case of either benign neglect or malignant intent. Either way, he should join former General Manager Jeff Ireland on the unemployment line.
The timing of this report also comes just as the NFL is attempting to show the world that it is a safe space for Michael Sam and any player who tells the world that he is gay. Instead, we get a glimpse of a locker room that seems to be steeped in racist and homophobic violence, a bigoted gay-bashers’ paradise. Every NFL player I’ve interviewed has told me that this Dolphins shit-show is an outlier. Every NFL player I’ve interviewed has told me that they have never heard the kind of invective Jonathan Martin and others were subjected to. Every NFL player I’ve interviewed has said this is utterly unique. I hope they were not just feeding me a line, playing their role, protecting “the Shield.” I hope they weren’t protecting the Shield, because it is only too obvious from this report that the only thing the Shield looks to protect is its own brand, players be damned.
At one point in the report, Ted Wells includes Jonathan Martin’s private list of pros and cons for staying in the National Football League. One reason for leaving was, “I won’t die from CTE” (brain damage). Underneath that was another reason for leaving, “Maybe I’ll start to LIKE myself.” Those two statements, to me, need to be the start of the next discussion we need to have: how the rot in this league extends far beyond Richie Incognito.
Read Next: why NFL owners should stand up for Michael Sam.
When it comes to media, bigger is not better. And when it comes to the control of the infrastructure of how we communicate now, the trend toward extreme bigness—as illustrated by Comcast’s plan to buy Time Warner Cable and create an unprecedented cable combine—is accelerating at a dangerous pace.
In the aftermath of a federal court decision striking down net neutrality protections that were developed to maintain an open and freewheeling discourse on the Internet, and with journalism threatened at every turn by cuts and closures, the idea of merging Comcast and Time Warner poses a threat that ought to be met with official scrutiny and grassroots opposition.
The point of the free-press protection that is outlined in the First Amendment is not to free billionaire media moguls and speculators to make more money. The point is to have a variety of voices, with multiple entry points for multiple points of view and a communications infrastructure that fosters debate, dissent and democratic discourse.
When media conglomerates merge, they do not provide better service or better democracy. They create the sort of monopolies and duopolies that constrain America’s promise. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was right when he decried “concentration of economic power in the few” and warned that “that business monopoly in America paralyzes the system of free enterprise on which it is grafted, and is as fatal to those who manipulate it as to the people who suffer beneath its impositions.”
Merging the two largest cable providers is a big deal in and of itself—allowing one company to become a definitional player in major media markets across the country—but this goes far beyond cable. By expanding its dominance of video and Internet communications into what the Los Angeles Times describes as a “juggernaut” with 30 million subscribers, the company that already controls Universal Studios can drive hard bargains with content providers. It can also define the scope and character of news and public-service programming in dozens of states and hundreds of major cities—including Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New York City and Washington, DC.
That’s too much power for any one corporation to have, especially a corporation that has been on a buying spree. Comcast already controls NBCUniversal and a broadcast and cable empire that includes NBC, CNBC, MSNBC, the USA Network, Telemundo and various other networks.
It’s bad for consumers.
“In an already uncompetitive market with high prices that keep going up and up, a merger of the two biggest cable companies should be unthinkable. The deal would be a disaster for consumers and must be stopped,” says Craig Aaron, the president of the media-reform group Free Press.
It’s bad for musicians, documentary makers and other creators.
“Comcast’s proposed takeover of Time Warner would give one company incredible influence over how music and other media is accessed and under what conditions,” says Casey Rae, interim executive director of the Future of Music Coalition, who noted “the ever present danger of a huge corporation like Comcast—which already owns a major content company—disadvantaging competition or locking creators into unfair economic structures.”
And it is bad for the democratic discourse of a nation founded on the premise memorably expressed by Thomas Jefferson in 1804 when he wrote, “No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press.”
The idea that “all the avenues to truth” would be controlled by a monopoly, a duopoly or any small circle of multinational communications conglomerates is antithetical to the understanding of the authors of a free press, and of its true defenders across the centuries.
So yes, US Senator Al Franken—the Minnesota Democrat who has proven to be one of the most serious and savvy congressional watchdogs on communication policy—is absolutely right when he says, “There’s not enough competition in this space; we need more competition. This is going in the wrong direction.”
Franken has written to the US Department of Justice, the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission, urging each of them “to act quickly and decisively to ensure that consumers are not exposed to increased cable prices and decreased quality of service as a result of this transaction.”
The FCC, in particular, has broad authority to review telecommunications-industry mergers, with an eye toward determining whether they are in the public interest. And watchdog groups have been pressuring the commission’s new chairman, Tom Wheeler, to assert the FCC’s authority. For Wheeler, a former president of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, the lobbying organization for the cable industry, this is will be a critical test of his leadership.
But challenges to this proposed merger must also come from the anti-trust lawyers at the Department of Justice and the congressional watchdogs over consolidation and monopoly issues.
“Stopping this kind of deal is exactly why we have antitrust laws,” says Free Press’s Aaron.
The congressional role cannot be underestimated. The Department of Justice, the FTC and the FCC get cues from Congress. And the voices of members of the House and Senate will play a critical role in determining whether the merger goes forward.
Some of the initial signals have been good.
“This proposed merger could have a significant impact on the cable industry and affect consumers across the country,” says Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar, the chair of the Senate Antitrust Subcommittee, who announced: “I plan to hold a hearing to carefully scrutinize the details of this merger and its potential consequences for both consumers and competition.”
But hearings will not be enough. The Senate, in particular, must send clear signals.
Former FCC Commissioner Mike Copps is precisely right when he says of the idea of creating an even larger telecommunications conglomerate, “This is so over the top that it ought to be dead on arrival at the FCC.”
Copps, who now serves as a special adviser to Common Cause’s Media and Democracy Reform Initiative, is also right when he says, “The proposed deal runs roughshod over competition and consumer choice and is an affront to the public interest.”
But the public interest will prevail only if the public, and its elected representatives, raise an outcry in defense of the robust competition that opens “all the avenues to truth.”
John Nichols is a co-founder, with Robert W. McChesney, of Free Press. Nichols and McChesney are the authors of the book The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again (Nation Books).
Read Next: John Nichols on Internet neutrality and the FCC.
Yesterday I published an article revealing that TED has never featured a talk on abortion, and—according to TED Content Director Kelly Stoetzel—they had no plans to. After widespread outrage online, the TED staff now says they do consider including talks on talks on abortion and that I took Stoetzel’s quote out of context. In the hours before they published the explanatory blog post, TED—on two different Twitter accounts—called my reporting a “rumor,” “false” and a “misrepresentation.” Head of TED Chris Anderson tweeted, “Internet outrage rule #1. Get really upset about something before finding out whether or not it’s actually true.”
I am angry and disappointed that TED would malign my work and reputation rather than take responsibility for their words and work. I asked a TED staffer a direct question about why there had never been a talk on abortion, and I got a direct answer. Here is a screenshot from my e-mail exchange:
There was no misrepresentation or gotcha quote-grabbing. In fact, it is the TED staff that is now using Stoetzel’s quote out of context and in partial form. They don’t even link to my article to let people make up their own minds.
But beyond the question of the quote—the veracity of which is not in dispute, and the context of which is abundantly clear—is the question of the facts. The fact is that TED has never hosted a talk on abortion. The fact is that of all the proposed talks that have been sent their way on abortion, they have rejected 100 percent of them.
I am glad to hear that TED believes “abortion and reproductive care are core issues of social justice and human rights.” But their history, coupled with Stoetzel’s statement, does nothing back up this sentiment. And instead of a promise to carry a talk on abortion in the next TED or TEDWomen conference, the blog post gives us a link to TED’s online forums where commenters have brought up abortion and a list of TED talks which are not about abortion.
Reproductive justice leaders like NARAL Pro-Choice America* and Sea Change have already reached out to TED with the hope of working together. I hope that TED takes them seriously, and that they will make a public commitment to hosting a talk on abortion next year.
At the end of the day, though, this is not just about abortion. This is about institutions creating “feminism” without feminists. It’s about the most powerful setting the political agenda for the rest of us. It’s about the elite feeling so above accountability that they will weasel out of things they actually said by calling it “rumor.”
We can do better. And they should have to.
* Full disclosure: I am on the board of NARAL Pro-Choice America
Read Next: Jessica Valenti on TED’s exclusion of talks about abortion.