Gold diggers

Gold Rush! Yee-haw! Look at them settlers lashin' their teams and bouncin' their wagons in an all-out scramble to stake a claim in Electronville. The telecommunications bill is the Gold Rush of 1996, an industry free-for-all, a wild, pell-mell greed-stampede.

All the settlers have pretty fair grubstakes to start with; we're talkin' Time-Warner, Turner, TCI, Southwestern Bell, MCI, Microsoft, NBC--everyone's there except thee and me, bubba.

The gold in them thar hills is the public airwaves, theoretically and legally the property of the people of this country. But we're not gettin' a plugged nickel out of this here shivaree, folks. No one even told us it was goin' on.

How much money? Well, for broadcasters, around $70 billion worth of public property is up for grabs--all they got to do is grab it, and its potential worth runs into the hundreds of billions. Forget the deficit; if we leased our property out instead of givin' it away, we could erase a chunk of the national debt, as Bill Safire has pointed out.

But a shrewd move like that can't even get on the dance card at the Giveaway Ball now being held in Washington, D.C. Y'see, the select, limited company of settlers allowed to participate in the Gold Rush of '96 just happens to have given $40 million during the last 10 years to members of the United States Congress. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, in the last six months of 1995, they gave $1.9 million in Political-Action-Committee money alone, not to mention individual contributions.

Who is the telecommunications PAC champeen of them all, the man who has received more than anyone else in Congress from these settlers? Why, our own Texas Rep. Jack Fields, who just happens to be leading the charge in Congress to give away the property that all of us own to all those nice folks who have contributed so generously to his election campaigns. Hope that makes you proud you voted Republican.

How come no one told you about this? You might want to ponder this quite seriously; almost every news medium that might have informed you about this astonishing giveaway is already owned by "the settlers" in this Gold Rush. Yep, the Big Three TV networks, CNN, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and pert near anyone else you want to name in what laughingly passes for American journalism has got a dawg in this hunt, not to mention AT&T and the Baby Bells.

On top of that, the Democratic response to this ungodly giveaway is headed by the Great Dull One, Veep Al Gore. ("Al Gore is so dull his Secret Service code name is 'Al Gore.'") The Great Dull One, who actually understands what he persists in calling "the information superhighway," is in what passes with him as a snit about this bill. No wonder you never heard of it.

To give credit where credit is due, a couple of other alert minds in Washington have noticed something rotten, that powerful whiff of Limburger cheese in our national Denmark. Senators Fritz Hollings and Bob Dole, Labor Secretary Robert Reich, and a handful of others are trying to put the brakes on.

The beleaguered Center for Media Education, Jeffrey Chester conducting, keeps trying to point out that there are no safeguards for pricing or accessibility in this bill. What that means is that 40 years of regulatory safeguards are being swept away, nothing is being done about regulating 21st-century communications, the sky's the limit on what the cable and phone companies can charge, and no one has even suggested that it might be a good idea to dedicate just one piddling little channel out of more than 500 new channels to public issues and free time for political candidates. Not even one.

The party that harps so endlessly on "family values" could give squat about kids' education: There is nothing in this bill about violence in kids' programming, nothing about getting computers into the schools, nothing but a total bottom-line mentality. No wonder--the whole bill was written by telecommunications lobbyists.

As Chester said, the media, which we rely on for both entertainment and information, are about to be turned into a giant, electronic shopping mall.

Not only that; because future media will be interactive, everything you watch, everything you buy, will be noted and targeted for marketing purposes.

The 21st-century media will not be something you watch passively; they will be incredibly intrusive.

The telecom industry's defense is: For-profit cable channels produce quality television--look at Discovery, look at Arts & Entertainment.

Excuse me, but have you ever noticed that much of the quality programming on those two channels is bought from the British Broadcasting Corp., a publicly funded system?

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Copyright 1996 Creators Syndicate, Inc.