Tales of the Sausage Factory: I Am Now on the Sh–list of the Wall St. J. Editorial Board. Go me!

Well, actually my boss, Andrew Jay schwartzman, and my organization, Media Access Project. But since MAP has only three attorneys and one admin staffer, I think I’m entitled to crow a bit.

The WSJ is a pay site, so I can’t provide a link. And copyright prevents me from reprinting the editorial — which appeared in the print addition of the WSJ on Dec. 30, 2003.

But to see my more detailed comments, see below.

Imagine my surprise and delight to find my organization named as part of the vanguard of the Great Liberal Conspiracy by the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal. The editorial is actually aimed at Billionaire George Soros, but we are apparently the poster child for all that is evil in Soros’ campaign to spread liberal values.

Part of this arises from conflating Soros’ personal spending with his foundation, the Open Society Institute (OSI) (find out more about both here). Many years ago, Soros, who is worth many billion, set up OSI as a free standing foundation (but one over which he exercises general guidance and influence). OSI generally seeks to promote democratic (small “d”) values and good stuff. OSI gives out grants to several hundred organizations.

OSI has supported Media Access Project for many years now. Frankly, I doubt if Soros ever heard of us before the WSJ aserted that we were his loyal minions. I confess I am unworthy enough to hope that he will ante up some personal big buckaroos as well as the foundation support, which we get because we convinced a program officer that we fit with promoting democratic (small d) values.

But Soros himself is becoming a significant player in Democratic (capital D) politics. As detailed in this article in the Washington Post, Soros has committed his personal fortune to defeating George Bush in 2004.

Needless to say, the Conservative Machine has mobilized to make Soros the number one target of evil. The tack is, apparently, to portray various left-wing causes as a form of special interest politics. Or, as the WSJ calls it “the public interest conceit” that “folks lik Mr. Soros are merely selfless benefactors of truth and justice, but companies trying to protect their rights in Washington are greedy special interests.”

I confess to being guilty as charged in this regard. I have no quarrel, other than the ideological ones, with my well funded opponents on the opposite side. Cato Institute, American Enterprise Institute, etc. argue their vision of the public interest and I argue mine, and that’s how democracy works. But I do put them in a different catagory than industry folks like the National Cable Telecommunications Association and the National Association of Broadcasters who show up to argue solely for their own interests and back up their arguments not with reasoning, but with political contributions. and who can switch from one side of an argument to the other based solely on the percption of their best financial interest.

Again, it’s how democracy works, and the process benefits by having all players (including representatives of the public) present. But I don’t confuse an ideological argument with a self-interested argument and I don’t treat ’em the same. So I’m suffering from the public interest conceit (and took a significant cut in pay when I left private practice to pursue such folly).

But moving on to what the WSJ actually says about us. The WSJ points to MAP and three of its regular clients: Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, and Center for Digital Democracy (formerly the Center for Media Education), as efforts by George Soros to do something liberal and dispicable. Apparently, despite our “consumer friendly names” “All four organizations have long been mouthpieces of the liberal wing of the Democratic party.”

I feel compelled to point out that all of us in the “gang of four” (or, as the WSJ refers to us, the Four Horsemen of the Apocolypse) have existed for far longer than either Soros’ purported efforts to buy the Democratic party or the current liberal wing of the Democratic party. Consumers Union (publisher of Consumer Reports) goes back to the 1930s. CFA goes back to the 1960s. MAP started in 1972. CME is at least 15 years old.

More importantly, one of MAP’s major court wins was enforcing the political access rules for a Republican candidate. We appeared as an amicus on behalf of the public challenging an FCC ruling which allowed a station to reject an anti-abortion advertisement showing aborted fetuses during prime time. We fought for the principle that the law mandating access to the airwaves for candidates applied to any message a candidate wishes to send and no one is permitted under the law to stand between the candidate and the public. That’s what democratic values (small d) is about.

Anyway, the WSJ also credits us with having “bashed or knotted up many of the Bush Administration’s major communications proposals.”

It’s always nice to get credit and see one’s efforts recognized. The two big issues on which we’ve opposed the administration are media ownership and open access (allowing members of the public to chose their internet service provider — the FCC wants to rescind the rules requiring telephone companies to open their lines to competitors). We’ve also opposed efforts to transform spectrum licenses into property. But we’ve worked with the administration to support unlicensed spectrum access.

With regard to us specifically, the editorial says.

“Take Andrew Schwartzman, head of Media Access Project, and leader of a campaign to sink Michael Powell’s rules raising ownership caps for broadcasters. MAP’s revenue for fiscal 2001 was $526,000, and, according to Soros Foundation website, the billionaire gave the group $600,000 from 2000 to 2002.”

Well, it’s certainly true that Andy (and the rest of us here at MAP, i.e., me and my colleague Cheryl Leanza) have been doing what we can to stop Michael Powell’s effort to loosen the ownership rules (including the caps). Ownership rules are one of our primary issue areas, going back to when MAP fought the Reagan administration on this. And it’s true that Andy did succeed in getting Powell’s rules changes stayed by the third Circuit Court of Appeals in September. And, hopefully, as a result of the truly painful schedule we’ve been working this fall and winter, we will get the rules reversed in court on February 11. Go us!

But the article does make few mistakes on the funding side. Quibles, really, but important. In 2002, OSI (not George Soros) gave us $150K out of our $525K budget. Which did put OSI as our second major funder after the Ford Foundation ($200K) and just ahead of the John D. and Catherine T. MacCarthur Foundation (clocking in at $125K). OSI has given us $150K a year pretty regularly since before 2000, actually, and well before Soros decided that getting George Bush out of the White House was a top priority.

But this is where we get to how foundation funding works. Soros the man never even heard of us prior to this WSJ piece. OSI is just too huge for Soros to know who gets the money. He sets general policy. We get money because we persuaded the relevant program officer that MAP’s work fit in the general direction of promoting democratic (small d) values. Once we got into the system, delivered our reports regularly, and kept doing what we said we would do, we were likely to get renewed on a regular basis.

So while it would be cool to be part of Soros’ evil schemes and therefore have access to tons more money, it ain’t happening. which is a shame, because we could use more money to help “bash” and “knott up” the telecom administrations policies. [You can donate at our website, http://www.mediaaccess.org, via PayPal]

Most critically, however, is that media consolidation is not an exclusively democratic issue. Plenty of Republicans are quite riled up about the FCC’s rules changes and have vowed to reverse them. On the legislative side, Republican champions for roll back of the ownership caps to previous levels include Trent Lott, Kay Bailey Hutchison, Olympia Snowe and Rep. Frank Wolfe of Virginia.

True, the Bush Administration and the Republican Congressional leadership, notably Billy Tauzin (chair of the House Commerce Committee) Bill Frist, Dennis Hastert and Tom DeLay have supported the FCC and tried to quell the rebellion in their own ranks, but with remarkably little success. Frank Wolfe, when warned not to support an amendment to a spending bill restoring the ownership caps to 35% because the administration would veto it, exploded: “My constituents did not elect me to be a potted plant! I don’t care what the President does, I’m voting for this amendment!” 11 Republicans (about half te Republicans on the Ways and Means Committee) joined in the revolt over the urgings of the Committtee chair, the Speaker, and the Majority Leader to approve the amendment to the spending bill. The final version passed the House 400-12.

On the advocacy side, a list of non-Soros funded non-liberal advocates for restoring the 35% caps include: William Safire, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Rifle Association, and the approximately 2 million citizens who filed individual comments.

So much as the WSJ would like to hold itself out as the keepers of the true conservative flame, I think they have a hard time making the case that concern with media concentration is a strictly liberal Democtratic issue — unless the Dems now have a majority in Congress. The same goes for campaign finance reform (atacked in the same editorial as another Soros — and therefore liberal Democratic — project). Unless John McCain switched sides without telling anyone, there are Republicans as well as Democrats fed up with the influence of corporate money in politics. (And Democrats as well as Republicans who liked the existing system)

The same is true for open access, which the WSJ tags on Jeff Chester. Not to take anything away from Jeff, but it was actually my colleague, Cheryl Leanza, who wrote the brief for CDD, CFA, and CU.(Jeff’s role in the conspiracy of liberality is translating these highly complex issues into something the public can understand, which is kind of hard to portray as a free speach violation, but I have faith in the WSJ).

MAP has been bugging the FCC to take the rules that apply to the telephone network that require the local Bell companies to let anyone who wants offer dial-up Internet access or DSL over the phone lines and apply those rules to cable since 1998, back when the Dems were in the White House and running the FCC. As we see it, the FCC’s open access rules provide competition and make censorship impossible by providing too many choices. By contrast, if you are getting this via a cable broadband provider, you probably have to use your cable co.s ISP and they could block this site if they wished.

Again, its a mixed field of Republicans and mainstream Democrats and a host of folks not particularly affiliated with any political party that support cable open access or some kind of rule that prevents cable cos from censoring data. While I think our brief was good, the lead plaintiffs were actually Internet companies such as Brand X, for whom the case is named, is a California ISP. Also opposing the FCC’s decision were Earthlink, Verizon, the California PUC, and about forty other folks. On the advocacy side, you have the American Civil Liberties Union and scholars such as Lary Lessig at Standford.

Perhaps the Wall St. J. should consider that reasonable minds may differ on the critical issues of the day, even among people of the same general political ideology. Instead, the WSJ Editorial Board choses to declare itself the arbiters of what is pure and what is evil liberal Democratic ideology and will no doubt expect its accolytes to fall in line accordingly. so much for democratic (small d) values.

stay tuned . . .

Harold Feld


  1. Harold,

    This is excellent stuff. I’m honored to host your blog here on wetmachine, & will try to drive a little more traffic your way. . .

    More comments anon. .

  2. Actually saw an article about a year ago suggesting that the McCain bill is in fact more of a threat to Democratic spending than GOP. But I find the whole thing impossibly complicated.

  3. Harold. . . .

    If you like, I can get the Freepers irritated at you as well ;-P

  4. Oh. If you don’t know each other yet, Ron Coleman ’85, meet Harold Feld ’89.

    Jon Baker ’87

  5. Yeah, Ron and I have met on various alumni lists. Ron recently learned that it is impossible to have gun control discussions on open mailing lists. 🙂

    As for the Campaign Finance stuff, I sent Ron a private email back. I may yet get around to doing a piece on BCCRA.

  6. I hope that you are preparing a formal response to the editorial for publication. My ideal would be a open letter to the WSJ Editorial Board from a bi-partisan, select group of your supporters calling your inclusion into question.

    You might also arrange for a clear off-print of the original article and any printed response. You could use it in cultivating donors from both ends of the liberal-conservative continuum.

Comments are closed