It has been nearly three months since President Barack Obama spoke out in favor of Internet regulation, calling for “net neutrality” and a “free and open Internet.” In spite of the massive impact such regulations could have on Americans, the broadcast networks have given the issue short shrift.
Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Tom Wheeler said on February 4 that he backed Obama’s plan to reclassify the Internet as a public utility under the government agency’s Title II authority. FCC commissioner Ajit Pai said in a press release on February 6 that the plan "marks a monumental shift toward government control of the Internet." Even a liberal think tank predicted that these regulations could cost American households $156 in new fees.
Despite its importance, the broadcast news networks’ morning and evening shows dedicated only three minutes, 38 seconds of coverage to these potential regulations over the Internet since Obama’s announcement November 10, 2014 through February 8, 2015. Moreover, none of the stories included any critics of the plan. By way of contrast, the networks spent 67 minutes, 49 seconds covering the "Deflategate" scandal during less than one week in January, nearly 19 times more than net neutrality over a period of almost three months.
Phil Kerpen, President of American Commitment, told MRC Business, "There has been almost no coverage of the president strong-arming what is supposed to be an independent agency, or the highly questionable policy he has proposed that would reverse the past two decades of Internet policy and install a heavy-handed regulate-and-tax alternative."
When they did cover the issue, the networks were almost entirely uncritical in their reporting. On November 11, CBS's "This Morning" co-host Gayle King echoed the White House’s talking points, saying that Obama wanted the FCC "to adopt tough rules to protect a free and open internet."
Gayle said that "broadband service providers want to charge higher fees" for Internet access, which could "result in the blocking or slowing down of content for some." Yet, she failed to explain how the president’s proposal would improve this situation or describe the plan’s potential costs.
ABC News only mentioned the proposed regulations once during a segment on "World News" January 20. While previewing the State of the Union address, chief White House correspondent Jonathan Karl vaguely referenced that Obama wanted to expand "faster, cheaper Internet access" for the "middle class."
Segments on the other networks also brought up the proposal only in passing. On "Nightly News" December 19, 2014, NBC's senior White House correspondent Chris Jansing highlighted "immigration, climate change and internet regulations" as policies on which Obama was "pushing the limits of his executive authority" and "defying newly empowered Republicans." Jansing did not say how or why Republicans disagreed with the president on any of these policies.
The only instance when the networks actually explained opposition to Obama's plan occurred during a news brief on "Nightly News" November 10, 2014. Anchor Brian Williams said, "Many Republicans said publicly today if the president has his way, it would hurt innovation and job growth." Williams did not expand on this statement.
Although the networks avoided airing dissenting opinions, critics have long said that giving the FCC greater control over the Internet could have severe impacts on freedom of speech and the economy. Former FCC commissioner Robert M. McDowell said that "FCC 'oversight of the political process' through more Internet regulations sounds eerily like political speech controls," in an op-ed for The Washington Post on July 14, 2014.
The liberal Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) predicted that households could pay an additional $156 in fees to federal, state, and local governments if regulators reclassified the internet as a public utility in a report released December, 2014. Revenue from these fees would total $15 billion per year, according to PPI.
Reclassifying the internet as a public utility to achieve net neutrality might also negatively impact broadband Internet service providers (ISPs). This move "could put as many as 174,000 broadband related jobs at risk by the end of this decade," according to the conservative think tank American Action Forum.
The regulation could reduce investments in ISPs by $45.4 billion by 2019, according to a report by the economic consulting firm Sonecon. The report was co-authored by Sonecon chairman Dr. Robert J. Shapiro, who said he was an economic advisor to every Democratic candidate since President Bill Clinton, including Obama.
In addition to negative impacts of the plan on the economy and society, FCC commissioner Ajit Pai criticized the agency’s lack of transparency. Wheeler circulated the administration’s 332-page plan to members of the commission, but Pai said in his press release that he was "disappointed that the plan will not be released publicly." He argued that the "FCC should be as open and transparent as the Internet itself and post the entire document on its website."
Pai tweeted a picture of the plan on January 6, writing that "I wish the public could see what's inside."
Last year, Pai called out the FCC for undertaking the controversial Critical Information Needs (CIN) study. He warned in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on February 10, 2014, that through this study, the FCC had "proposed an initiative to thrust the federal government into newsrooms across the country." Although the FCC ultimately killed CIN, Pai drew a parallel with "the FCC’s now-defunct Fairness Doctrine, which began in 1949 and required equal time for contrasting viewpoints on controversial issues."
As they did with the current proposed Internet regulations, the networks ignored the FCC's threat to investigate television and radio newsrooms across the country.
Methodology: MRC Business examined the stories during morning and evening shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC from November 10, 2014, through February 8, 2015 that mentioned “Internet” and “Obama,” “Federal Communications Commission,” or “FCC.” The time spent discussing President Obama’s proposal in the ten resulting stories was three minutes, 38 seconds.