Mashing the Media (and Watching the FCC)

Last week was a whirlwind of activity for the telecommunications, media and technology project with which I had been engaged since August 2006.The folks at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard were kind enough to invite me to speak in their luncheon series on Tuesday, October 9. I discussed “Media Tracker, FCC Watch, and the Politics of Telecom, Media and Technology.” I’m happy to report that the event is now archived on Media Berkman as a webcast.

I spoke about the work of the “Well Connected” Project at the Center for Public Integrity for which I was responsible. I devoted most of my time in the lecture to the Media Tracker, the interactive database at the heart of the project. The Media Tracker combines data from publicly available sources in a new and unique way, mapping out media and telecom ownership at the ZIP code level. Ownership is linked to lobbying expenditures and campaign contributions by company. The level of contribution by a telecom, media or technology company to any federal candidate can be viewed – documenting who has received what from whom.

As you’ll see from the webcast, at the end of my introductory remarks, I also discussed FCC Watch, a database that takes this oversight one step further, recording every lobbying encounter before the FCC. As reported by Brendan McGarry, a former reporter for the project, the most significant battle this year has been over the 700 Megahertz spectrum, a valuable swath of radio frequencies that has been the subject of extensive lobbying by former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, by Google, by spectrum incumbents and by the Bell companies.

And people are listening! The great thing about speaking at Berkman is that a good chunk of the most influential bloggers on the intersection of technology and politics are already in the room. I’ve been very gratified by the responses they have made.

In his blog post, Ethan Zuckerman (blog: My Heart’s in Accra) covered the waterfront, but was particularly taken by the set of features in FCC Watch:

Clark is interested in the question of who watches the regulators, and wants to offer a rich set of data that lets interested parties see who is attempting to influence the FCC. The FCC is an interesting institution to watch, in the sense that their decisionmaking is heavily influenced by ex parte filings, filings from interested parties that aren’t revealed to all the participants in discussion over an issue. That means that when the FCC is trying to decide the future of the 700Mhz spectrum, non-profits, for-profits and interested individuals can all have contact with the FCC, but their submissions aren’t added to the public record. …We search contacts made to commissioner Kevin Martin, searching for Google, and discover that Larry Page called Martin a few days back to lobby for “whitespace” in the 700Mhz spectrum.

FCC Watch developed as an outgrowth of brainstorming sessions that the project had with its advisory committee. The idea was simple: the Media Tracker already tracked lobbying dollars, campaign contributions and privately-funded trips by the major telecom, media and technology companies: what other indices of political influence could we find? But the credit for executing the system belongs to Ben Welsh, the expert computer-assisted reporter at the Center for Public Integrity then assigned to the project. Welsh developed an interactive tool that enables an extremely fine-tuned analysis of who is lobbying at the FCC — and what they are lobbying for. It’s that system that allowed those at Berkman to see the latest phone call from Larry Page — or from anyone in the telecom and media space — to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin.

David Weinberger (blog: Joho the Blog) was particularly interested in broadband tracking, and how more detailed information about how to obtain information about the availability of broadband services. (See David’s post.) One of the key efforts of the project, under my direction, was the quest to obtain information from the FCC about the names of the companies that provide broadband service in each particular ZIP code. We filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Washington to obtain the information, under the Freedom of Information Act. The FCC denied our request. Right now the matter is pending before Judge Ellen Huvelle.

Say Doc Searls and John Palfrey, “Drew’s work links in obvious fashion to Lawrence Lessig’s next 10 years of work on corruption.” Cyberlaw guru Lessig, of course, was instrumental in the establishment of the Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, and is now at a similarly-named organization at Stanford Law School. I’m flattered by the comparison, and certainly hope to do my part to use the Web to cast a more mindful eye on the unseemly goings-on in Washington.

And now MyDD has chimed in, too. Shai Sachs presents his theory about “Newspaper ownership and conservative dominance of op-ed pages,” and wants to use the Media Tracker to prove his case:

By typing in your zip code or city and state in the search form on the front page, you can discover which companies own the media in area – including TV, radio, cable, broadband and newspapers. What’s more, those companies are cross-referenced with campaign finance records, to give us some idea of the ideological bias of the media owners. For example, here’s the political influence of Clear Channel – unsurprisingly, employees and PACs of the company contribute much more to Republicans than to Democrats (nearly 70% to Republicans, and 30% to Democrats). Unfortunately, neither Media Matters nor MediaTracker expose their raw data, so it’s difficult to evaluate, in a systematic way, whether or not conservative ownership is correlated with conservative opinion pages. Still, it’s possible to get a snapshot of some media markets.

All of this makes my departure from the Center for Public Integrity, on Friday, October 12, all the more untimely. The executive director of the Center told me that the organization was discontinuing the “Well Connected” Project, and the Media Tracker, as currently constituted. As a result, there will be no updates to the Media Tracker database, or to the articles and profiles that are included in the database.

I would have liked it if the project had been able to survive, grow and thrive.

I’m looking forward to a variety of exciting new ventures. I hope to be able to announce one of them within the next several weeks. I’ll be posting news — as well as news articles and blog posts on the politics of telecom, media and technology — here on my blog.