Monday, January 02, 2012

(Don't) Ask the Advocate

It's a testimony to the lack of editorial oversight and the generally fading role of local and regional newspapers in providing the community with a living memory that we see misleading articles like the one that appeared in this morning's Advocate. Run under the title "Ask the Advocate: Cable company competition" this article attempts to answer a question from a reader:
Why did former Gov. Kathleen Blanco veto a bill passed by both the Louisiana House and Senate that would open up the market to allow more cable television companies to compete?
The answer amounted to acknowledging Blanco's veto, a brief discussion of the rationale, and the assertion that East Baton Rouge Parish still gets franchise fees. 

No. NO. And the worst error is not is what is actually said; it is in what is missing: any understanding of the actual history and what has actually happened politically. Cable bills are one of the largest bills most subscribers to the Advocate pay—and cable companies are one of the very few corporations that locals interact with that have any degree of community control exerted over them. It would behove the local paper, any local paper, to get this right and to understand what our communities have lost. 

What's missing goes straight to the heart of the story:
  1.  Essentially this same law passed shortly after Jindal came into office. Honestly, how can the paper miss this? 
  2. Both versions were touted by BellSouth (then in the process of being purchased by AT&T). But Cox and other cable companies did not oppose it because it did not actually bring them into competition with any substantial new entrants and relieved them of obligations to smaller communities.
  3. EBR entered into a franchise with AT&T shortly before Jindal's version passed. 
  4. About 40% of the state's population was exempt constitutionally so Baton Rouge could never have been effected and any reference to its franchise fees are beside the point. 
  5. Here, and in most places such laws have been passed, it has not resulted in substantial competition and has certainly not lowered prices or extended the services as promised by AT&T. But it did allow AT&T to roll out it's Uverse cable wherever it wanted unimpeded by any local franchise that would have actually required competition. AT&T only wanted to roll it out in a very few high-profit places that were wealthy and densely populated. Even in Baton Rouge only a few neighborhoods have ever received it and that red-lining of poor neighborhoods would not have been possible under a standard franchise like Cox has which requires almost universal service throughout all the populated areas of EBR. 
  6. The major beneficiaries were the existing cable companies not competitors—because in areas where there is no constitutional home rule barrier the effect of the law was to hand over to cable companies the locally owned and maintained rights of way to all corporate telecommunications providers to use without charge. 
The lack of a critical understanding of the political game afoot and simple ignorance that this story exhibits is plain, flat, embarrassing. Especially for a newspaper that aspires to be Louisiana's paper of record. Here's what an intrepid reporter could try: go back to the record, look at the claims made for the law, document how completely false those claims have turned out to be. Document how few new cable subscribers AT&T has ever served and how rich and urban those people are and how few rural folks of any strip were served. (Rural legislators were particularly hoodwinked, and seemed willfully ignorant of the simple economic facts at the time.)  Find out where Cox and the other cable companies have expanded, quietly, without paying a dime to the local communities. There's actually a good story there. One that covers the cost to the citizens of Louisiana of potential competition and the further impoverishment of local units of government by a state legislature subservient to out-of-state corporations.

For those who'd like a look at the (long, long) story of the two bills, one vetoed by Blanco, the other signed by Jindal, the references to Texas and North Carolina's experiences with very similar bills, and unhappy consequences of the law both here and of similar laws elsewhere can simply follow the stories in this blog that are tagged:  State Video Franchise

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