Updated: Wednesday, November 22, 2017, 12:57 PM
It’s so fitting that the Trump administration announced what may prove to be its most democracy-altering decision yet — a push by the pro-Trump Federal Communications Commission to end so-called net neutrality on the internet — on the Tuesday afternoon flowing into Peak Thanksgiving. It was as if the government wanted an overfed nation overdosing on tryptophan and TV blowouts of the Dallas Cowboys to nap through the news that the giant corporations of Big Telecom are about to gain massive control over the information that Americans consume, until it is just too late for regular folks to rally opposition to the latest episode of “Big Brother: America” from our reality-show president. Simply put, Team Trump didn’t want the average American to have good information about what is fast becoming the defining feature of our 45th presidency: It doesn’t want the public to have good information.
The cloud of chaos emanating from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue these days makes it easy to lose the big picture. When the president of the United States is getting up before sunrise to Twitter-trash-talk a basketball dad (who, like most of Trump’s targets these days, just happens to be black) with an inane racist comparison to Don King, or arguing that it’s better in Alabama to vote “perv” than vote “Democrat,” while no actual legislation is getting passed, it’s easy to get lost in the hourly outrage cycle and view The Donald as an unhinged nut, his presidency in flames.
But behind the smoke and mirrors, Trump World is getting stuff done — bad stuff, like the gutting of many major regulations that once protected our environment, or the toxic police-state culture created by “taking the gloves off” ICE enforcement agents or your local cops, or installing regressive judges across the land. But the defining feature of Donald Trump’s presidency is its all-encompassing war on the truth. The tactic is the stream of lies that the president spews — sometimes dozens in a week. But the broader strategy is equally alarming: Trump hopes to extend and expand his reign of dishonesty by remaking the media landscape with fewer, diminished sources of valid facts, elevating the handful of outlets that worship our Dear Leader (Sinclair, Fox) while seeking to destroy the credibility and reputation of everyone else.
Trump’s big, bad idea is so universal it can embrace ideas that seem to be contradictions — until you look a little closer. How else to explain the fact that the FCC — controlled by a majority of pro-Trump commissioners — is, with its all-but-a-done-deal rollback of net neutrality, giving the gift of a lifetime to monster communication companies like Philadelphia-based Comcast as well as Verizon and AT&T. Yet at the same time Trump’s Justice Department seems to be taking an anti-big-business stance in opposing the planned merger of AT&T and Time Warner without the spin-off of key assets like Time Warner’s CNN, the bete noire of Trump’s rabid fan base.
But there’s been widespread (and seemingly informed) speculation that the government’s merger move has little to do with its usually pro-business ideology and everything to do with old-fashioned revenge against the news outlet that Trump has called “the Fake News Network” and accused of treating him so unfairly (despite considerable evidence of the exact opposite). There’s no smoking gun, but pro-Trump news outlets like the Daily Caller and the New York Post have quoted sources that Trump would love to oust CNN chief Jeff Zucker, and other journalists have labored to find a reason for trying to block the merger other than presidential spite. So basically Team Trump wants fewer outlets controlling the news — and it wants those that survive to, in the immortal words of Omarosa Manigault, “bow down to President Trump.”
Hatred for, and the stifling of, a free press and free flow of information is the glue that holds the Trump presidency — and the 36 percent who support him — together. Consider these droplets:
In addition to its net neutrality push, the FCC has also adopted a series of rules that will dramatically expand the reach of Sinclair Broadcasting into a coast-to-coast behemoth (including, at least for now, Philadelphia’s Channel 17) and allow it to reshape your local TV news away from community journalism and toward its relentlessly pro-Trump political agenda, with its one-size-fits-all Trumpian commentary and inane “terrorism alert desk.” Trump’s Justice Department seems to be sending a chilling message to rank-and-file journalists — and especially alternative journalists on the left more likely to be critical of the president — with its shocking decision to pursue felony “rioting” charges that could lead to a 10-year prison sentence for a Texas photojournalist named Alexei Wood. Wood covered a destructive melee on Trump’s inauguration day and his apparent “crime” was going “wooo” as he filmed an act of vandalism, not very smart but not anywhere near the ballpark of criminality. These official acts come against a constant drumbeat from Trump seeking to delegitimatize journalism and the First Amendment at least in the eyes of his own supporters, calling hardworking reporters “the enemy of the American people,” threatening to relax libel laws amid the dream of forcing more outlets to go out of business like Gawker, and disrupting the news cycle with increasingly off-his-meds 6 a.m. tweets.
But the end of net neutrality would mean Trump and his allies are going nuclear in their war on information. Without the controls adopted by past incarnations of the FCC, your internet carrier would be free to charge you more for certain content; imagine if Comcast or Verizon started charging you for packages of accelerated and accessible websites — a “news” package with CNN.com and Philly.com or a “sports” package with league websites or Deadspin. (That’s how they do it now in countries like Portugal that don’t have net neutrality.)
Without net neutrality in Portugal, mobile internet is bundled like a cable package https://t.co/IwAnwW8f1s
— Pamela Curry (@pcurry57) November 22, 2017
There’s more. An internet provider would have the power to slow down the delivery of sites (presumably ones that don’t pay or offer other perks in return for high speed) and it could block some altogether — like, for example, sites that are dedicated to complaints from customers of Comcast or other telecoms. To civil liberties groups like the ACLU, ending net neutrality isn’t just a way for billion-dollar companies to squeeze a few extra bucks from consumers, but “also one of the foremost free speech issues of our time.” In explaining its opposition, the ACLU writes: “After all, freedom of expression isn’t worth much if the forums where people actually make use of it are not themselves free.”
Vice Motherboard’s Sam Gustin recently reported on why net neutrality is shaping up as the free speech issue of the Trump era, quoting Steven Renderos, an organizer for the Center for Media Justice: “Net neutrality is not simply about technology. It’s about the everyday people who use it and whether they will have the right to be heard online.”
The stifling of good information creates a world in which citizens decide which version of “the truth” they want to believe, often with disastrous consequences — the fantasy world that Trump and his true believers covet. If you want to go to Ground Zero for the war on information, go to Alabama, where as much as half or more of the electorate won’t believe Senate candidate Roy Moore is a sexual predator because the allegations were reported in the Washington Post, one of the news outlets that our Oval Office authoritarian has decreed as “fake.”
But a thousand Alabamas and a thousand Roy Moores will blossom across America’s political landscape in an era when the flow of information is even more tightly controlled by a handful of powerful corporations who can and will be bullied and intimidated by the White House. It’s critical for the future of American free speech and democracy that the net neutrality rollback be stopped, but with the rubber-stamp FCC preparing to vote Dec. 14, there are few good options and virtually no time to stop this dictator move. The war on factual information and the truth is repulsive, but it’s not the most outrageous thing about the Trump presidency. The most outrageous thing is that Trump is winning.