The Real Issue is Editorial Oversight of Benjamin

I got up this morning and read Eric Benjamin’s latest little piece of sour grapes and the question is no longer what he thinks he’s doing, nor even how truthful he is….those imponderables will have to wait…but who has editorial responsibility for what the “general manager” of the Times writes.

We have editors for good reasons and first among them is to uphold the standards and reputation of the profession. All other editorial functions serve that single goal. Journalists are supposed to carefully fact check what they write; they are supposed to report fairly and in context; and they are supposed to deal honestly with valid criticism of their work. Editors are there to make sure that they do. Checking grammer is a spare-time sideline.

There is no, and has been no, editor listed at the Times and it shows most clearly in Eric Benjamin’s slide from a color commentator who concentrated mainly on stylistic games to a poor reporter who concentrates mostly on bile. The last two “editorials” from Benjamin have been exercises not in commentary and not even in journalism but rather in making the news. What these last two editorials boil down to factually are claims that have only been made to Eric Benjamin and that only he can confirm. As nearly as I can tell we have to take Eric’s word on all of it… and his factual failures in the last “editorial” he wrote have been documented both here and in the mainstream media.

In light of those documented failures, a real editor, should such be available, would demand that Eric either demonstrate that his critics are wrong or retract his words. What would not be allowed under the guidance of any real editor is that he be allowed to cavalierly dismiss his critics by claiming that one of their criticisms is true but unimportant (the bus issue) and to misrepresent the meaning of another point while admitting its essential truth (the attorney general had not, in fact, gotten any “letter” from Fiber 411 folks when Eric Benjamin claimed they did — oh, and the attorney general didn’t treat it as worthy of investigation when he did, finally, receive a complaint).

I fully realize that professionals are touchy about being instructed on their professional duty by those outside their profession. What the Gannett papers must realize, and realize quickly, is two things: 1) that criticism from within the profession has already been leveled. The critique of the Times by the Independent is not a comptetitor’s attack but a legitimate professional protest; and 2) citizens like myself will complain and complain loudly if they do not perform the professional oversight that tradition, self-interest, and community interest demands. Benjamin’s antics and misuse of his column threaten the credibility of a free press and that is something all citizens have a legitimate interest in preventing.

Who exercises editorial oversight of Eric Benjamin?

That is the real question. I suggest we all begin to ask it. Repeatedly.

Who exercises editorial oversight of Eric Benjamin?

Working WiFi in a little town in Pennsylvania

I posted on Kutztown earlier in “It’s working in a little town in Pennsylvania” touting the ways in which Kutztown utility’s fiber-optic competition had driven down the prices private providers charged for broadband access by almost 50%, how its electrical utility had kept property taxes from rising for 70 years, saved the residents of the small town have saved $400,000 dollars in telecom (over) charges over the last 3 years. That’s real wealth for a picturesque small town in the Amish region of Pennsylvania.

Well, its still working and Kutztown is again showing the way: it is leveraging its fiber optic network to provide its town with what will be the first, and probably the only publicly-owned Wi-Fi net in Pennsylvania. The local paper tells the story well:

The borough of Kutztown is planning to install a wireless computer network that could be the first and only municipal Wi-Fi system in Pennsylvania.

While Kutztown is announcing its Wi-Fi project much later than Philadelphia and Bethlehem, it will probably complete its system first, and it will be the only system of the three that is completely run by a municipality.

Success breeds success. A successful, ubiquitous fiber-optic network makes the addition of a wireless cloud much, much easier–and cheaper–than it would be without that infrastructure. It also means that the wireless cloud Kutztown builds need not be crippled by sharing cheap, low bandwidth between many users — a unacknowledged problem for most municipal systems. Kurtztown will be in a position to take full advantage of the rated speeds of WiFi equipment; something you cannot do if each node is supplied with a small fraction of the bandwidth it could carry. (supplying a 54 meg wifi node with 1.5 megs of backhaul connection does not–as some folks seem to assume–transform 1.5 megs into 54.)

Kutztown, like Lafayette has a history of going its own way. I understand the folks over at the Advocate sometimes, affectionately, refer to Lafayette’s go its own way tendencies as being another example of “Crazy Lafayette.” I imagine that Kutztown’s neighbors have a similar description for their tendencies as well.

Kutztown has a history of being at the forefront.

It is the only town in Pennsylvania that is covered in its entirety by a fiber-optic network that provides high-speed Internet access, phone service and television.

The borough of 5,000 residents is also one of a few towns to run its own electrical utility. And Kutztown was one of the first communities in Pennsylvania to install sewers to private homes in 1940.

”They are an amazing little borough, I have learned now that I’ve worked with them for a couple of years,” said Dennis Dunn, owner of Sacony Commons, a student apartment building that will be one of Kutztown’s first Wi-Fi customers. ”People think it’s an old Pennsylvania Dutch town, and it is, but they are also pretty high-tech.”

But Kutztown in über conservative* Amish country is running up against restrictions passed at phone giant Verizion’s request: it has to build a system before a deadline which would effectively restrict other municipalities from every following its attractive lead.

Kutztown is eager to get its municipal Wi-Fi system up and running before the end of the year because legislation will impose restrictions on municipal telecommunications systems beginning Jan. 1. Under pressure from telephone and cable providers, Pennsylvania passed a law last year that prohibits municipalities from selling telecommunications services. The law stipulates cities that are setting up networks before the moratorium must have one paying customer before the end of this year.

Kutztown is pretty clear about why they are doing it:

”We want our residents to [be] a notch ahead of everybody,” Dunn said. ”It is another amenity for our property, and frankly, we think it’s the future.”

Doesn’t that sound familiar? It is working in a little town in Pennsylvania.

*[On the issue of “conservative” communities being in the forefront of fiber optic builds that defy the telecom giants: notice that Kutztown and Provo are also in areas that are know not so much for their conservatism but for their religiously-based communities. The Amish and the Mormons are used to being different and are used to relying on their communities to get by. They don’t like relying on corporations whose motives may differ radically from those of the community. While Lafayette’s conservatism appears to be more conventional it is surely true that the creole and cajun communities that comprise the core of Lafayette’s identity are similarly used to going their own way and to preferring to provide for themselves rather than rely on outsiders with dubious motives. I wonder if community-based conservativism, rather than the radically individual selfishness touted by much of what passes for conservativism these days isn’t actually a pretty fertile ground for community-based self-help.]

Utility News: Lowered Electricity Prices and Wholesale Fiber Profitability

Both the Advertiser and the Advocate carry stories on last night’s Lafayette utility system budget meeting. The headline news for both papers were lower cost to the consumer. (Advocate: LUS utility bills to go down; Advertiser: Electricity rates to decrease.)

According to both papers a typical customer will realize a savings of about 3.1 per cent; about $3.77 a month due to fuel efficiencies at new plants coming online in the parish–apparently a classic case of spending money wisely in order to realize efficiencies that save everyone money in the long run. The Advocate also mentions a new and favorable agreement with the electrical cooperative CLECO that will contribute to the savings. It’s probably worth mentioning explicitly that LUS passes on such savings routinely and automatically to its citizen/customers; the fact that LUS is publicly owned means that its owners are its customers, means that it makes sense to keep “profit” margins paper thin and turn the increased efficiencies that a private company would be justified in pulling out in profit back to its customers in the form of reduced rates. That’s the way publicly-owned utilities operate. The Advocate documents the result:

With the decrease in bills, LUS customers will pay less per month for water, sewer service and electricity than most people in Louisiana except those in Morgan City, Lake Charles and Carencro.

Customers in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and New Iberia pay an average of almost $30 more a month for the same services, Huval said.

That’s a lot of money that stays in local folks hands.

There’s also, as you might expect, some fiber news.

LUS’ wholesale business turned a significant corner according to the Advocate’s Blanchard:

The business began making positive net income, which includes depreciation and in lieu of tax payments, early in the 2004-05 fiscal year, Huval said.

That’s one year before the four year break-even point projected when LUS began the new business in May 2002, Huval said.

That’s good news though how exactly the existing wholesale business will integrate into the new fiber buildout remains murky. (The issue of how well the wholesale business was doing was an issue during the early months of the recent battle before the referendum election. But it the opposition quit bringing it up when it became increasingly apparent that it was in doing fine.)

Both papers note that no money is included in this budget for the fiber to the home project–this had been announced prior to the meeting. The project has not yet been funded –the referendum only approved selling the bonds–and putting it into the budget sensibly awaits having actual money to budget. The community awaits regulations by the PSC which could have a substantial impact on how such a budget is constructed. A bond ordinance will be formally introduced at the August 23rd meeting in anticipation of the PSC’s expected ruling on September 1st. It could be finalized after that and a budget amendment offered.

Council helps shape legislation in Georgia (& Louisiana)

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, with a long history of actually fostering thoughtful journalism, has apparently sent a reporter to Grapevine, Texas to report on a body as obscure, and important, as ALEC (The American Legislative Council). They, as the title “Council helps shape legislation in Georgia” might indicate, are apparently motivated by the increasing influence of the organization in the Georgia legislature; particularly around a growing concern that the organization’s signature practice of drawing up prepackaged bills for submission by any member in any state doesn’t necessarily make for legislation that is good for Georgia.

The local angle is of course that ALEC is the very same organization that wrote the original “Local Government (un)Fair Competition Act” that was intended to prevent LUS from ever even thinking about building a municipal telecom utility. No doubt these guys are worth getting to know a little better. I am confident that they and their agents in our legislature will be around with new little bills to restrict local rights come the next legislative session. This article, ironically out of Atlanta should give us a little insight into how they play the game.

Legislator join ALEC and as members they can get into the secret areas of the site where you can download a bill to call your own. (You and I, unfortunately, can’t get it to take a sneak preview of next year’s bills.) ALEC legislative members download bills from the ALEC server and then submit them as ones they “author.” That these bills uniformly represent corporate interests should come as little surprise:

The organization, with a staff of 30 and a $5.5 million yearly budget, teams lawmakers up with corporate interests to push decidedly pro-business bills through state legislatures…

ALEC, founded in 1973, claims a national membership of more than 2,400 state legislators in both political parties, as well as more than 300 private-sector members including BellSouth, Pfizer, ExxonMobil, Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, General Motors and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.

The real work of ALEC takes place in private task force committee meetings, which are co-chaired by a legislator and an industry representative. A Texas state legislator and a Wal-Mart executive, for example, head the ALEC criminal justice task force.

Not everyone thinks that this method of drafting legislation is a good idea:

Senate Minority Leader Robert Brown (D-Macon) said he is troubled when lawmakers introduce “cookie-cutter” bills crafted by outside groups.

“Certainly you want to be open to ideas from wherever they come from, but I’m not one to carry the agenda of an external, non-legislative group,” Brown said. “I don’t have a problem with the business community advancing their ideas, but I do have a problem with them essentially controlling the agenda.”

He’s not worried about nothing:

In 2004, Georgia lawmakers introduced 43 ALEC model bills and passed seven. Nationwide, legislators introduced 1,108 ALEC bills and enacted 178, according to the group. Totals for 2005 aren’t available yet, but the list includes a law that makes it harder to bring a claim regarding asbestos or silica. Ehrhart said that initiative in Georgia was “purely an ALEC bill — every word.”

Louisiana and particularly Lafayette have cause to be worried as well. ALEC in recent years has put forward legislation that favors not so much conservative causes as corporate ones. The overwhelming majority of their money comes from corporate sponship–“dues” of the members of state legislators are nominal and account for less than 1% of the money needed to support their Washington office and staff of law-writers. The rest comes, apparently, from corporate coffers. I say apparently because no one is any longer sure how they are funded. Like the Heartland Institute they no longer release the names of contributors. A wave of criticism in the mid-nineties of the practice of selling membership on the committees that oversee and set policy for the various areas (like Telecommunications, which at the time cost twice what any other policy area cost) lead to their removing their list of contributers from their website. (Both BellSouth and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association have a history of giving. Cox is a member…see below.) What is not a secret is that legislation is written by a staff paid with corporate funds and that and policy guidance give by legislators is always balanced by the corporation–a one to one ratio is enforced. BellSouth and the telecommunications industry can simply make sure that nothing that is not in their best interests is ever seriously considered. –ALEC is organized in such a way that it can be nothing but a creature of corportate interests.

What should not surprise us is that ALEC’s chair for Louisiana is the same Senator Noble Ellington that gutted out a rural broadband bill he had sponsored to make it possible for the ALEC bill to get into the legislative process after the date for submitting “new” bills had closed. Ellington “wrote” the so-called Local Goverment Fair Competition Act. Of course, he didn’t write it, ALEC did, but he submitted it as his own. What I did not realize, until I dug through the website down to ALEC’s Louisiana page was that Noble Ellington is the state chair of ALEC’s public side. From the site:

ALEC Public Sector State Chair
Sen. Noble Ellington
State Capitol
Baton Rouge, LA 70804
Leg. Ph: (504)342-7259

But further rooting around made for even more interesting reading: the ignoble Ellington is listed on ALEC’s telecom policy page as having gone to Seattle, Washington to discuss the ALEC’s bill he sponsored to block Lafayette’s project on July 30th 2004—with a representative from Cox Communications.

Louisiana Senator Noble Ellington, ALEC State Chair, and John Spalding, Cox Communications discussed Municipal Competition, LA SB 877.

It appears that not only is Ellington willing to front a law for corporate interests against the interests of Louisiana citizens; he is also willing to scurry off to the west coast to present with a represtative of one the corporations that benefited most weeks after the law has become law. Call me unsympathetic, call me naive, but that doesn’t seem like the way a legislator who is elected by citizens rather than corporations ought to be behaving.

Ellington bears watching. And it’s not only Lafayette’s interests that are at risk: Ellington is also the Senate’s representative on the Louisiana Broadband Council (as Mike reported in an earlier post) that is supposed to encourage rural broadband access. Will he be just as cozy with the teleco incumbents when his own rural constituents are at risk? It’s a question worth asking.

What Lafayette Understands: Broadband Is Too Important to Be Left to Cable-Phone Duopoly

Washington Post technology columnist Rob Pegoraro hits on a realization that 62 percent of voters in Lafayette last month demonstrated that they get, too. That is this: broadband is too important to be left to the cable-phone duopoly.

In his column, Pegoraro does a good job of explaining the history of network sharing — although, I think he overstates the historic willingness of telephone companies to share access to their networks with competitors.

The fact that he lives in Verizon‘s base of operations may have something to do with it. He notes that, despite the recent FCC ruling which gives phone companies the right (like cable companies) to keep competitors off their networks, Verizon is actively engaged in negotiations with Earthlink and Speakeasy to enable them to access the RBOC‘s new fiber to the home networks.

Don’t expect such largesse from BellSouth. As businesses in Lafayette will tell you, BellSouth (more often than not) could always find some ‘technical’ excuse for its inability to enable competitive DSL service providers to access the BS network in Lafayette. Based on the performance of BellSouth’s operation of its own network since successfully driving competitors off it, it appears quite reasonable to assume that BellSouth‘s network problems were not the result of a conspiracy to deprive competitors of network access (along with customers and revenue), but a fundamental lack of suitable infrastructure and technical expertise to consistently deliver services.

The thing to remember about the old network sharing rules is that it was the competitive local exchange carriers (CLECs) that drove innovation on those networks. The RBOCs have never been innovators. Neither have cable companies. The unintended (?) consequence of the FCC’s decisions to kill network sharing will be a decline in network innovation at precisely the time when innovation is most needed.

Like I said, on July 16, Lafayette demonstrated that we get Pegoraro’s argument.

Neither a Conservative nor a Liberal Be

Ok, here, hopefully is a last random post from my trolling the more obscure areas of the internet this morning: a post found on (a hard right site) that puts forward an awfully good case for voting for fiber.

Here’s a bit from his post from back before the election; there is a longish, very good list there–this is only one point.

It’s easy to confuse “private capital with a monopoly” with “free enterprise”. The local information monopolies’ #1 priority is the protection of their monopoly status: they have done everything in their power to freeze out competition. As a customer, I’m extremely skeptical that they have my, or my community’s, best interest among their top 5 priorities. Despite BellSouth and Cox’s PR to the contrary, the initiative would never have gotten off the ground in this very conservative community if they had been more proactive about bringing higher technology communication services to the area.

Am I conflicted? You bet! This is a case of a medium-sized community struggling not to become a complete backwater in the information age. In my judgment, the current information providers will not offer a way out, and for that reason, the Fiber to the Home initiative has my vote on July 16. If RedState decides to brand me a socialist & ban me for life, I understand.

He gets slammed in the comments but I think he’s right…and its not at all clear to me that protecting local communities and individuals from the consequences of having monopoly providers is logically a right or left wing issue. I think there are a lot of folks who thought it through in this way–and I can’t help but be grateful for their willingness to think beyond the first, reflexive ideological response. If we had more such we’d have a much healthier democracy.

WBS: “Lafayette (as Pau) said “yes” to fiber…”

What’s being said dept.

More from today’s the rooting around in back corners of the internet: a reaction to the Lafayette referendum vote from France. En francais, et in Google translation.

It’s always fun to get a view of yourself from the outside:

Lafayette is an American city of Louisiana, located on the edges of the Gulf of Mexico…

The author notes that Lafayette hopes to replace an aging oil-based economy:

In short, to create a new ecosystem to live better than in oil civilization…
The problem, it is that even with the country of the cow-boys, the thing is not simple. Between those which are for, those which are against, lobbies of the operators who see of a very evil eye the arrival of the local communities which want to take in hand their own destiny telecom.


Thus Terry Huval, the boss of [LUS] to declare: “the people voted. We will honour this vote – by hoping that the velleities of the opponents will be calmed… – In 2 years, our citizens will have their optical network “. As for Gift Bertrand, the charismatique one chair of Fiber911 (for)… “We will bring the VERY high flow to our citizens as well as into 1896 we brought electricity. If “you” bring it to us (not implied for you: the state, the private operators…), we will do it ourselves “. That here is a speech which one would like to hear in our beautiful Gallic kingdom….

The sense is there if you’re willing to work for it…I hope the French get fiber too.

“Fiber Fan”

A letter to the editor in this week’s Times is notable for how accurately it homes in on the real issue in our, and our nation’s telecom debate: Monopoly power and its continuing consolidation. The FCC is indeed stripping out regulations that fostered competition. Municipal-level utilities and coops may be the only way to defend local folks from the inevitable effects of having to deal with monopolies….at least until some change occurs at the Federal level which seems to be operating under the illusion that monoplies and duopolies just don’t exist.

Would that the FCC commissioners had as much sense as Joshua Patrick.

“Officials deny Lafayette’s buses took voters to polls”

Thank goodness for real reporters. For guys who fact check and call around.

Today’s Advocate story on Bejamin’s Wednesday piece demonstrates the value of such people. The Advocate’s Kevin Blanchard does the legwork and eviscerates Eric Benjamin’s shoddy work, plodding through the highlighted charges and showing how unreasonable they are—and how easy it is to confirm or disconfirm accusations before publishing them. (By the way, where’s our “local” paper? And isn’t there any editorial oversight of the Times? Who is responsible for that oversight? Benjamin? Powers? No editor of the Times is listed. To whom does an outraged citizen complain?)

At any rate Blanchard makes short work of the claim that city buses were used. So could Benjamin by simply examining the published reports of the PACs involved–which is how the Advocate tracked it down. Then a simple question to the Attorney general’s office disproves the allegation that any Fiber 411 complaint has made its way to the Attorney General. The article goes on to point out that Benjamin never begins to try and explain how Durel could have “coerced or compelled” anyone to vote for fiber–certainly encouraging people to contribute to pro-fiber groups coerces or compels no one. No one can demonstrate that a charge is false that has been made only through the vaguest of dark and remarkably insubstantial suggestions.

Part of what is hard to follow in this story is the important distinction between sworn and unsworn complaints. The advocate story only says:

The Ethics Board staff presents complaints to the board, which can OK an investigation with a two-thirds vote, according to Alesia Mottle, a board attorney. Should a person swear a complaint in front of a notary, the board only needs majority approval.

But that is only part of the difference. The most obvious difference is that in a sworn complaint you go before a notary and attest to what you are swearing–you put yourself at some personal legal risk if your sworn testimony turns out to be false–what some might call a lie. False testimony is a crime. That explains the greater weight given to sworn allegations and the lower bar for initiating investigations. The two types of charges differ in two other ways: 1) In a sworn allegation the target of the complaint is notified when the complainer is notified. In an unsworn complaint no one but the complainer knows that the complaint has been received until the commission determines there is something to investigate formally. 2) A sworn allegation must be dealt with within a year while an unsworn one may hang around at the commission for two years.

But here is a way in which both types of complaints are alike: it is illegal to “give out” anything about their contents:

State ethics law makes it a misdemeanor for Ethics Board members and “any other person” to “give out any information concerning a private investigation or private hearing of the (ethics) board without the written request of the public servant or other person investigated.”

Blanchard’s article toes a very fastidious line when he says that “Benjamin did not identify his column’s informational source.” Unless Benjamin got it from the Ethics Commission who else but Breakfield would know what was in it and could be the source? Even if Breakfield did not say so directly to Benjamin it had to be someone he told. One odd extra possibility logically exists that might get folks off the hook if they’d been sufficiently devious: someone could come forward, admit to having written the thing up for Breakfield and told Benjamin all about it before it was formally filed. Or Breakfield could admit to having given the complaint to Benjamin before he filed it, possibly evading the prohibition of talking about a complaint after it is filed. But that would make Benjamin’s article awfully devious.

The secrecy involved leaves open three real possibilities as to the status of a possible complaint.

1) That no complaint has actually been competently filed. The Ethics Commission’s secrecy will make that impossible to say for sure. Maybe this is a pure case of negative publicity. It would certainly be in line with the general tactic of the opposition to throw unsupportable claims out and then not even try much to substantiate them. But given the oddities of the way the law works there is no way that I can see to differentiate pure fabrication from the results of an unsworn complaint that is judged by the commission to be so without merit that it is not worth investigating. (Read on…)

2) That a sworn complaint has been filed but that those accused have not yet gotten notification as they would if such a complaint had been sworn to and turned over to the commission 10 days or more previously. Ethics commission rules require such notification. That leaves open whether or not such a sworn accusation has been validly made to the commission. In 10 days or so at the maximum we’ll know by whether or not by whether Durel receives such a letter. (My guess is that the complaints were unsworn; Bill Leblanc’s complaint, at least, was apparently filed enough earlier that Durel should have heard by now.)

3) The third possibility is that an unsworn complaint has been filed. In such cases (and this is not clear in the Advocate article which appears to be working from the assumption that any such complaint would be sworn–something the folks at the commission tell Lafayette Pro Fiber is true in only a minority of the cases) the person against whom the complaint has been made, in this case Joey Durel and city officials, is never notified unless and until they’re called on to defend themselves after the commission has completed its initial investigation and determined that there might be something to investigate. Right now even Joey can’t go down and ask…they won’t tell him one way or the other. If the charge is found groundless, and given the research done by Blanchard that appears to be the likely outcome, no one but the complainer will be notified that they were wrong.

In such a case I wonder if Neil will go to Benjamin and collaborate on a story clearing Durel. After all only Neil will know that his charges have been dismissed.

My guess is that he won’t. Yours?