The Common Good
February 2009

The Digital New Deal

by Danny Duncan Collum | February 2009

Will President Obama deliver on his promises of media reform?

For the past six months, I’ve been having serious 1932 flash­backs.

Not literally. My own parents were toddlers when Franklin Roosevelt was elected president. But I grew up hearing about the Great Depres­sion. I knew my parents were raised in homes without electricity and far from a paved road. And I knew that President Roosevelt changed all that.

Maybe President Obama won’t change the American scene as profoundly as FDR did. But I have good reason to hope that just as Roosevelt brought electricity to the rural homes of my forebears, President Obama will bring an effective, affordable broadband Internet connection to mine.

Of all the activist groups that gathered under Obama’s big tent, at this writing media reform advocates are among the happiest with the signs emanating from the Obama transition. From the start of his campaign in 2007, Obama took unwavering positions in favor of net neutrality and the allocation of spectrum and financial subsidies to spread broadband access to the underserved. As a senator, he was a powerful voice protesting the Federal Communications Commission’s loosening of rules on concentrated ownership of media outlets.

The Obama transition hit the ground running on these issues. The people picked to oversee the FCC transition, Michigan law professor Susan Crawford and former FCC staffer Kevin Werbach, were both harsh critics of the Bush era’s corporation-friendly commission. Both are strongly identified with the cause of net neutrality, which means forcing providers of high-speed Internet service to keep the pipeline open, in both directions, for anyone who chooses to use it—instead of, for instance, giving favored higher-speed access to Web sites that pay for the privilege. Net neutrality is needed to preserve the high-speed Internet’s potential to serve as a distribution system for independently produced video. At this point, most high-speed providers are television cable companies, and they would prefer to bring the cable model to the Internet and have us take the menu of Web sites they want us to have.

The Obama team’s leadership on media reform has also spoken clearly and unequivocally on the right to broadband access. According to wired.com, Crawford last year told a Hollywood tele­communications conference that she believes Internet access is a “utility … like water, electricity, sewage systems—something that each and all Americans need to succeed in the modern era.” Wired.com called that a statement “likely to send shivers down the spines of telecom company executives.” But it’s music to the ears of media reformers and rural and low-income Americans.

MANY OBSERVERS OF media issues expect that Obama appointments to the FCC will change the balance of power at that agency within the first months of 2009.

Early last summer, when Obama clinched the Democratic presidential nomination, gas was hitting $4 per gallon, and the propane that heats our house was coming close behind it. That’s when my 1932 flashbacks started. Like millions of other Americans, I’d just taken on a couple of extra jobs to try and keep up. But still I could see the material foundations of our family’s life starting to crumble. On that historic Tuesday night, as the senator made his grand speech, I couldn’t help thinking, “Now I know how my grandparents felt when they heard Mr. Roosevelt.” At last, somebody had noticed us and our problems. At last, this very smart and capable man had come along to look out for our interests. For the moment, anyway, I felt that perhaps things could get better for the country, and for my household. That sentiment, widely shared across the country, put Obama and his family into the White House.

I’m still no pushover for the new president. I don’t like the fact that former Clinton treasury secretary and Wall Street executive Robert Rubin has his fingerprints all over Obama’s economic policies. And the great bridge-builder still hasn’t done nearly enough to foster dialogue with pro-life Democrats, much less moderate his party’s fundamentally wrong approach to the abortion issue. But at least on the historically crucial issue of media reform, Obama’s promise of a New Deal seems poised for delivery.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.

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