AT&T’s Plan to Control Media Won’t Let Freedom Ring

Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
October 26, 2016

During an address to AT&T employees last month in Dallas, CEO Randall Stephenson called on those struggling with the words “Black Lives Matter” to not rebut with “all lives matter” and ignore the real need for change. They were powerful words from one of the nation’s biggest telecommunications providers. But, in the end, they were just words. Words that didn’t answer the critical, lingering question: Why now?

The timing of Stephenson’s speech could have something to do with the fact that AT&T recently announced its intention to seek Justice Department and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approval to purchase Time Warner in a merger that would give AT&T unprecedented control over media, broadband, pay TV, and online distribution. The more than $80 billion merger would make this one of the largest deals in a year full of giant mergers across all industries.

The timing is also pivotal for the communications industry, when telecom giants are closing ranks as consumers increasingly embrace cheaper, digital, mobile alternatives. This proposed merger comes more than a year after AT&T closed on a $48.5 billion deal for DirecTV, the nation’s largest satellite-television provider. The merger created the country’s largest television distributor, with about 26 million subscribers, surpassing Comcast. AT&T is the second-largest wireless carrier in the country too, with more than 130 million customers—dwarfing Comcast’s reach.

Given what’s at stake for AT&T, the public can expect to see merger stakeholders going beyond the pale (no pun intended) to solicit the moral authority of the civil-rights establishment and the movement for black lives to help rationalize the drive for increased media consolidation.

Before anyone jumps on that bandwagon, understand that it isn’t AT&T’s CEO or his individual beliefs about black lives that progressives and civil-rights leaders should learn more about; it’s the company itself.

When you look past the words of this one man in this historic political moment to the actions of AT&T as a company, a disturbing pattern emerges of privacy violations, free-speech abuses, and predatory preemption of attempts by local communities to build their own broadband networks—all practices that limit economic opportunity for black people in America.

Despite their brand as a company driven by a commitment to diversity and civil rights, AT&T remains a longstanding member of American Legislative Exchange Council, the conservative lobbying group featured heavily as a driver of mass incarceration in Ava DuVernay’s recent Netflix documentary, 13th. Together with ALEC, AT&T lobbies politicians to adopt legislation written by corporations. ALEC is perhaps best known for its role in advancing “stand your ground” legislation, which was presented as a winning defense by George Zimmerman. Through ALEC, AT&T has advanced model bills to thwart community broadband ownership, and enacted video franchising laws that harm public access television stations.

Read the full piece at The Nation