Outside of our small world of telecom wonkery, few will notice that my old employer, The Media Access Project, announced that it will cease operations on May 1. After 40 years of fighting to protect the public interest, including playing a pivotal role in stoping the deregulation of media ownership rules in 2003 and training a generation of public interest advocates, MAP ran out of money. In fact, according to the email, it will need to hold a fundraiser to retire its debt.
I know I should take this opportunity to eulogize MAP as an institution and sing the praises of its leader for the past 35 or so years, Andrew Jay Schwartzman. But I need to vent first. All you Liberals and Progressives with Serious Money who piss and moan about how the Koch Brothers and other conservatives with money have transformed this country by funding all kinds of conservative advocacy groups and think tanks — shut up. I was at MAP for 9 years and it was incredibly, painfully difficult to get people to understand why having a law firm in DC to advocate for the right policy at the Federal Communications Commission or bring cases challenging these arcane policy issues like how many television stations can one company own or whether we should allow Comcast to block BitTorrent and other peer-to-peer applications mattered. Many potential funders were too pure to fund anything that looked too much like inside the Beltway advocacy.
If you don’t fund progressive advocacy, it dies. If you are too pure to fight inside the Beltway, you lose. You cede the battlefield to folks who care a lot less about being chaste and pure and above the fray and who care a lot more about persuading policymakers and the country to adopt their vision of what’s right. So either pony up with the cash or get the policy you deserve. But please do not bitch about how awful it is that people with a vison for America you find revolting are willing to spend “their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honors” succeed while you prattle on about not wanting to “create dependencies” and how advocates need to find “sustainable models for funding” other than relying on funders — while simultaneously not compromising themselves by taking corporate money.
OK, enough ranting. Some personal reminiscences and appreciations below . . . .
I spent 9 years at MAP, after spending two years at a large D.C. law firm, clerking for the D.C. Court of Appeals, and working as a fed for three years. Despite a lengthy employment history before coming to MAP in 1999, it’s fair to say that whatever I am today, I owe in very large part to my time at MAP and my learning the public interest trade under one of its great masters, Andrew Jay Schwartzman. For starters, how many bosses would have given me the freedom to blog as I have done here since 2003? But Andy was all about letting his attorneys stretch their wings and giving us independence to work for our vision of the public interest.
Andy believed very strongly that MAP’s mission was to train and educate the next generation of public interest advocates. He spent a lot of time explaining stuff, editing my writing, taking me to FCC meetings at a level I would have needed to wait forever to go to had I stayed in private practice, and generally demonstrating by example how to overcome impossible odds in the advocacy world. Along the way, he also taught how to dance with the devil without compromising yourself and how to make a strong advocacy case while simultaneously producing top-notch legal work. With these skills, we would go toe-to-toe against the biggest corporations in telecom and media policy and the armies of lawyers they can deploy.
We were always outnumbered, but never out maneuvered. True, sometimes it felt rather like the 300 at Thermopylae, but on a surprising number of occasions we got to play Henry V at Agincourt. When the rest of the world woke up to the media deregulation agenda of 2003, MAP was there to lead the legal challenge in opposition. We fought the fight on cable concentration long after everyone else had given up. For a heck of a long time, we were the only lawyers for the public interest doing wireless work. We fought for open access all the way to the Supreme Court in Brand X, and when we lost we rolled with the punches and went on to Net Neutrality. Because if you lose, you need to come up with Plan B rather than just give up.
I don’t want to pretend it was total Nirvana of public policy. Andy and I argued about tactics and substance, and looking back on those 9 years I was at MAP I can see where we made mistakes and could have done better. And we worked ourselves hard. By the time I left, I was totally burnt out on lawyering. In my time I saw 4 other lawyers cycle through MAP with Andy. Each one of us went on to do something else, in no small part because we used ourselves pretty hard and reached the limit of what we could do as part of MAP. But Andy stayed, as the central pivot and support, defining the organization and defying the odds. It was an enormous strength, but also a weakness. The heart of MAP was Andy, but as MAP was worn away by the struggle against the odds and the struggle to survive, that was all that was left.
No matter how much heart or dedication or strength one man has, that alone is not enough.
MAP was all about giving the public a voice in media and telecom policy, trying to anticipate what issues would shape the future while refusing to abandon “traditional media” on which millions still depend and on which our politics and our democracy still turn. I expect that Andy, as an enormously talented individual, still has a bright future ahead of him. But the loss of MAP is a real loss for the public interest community and for the American public — who have lost a champion most never knew they had. At the same time, in large part because of Andy’s skill and dedication as a mentor for the next generation of advocates, we have other organizations and advocates to carry on the fight.
And we’ll need them. Because the closing of MAP leaves an awful large hole to fill.
Stay tuned . . . .