Albion Monitor /Commentary
[Editor's note: For more background on this topic, see "Land Grab in the Sky" commentary, elsewhere in this issue.]

Al Gore's Gift to Billionaires

by Alexander Cockburn

There never really was any doubt that the Clinton crowd would do it, but now the great giveaway is upon us and we should at least mark the year, the day, the hour that billions of dollars worth of public property is turned over to private interests.

It's the oldest story in America: Privatize the gain, nationalize the loss
We speak here of the broadcasting spectrum. Heaven alone knows why anyone would want to see the cretinous images broadcast to our television screens in even sharper relief, but the appliance and electronics industries strongly desire it and so, not far down the road, we will have digitized TV broadcasting, the transmitting of audio-visual information in binary code.

As they shift from analog to digitized transmissions, the broadcasting companies want the government -- custodian of the spectrum -- to allot them extra "transition" frequencies so that they can transmit on both the old and the new systems. And here's where the issue of the great giveaway raises its dollar-bedizened head. Will the government (We the People) simply hand over new frequencies that may, given technological developments, one day allow not merely one but several new channels for the happy recipient who will coin billions out of the People's gift to him?

It's the oldest story in America: Privatize the gain, nationalize the loss.

The Clinton administration, guided by Vice President Al Gore, is now set to hand the new frequencies over to the industry for essentially nothing. The giveaway is all but finalized, it seems, with little dissent from Congress, which is thoroughly cowed by the immensely powerful broadcasting lobby. The most visible opponent -- after Bob Dole, who railed last year against the "billion-dollar giveaway" augured by the 1996 Telecommunications Act -- has been Sen. John McCain, who favors auctioning off slots on the spectrum (barring nine for law enforcement) to pay off a multi-billion dollar chunk of the national debt. McCain calls the "offensive" launched by the broadcasting lobby "the strongest I've seen in Washington."

If the new frequencies were auctioned, they would fetch anywhere from $11 billion to over $70 billion, a small price for the Murdochs and Eisners of the world to pay for indefinite control of the airwaves. But why pay for what you can have for free? Gore, along with his protege FCC head Reed Hundt, is pushing for the giveaway with the caveat that broadcasters be subjected sometime in the future to "public interest requirements." In other words, give the fox the chicken coop, with a good behavior code to be negotiated later. The whole history of the broadcasting industry since 1934 shows vividly that "public interest" mandates on commercial broadcasters have never worked.

White House "summits" to propose future roles for advertisers, such as sitting on a council that would define "quality" programming
The great giveaway meshes nicely with last year's White House agreement with broadcasters that stations broadcast three hours of "educational" shows for children each week; it's a wonderful access point for the advertising industry. The Wall Street Journal called it a "marketing bonanza," which is a pretty good definition of "the public interest" in today's culture. Delegations of advertisers descended on the capital last year in White House "summits" to propose future roles for advertisers, such as sitting on a council that would define "quality" programming and creating ads for so-called educational shows to be printed on soda containers and fast-food trays. Senior Clinton aide Bill Curry proclaimed that "we want to find a way for retailers to do for Bill Nye the Science Guy what they've done for Batman."

The solution that, needless to say, is not on the table is to lease the spectrum. This, says Robert McChesney, professor of Journalism at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, "would maintain the public's right to access the spectrum and make significant cash from an open and competitive bidding process. The public would have the option to revoke the licenses, making them at least the de jure owners of what is (at least currently) theirs. "Out of the 30 or 50 or even 100 channels they'll control, what's wrong with 8 or 10 public channels? But to advertisers, an hour of news, commercial-free and free of corporate management control, that's really scary."

The final insult: Gore and Hundt are promoting the idea of the gratified corporate recipients of frequencies giving a tiny sliver of free time for political broadcasts by Democrats and Republicans. Now, there's a bold definition of public ownership! Give your big contributors -- the broadcasters have spread their money lavishly between Republicans and Democrats -- billions of dollars worth of spectrum in return, then thank them for promising to think about a tip.

Two rays of sunlight: As the cable companies cut C-Span from their channels, consumers are becoming angrily aware of how frail and vulnerable is quality broadcasting. And Internet users are powerfully aware of similar commercial pressures.

Though the spectrum giveaway has been poorly covered, perhaps it is not too late for public uproar.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor February 25, 1997 (

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