Virulent Word of Mouse

May 2, 2010

TV soundbites and net neutrality

Filed under: Internet economics and communications policy,Short observations — Shane Greenstein @ 6:03 pm

The local public television station, WTTW, called the other day and asked me to do a segment on “net neutrality” for the news show, “Chicago Tonight.” The recent court case reversing the FCC’s ruling against Comcast inspired their interest.

The phone call left me with a bit of moral quandary as well as an expressive one. This post explains both.

Honest sound bites?

The moral quandary was simple enough. The recent court case is not really about net neutrality. If you look deeply at the details the case focuses on whether the FCC properly used Title I under the Telecommunications Act as the basis for the FCC’s regulatory authority over matters concerning ISPs. In this case, the ISP under question was Comcast.

Now, here is the twist. The FCC’s rules were about one aspect of net neutrality, but the legal ruling itself did not touch those. It only touched the legal basis for the FCC’s authority, and really had nothing to do with the actual policies concerning net neutrality itself. (The legal community had sliced and diced the decision, and it is quite clear the FCC could get what it wants if it just finds the legal authority somewhere else other than Title I. There are many options, and each of these options have trade-offs….)

But the newspapers all said the case was about net neutrality. That got headlines. Sensationalist and misleading, but it sells.

And when the phone rang at my office the producer also wanted to spin the story that way. Then he asked me if I wanted to be on the show. Should I give in or not to sensationalist misconception, just to be on the show?What would you do?

I decided not to. I told him the case was important, that I was not a lawyer, and that in many respects the court case was not about net neutrality at all. And he responded that the legal case was an excuse to have a wider conversation. Even as I explained the details to him he did not get phased. So it was ok.

The second quandary was more challenging. The producer told me we would have seven minutes to talk about the issue. Imagine that! Seven minutes to boil down fifteen years worth of events, many regulatory and legal battles, the nuances of FCC hearings, and all manner of detail. Seven and a half minutes!

It couldn’t be done, I thought. Should I just stop right there?

I did not. And here is what happened. The producer and I kept chatting. He would ask questions and I would answer. Bit by bit I began to understand what he wanted for Phil Ponce, the TV anchor. We would be introducing the topic to many viewers who likely either knew nothing or little about the topic.

Well, why not? It is important. Maybe we could take a small step in educating others, I said to myself. I thought I would give it a try. The producer called back a few times. That helped me practice.

More to the point, the producer wrote out a series of leading questions for Phil Ponce. You cannot see it on the camera, but Ponce would look at his questions every thirty seconds to remind himself about the next topic and keep things moving along.

That is where all of the conversations between the producer and me had gone, into a little cheat sheet for the TV anchor.

I sat down for the interview, my heart going thump-thump-thump, and I shook Phil Ponce’s hand. He looked at me and said “Nice to meet you, Professor. Keep it simple.”

This is the actual interview:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

I must say that it was an adrenaline rush (at least for me). The seven minutes went by exceedingly fast. From my perspective Ponce was quite impressive. He kept the pace fast, he kept the language simple and direct, and he kept me from getting off track.

For anybody who knows this issue the discussion was not very deep. But maybe we helped somebody out there understand the issues, especially somebody who never really had thought about it until now.

And then it was over. Just like that. I walked out, the producer met me and thanked me, and we began to clean up.

As I wiped the makeup off my face I asked the producer if he and Ponce did this every night. He said he did. That is amazing. I cannot imagine how they can bounce from topic to topic and keep it interesting night after night. What a job.

I went home. My six year old son put it in perspective. He gave me a hug and said that he saw me on TV. He wanted to know why I did not say hi to him while I was on the air.

The critics at home are always the harshest. 🙂

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