This Is Why Policyland Is Complicated

Yesterday, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski circulated a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to address the problem of high phone rates charged to inmates and their families.  For those unfamiliar with this issue, many state prisons team with telecom providers to charge outrageous phone rates, sometimes exceeding a dollar a minute, for inmates to call family. Since these calls are collect, the burden falls on the inmates family, who are often poor. For too many, the weekly or monthly choice is whether to pay to talk to a son or daughter (or spouse, or father or mother) behind bars or whether to have enough to eat or pay for needed medication. This phone gouging is not only cruel, it is also bad policy. Just about all research on preventing recidivism shows that the more contact and support someone in jail receives from their family and community, the less likely they are to return to crime. So from a societal standpoint, we would want to do everything to encourage prison inmates to stay in tough with family.

As you might imagine from the above, I regard the current practices as cruel and abusive of the most helpless. This is literally a case where, as the Bible commands us, “suffer not the oppression of the widow, the orphan, the stranger or the poor.” (Zach 7:10). If ever there was an “unjust and unreasonable rate or practice” this surely qualifies. I cannot praise Genachowski enough for acting on this.

Also yesterday, Genachowski circulated a draft order to conclude the pending review of media ownership. He proposes to entirely lift the television/radio cross-ownership limits and to permit newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership in the top 20 markets.

What? What the heck happened to defending diversity of views and diversity of ownership? It’s not like the market got all unconsolidated recently. Didn’t we just go through an election where massive media concentration in some parts of the country helped create a total alternate reality for voters unfortunate enough to lack a competing voice for news and views? And this follows the decision to let cable program access quietly expire. WTF?

All of which underscores a point I make frequently. Human beings at the center of policy are rarely two-dimensional cut outs and, as Governor Chris Christie recently demonstrated, you need to praise people when they are doing the right thing and call them out when they aren’t. Not because they are good people or bad people, or on the same “team” or the opposite “team,” not because of any affiliation real or imagined, but based on their deeds.

When Kevin Martin was chair of the FCC, I often took heat from some people for being “soft” on Martin. I get the same thing any time I say anything nice about AT&T, or Comcast, or Verizon. Conversely, a lot of people were unhappy with my criticism of Genachowski at times. All of this misses the point. It is not a question of being “soft” or “too harsh.” Public policy is not about feeling good. It is not about choosing sides and then showing team loyalty. It is about trying to make the world a better place by creating rules that will “suffer not the oppression of the widow, the orphan, the stranger or the poor.” It is about trying to ensure that the benefits and economic opportunities of our country are shared so that “each shall sit beneath his vine, and beneath his fig tree, and none shall make him afraid.” (Micah 4:4)

So by all means we should push back on Genachowski’s proposal for media deregulation. And we should praise him for his actions on prison phones. And we should praise AT&T when it invests in networks, and oppose proposals that would undermine the 100-yr commitment to universal service. We should praise Republicans when they make proposals that further the public interest, and oppose Democrats when their proposals serve private interests.  Members of Congress who fought hard against Kevin Martin’s proposals for deregulation of media ownership should be equally forceful in protecting vital protections for media diversity today. But always, it needs to be about the policy and not about personalities or about choosing sides in the perpetual Red v. Blue color war which has replaced our national politics.

Because as we saw yesterday, the same FCC Chairman can simultaneously take the first step in eliminating terrible exploitation of the most helpless while simultaneously opening the floodgates to further media consolidation inimical to self-governance and democracy. It makes him neither saint for the first nor corporate tool for te second. Doing right on prison phones does not buy a free pass on media consolidation, but media consolidation does not undermine the vital importance of prison phone reform.  Give praise where it is due, and fight as hard to oppose wrong policies.

“For it is told to you, oh Man, what the Lord requires of you, nothing but this: do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with the Lord your God.” — Mica 6:8


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