The small fraternity of Washington policy advocates plays an indispensable, often heroic role in advancing the public interest. But if a roll call of full-time activists were to be held, this group would number no more than a dozen. The computer/broadcast/cable/telecommunications industries absurdly outgun the public interest forces on most fronts. Consider the digital spectrum giveaway, valued at between $10 billion and $70 billion, which is being followed by only one full-time public-interest advocate.
One critical need is simple: to expand the number of talented policy advocates in this area. I hasten to add that these advocates must be capable of legal analysis, lobbying, participation in FCC rulemakings and litigation. While public education and expert testimony are always valuable, advocacy ultimately will not be effective unless it is embodied in law. Yet legal talent in this area is disturbingly scarce. I trace many deficiencies in public interest telecom advocacy to this basic lack of legal infrastructure. And it is self-perpetuating. As a precarious, modestly paying, underdog niche -- and one requiring considerable knowledge of complex legal, regulatory, political and marketplace histories -- few individuals are daring enough to attempt a career in public interest telecom advocacy. So there is no "breeding ground" to nurture fresh legal talent for the future either. What now exists survives only through the extraordinary commitment and stamina of a few individuals.
If the lack of resources is a pervasive problem for most public-interest telecom advocacy groups, they are also collectively disadvantaged by their balkanization. There are complex reasons for this: different organizational histories, issue foci, tactical approaches, leadership styles, and occasional hostilities. Most of the groups work separately on issue-specific projects, with only a few institutional alliances and nominal collaborations. This is not necessarily bad; "genetic variance" has its virtues in developing innovative ideas. But there could be greater achievements, I believe, if there were a more coordinated leadership, more fluid collaboration and a common vision.
Unfortunately, the Washington policy community has become somewhat parochial over the years. As a fairly small, enclosed group of people scrapping for limited foundation monies, the various organizations are understandably eager to protect their own funding sources and advocacy franchises. While there is little outright animosity, there is a certain stand-offishness among the groups. They generally trade information at the monthly meetings of the Telecommunications Policy Roundtable, a well-attended, useful forum hosted by the Center for Media Education. And the groups periodically sign on to each others' issue-crusades. But the coalescence and collaborations are not particularly smooth, robust and mutually reinforcing. There are not the natural synergies that come with a genuine movement.
One Washington player told me he wishes the telecom advocacy fraternity could be "re-potted" somehow in new institutional soil, to allow new roots and flowers to grow. It is an apt analogy. The telecom fraternity does not receive sufficient cross-pollination from unexpected quarters. It magnifies the significance of political epiphenomena and has trouble entertaining a larger vision. Underfunded and overworked, the Washington advocates have little time to think broadly and speculatively about the future; there are raging fires to be fought, after all. So, even though the media marketplace and culture have changed a great deal over the past few decades, this community, as now constituted, has not come up with a fresher, more compelling vision that gets beyond the tired telecom rhetoric of the 1970s.
How, for example, in a political culture that disdains government intervention and cross-subsidization, are public needs and social equity going to be assured? What policy mechanisms can be devised (and what political sponsors can give them credibility and respect)? These issues are being dealt with in only piecemeal, on-the-fly fashion, often using rhetorical wallpaper to cover over unpleasant analytic holes. A sweeping political/intellectual rethinking is what is most needed. But for this to occur, the public interest telecom community (and promising new allies who travel in different orbits) would need the basic funding, academic institutions and policy think tanks to develop a more trenchant, politically attractive critique. The deficit stems from the skewed "political economy of knowledge-creation," an insight that conservative foundations like Olin and Scaife have fruitfully exploited for many years.
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