Friday, May 16, 2014

Resurrecting the Lede: The New York Times on the F.C.C. and Net Neutrality

Yesterday (May 15th), the New York Times published a story by Edward Wyatt on the FCC’s “net neutrality” decision.  Here are the first two paragraphs of the story, and what I believe was the headline (See note below), as it appeared on the  NYT web site yesterday:
F.C.C. Votes to Move Ahead on Net Neutrality Plan
WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 Thursday to move forward with a set of proposed rules aimed at guaranteeing an open Internet, prohibiting high-speed Internet service providers from blocking or discriminating against legal content flowing through their pipes. 
While the rules are meant to prevent Internet providers from knowingly slowing data, they would allow content providers to pay for a guaranteed fast lane of service. Some opponents of the plan, those considered net neutrality purists, argue that allowing some content to be sent along a fast lane would essentially discriminate against other content.
When I read this, I contributed the following comment (slightly edited):
This story is published in a seriously deceptive way. The headline and the first paragraph make it sound like the decision reinforces openness and equality, with language about "guaranteeing an open Internet, prohibiting high-speed Internet service providers from blocking or discriminating against legal content."  Only when you read the second paragraph, after the introductory "while"--which actually means "in contradiction with what we just implied"--does the reader learn that the decision will "allow content providers to pay for a guaranteed fast lane of service," which means precisely that everyone else will be relegated to a slower lane, creating, ipso facto, "discriminat[ion] against legal content"! The headline could and should have read: "FCC Votes to Allow Internet Content Discrimination"!  Why did the NYT feel the need to present the case so misleadingly? 
When I went to write about this for the blog today, I found that the story had been substantively re-written, including the headline.* The article now begins like this:
F.C.C. Backs Opening Net Neutrality Rules for Debate
WASHINGTON — Federal regulators appear to share one view about so-called net neutrality: It is a good thing.
But defining net neutrality? That is where things get messy.
On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 to open for public debate new rules meant to guarantee an open Internet. Before the plan becomes final, though, the chairman of the commission, Tom Wheeler, will need to convince his colleagues and an array of powerful lobbying groups that the plan follows the principle of net neutrality, the idea that all content running through the Internet’s pipes is treated equally.
While the rules are meant to prevent Internet providers from knowingly slowing data, they would allow content providers to pay for a guaranteed fast lane of service. Some opponents of the plan, those considered net neutrality purists, argue that allowing some content to be sent along a fast lane would essentially discriminate against other content.
Yesterday’s lead paragraph, with its flat claim that the FCC’s proposal is “aimed at guaranteeing an open Internet,” has been changed to a kind of “Well, ‘net neutrality’ means different things to different people” plaint.  This at least implicitly recognizes that the FCC’s claim that it’s working for net neutrality is not accepted by everyone. “Moving Ahead on Net Neutrality” also has significantly different implications than “Opening Net Neutrality Rules for Debate.”

Still, the article maintains the misleading and contradictory sentence that now begins the fourth paragraph.  This sentence, beginning with “While the rules,” contains, in its first clause, an assertion about what the rules “are meant” to do--prevent some data from being provided more slowly--that is proved false by the second clause, which states that the rules allow some data to be provided more quickly for a fee. The article then goes on to treat the idea that allowing paid fast lanes on the internet means actual discrimination in content delivery as if that idea were a peculiar conceit of net neutrality “purists.”

This is another example of the construction of a false ambiguity that complexifies a clear distinction—an ambiguity that pretends the point of the FCC’s proposed rules may not be what it obviously is.  FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, former cable industry lobbyist, is trying to approve a system of differential speeds of content delivery on the internet in order to provide cable and telecom companies with a new profit stream. That is the opposite of net neutrality. There’s no ambiguity or debate or mystery about this. 

Wheeler’s claim—namely, that such a system is “meant” to “guarantee an open internet” and preserve net neutrality—is not of equal credibility with the claim that the system he proposes will undermine net neutrality. The attempt to present these as equally compelling claims is an egregious example of the journalistic tactic of constructing a false equivalence in order to avoid identifying the weakness and mendacity of positions promoted by those who are powerful and respected.

You know, we must consider the idea that Republican Voter ID laws are “meant” to preserve the integrity of the vote as equally credible as the idea that they are meant to reduce voter turnout by disfavored populations.

I’d also ask: Should not the NYT acknowledge its re-write of the story? The paper very carefully acknowledges one edit: a change in the number of protesters cited in the article. But it gives no hint of the much more substantial re-write from the "earlier version," which changed the lede significantly.

All the news we print in fits.


Note

*Thus my uncertainty about the headline. The original story has been preserved on local news sites that picked up the NYT feed yesterday; some have the headline: “FCC votes to pursue net neutrality rules.” I cannot remember specifically, but the headline strongly suggested that the FCC had ratified net neutrality, as my comment to the NYT implies. See also the post on this at DailyKos.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for a much-needed clarification of article in NYT on Net Neutrality... beautifully written piece; clear, complete and concise. First time visitor to this site. Will be following by way of e-mails.



    Will share your article with everyone I know......so, I am not crazy, after all. Sometimes, when reading, print or electronic, I wonder if it is just me, having a very "dense" day......more often than not, it is NOT me.


    Reading print or electronic media today also reminds me of reading and interpreting for Agency implementation, the never-ending "new" or "revised" HUD rules and regulations.....so happy now to be retired....

    ReplyDelete

Comments will be lightly moderated, with disfavor for personal attacks and stunning irrelevancies, and deference to the trenchant and amusing.