Radical Media Activists at Free Press Coordinated With FCC Commissioner to Write, Place Pro-Net Neutrality Op-Ed


It's always been clear that Free Press, a liberal advocacy group that agitates for what it labels "media reform," has been one of the biggest drivers of the Federal Communications Commission's net neutrality agenda—an agenda that paid off last December when the FCC finally passed net neutrality regulations. The group's radicalism has at times been explicit: Its co-founder, Robert McChesney, has written of "the need to promote an understanding of the urgency to assert public control over the media." And yet despite the agenda of its founder, the group remains quite powerful. Not only does the group have close ties with MoveOn.org, and thus considerable influence with the progressive activist base, it landed a former staffer, Jen Howard, as press secretary in FCC commissioner Julius Genachowski's office.

Chairman Genachowski's office isn't the only Free Press ally at the commission. The group also maintains close ties with FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, who has long been one of the most vocal supporters of the most stringent form of net neutrality regulations. Indeed, his support for the strictest version of the policy has been seen as so strong that in the days and weeks before the rules passed last year, multiple sources indicated to me that there was uncertainty about whether he would vote for them because he thought the proposed rules might be too weak. 

In December of 2010, though, Copps provided one of the three votes that made the proposed rules official. How close were Copps's ties to Free Press before the vote? Close enough that one month before the vote, Free Press staffers Jenn Ettinger and Misty Perez explicitly coordinated with Copps's communication staffers Margaret McCarthy, John Giusti, and Joshua Cinelli to draft and place an op-ed supporting net neutrality, according to emails between the FCC and Free Press made public by JudicialWatch.org

On November 1, Ettinger, who acts as the "media coordinator" for Free Press's "Save the Internet" project, wrote an email to McCarthy in Copps's office: "I wanted to gauge your interest in doing an oped by Commissioner Copps for the Albuquerque Journal," Ettinger wrote. She even offered to write the piece herself. "I'm happy to help draft, or place if need be." By November 9, the op-ed was in process. Copps's chief of staff John Giusti wrote back to Ettinger, "we're working on the op-ed." He added his fellow FCC staffers McCarthy and Cinelli to the email chain. 

The arrangement, it seems, was that Copps's team would handle the initial drafting and Free Press would manage the process of getting it placed in a newspaper. Copps's staffers proceeded to treat the op-ed as if it was a product they were producing for Free Press: On November 9, McCarthy wrote back to Ettinger: "I think John said we owe you the oped by Friday." 

On that same day, Ettinger wrote to McCarthy, "I can definitely take care of the placement in the Albuquerque Journal….Thanks so much for handling the drafting, and for working with us on this."

Copps's staffers were the ones drafting the editorial, but they sought specific input from Free Press during the writing process: "I am working with a draft that is about 625 words," McCarthy wrote to Ettinger on November 10. "Does that sound ok in terms of length or should we be aiming for something shorter?" To which Ettinger replied: "I think 600 would be the max they would take. Is it possible to trim. If not I'm sure 25 extra words is fine and I can work with the Journal." It's not entirely clear what the final line in Ettinger's email means. But it certainly could be taken to suggest that Ettinger, who had previously offered to draft the entire op-ed, was offering to make final edits on the piece during the placement process. 

On November 12, a draft of the op-ed was sent by Copps' staff to Free Press. Copps's staffers were still eager for input from their allies at the activist group. "Attached is the commissioner's Op-Ed," wrote Copps's media advisor, Joshua Cinelli, to Ettinger. "Margaret asked if you would be so kind as to triple check the event details in the last paragraph. Give me a buzz if you need anything else." 

Later that day, Ettinger wrote back with her approval to Cinelli, CCing McCarthy. She named an additional cohost in the final paragraph, but reassured Cinelli that "otherwise all the details were correct." The piece had been given the Free Press seal of approval and submitted for publication. "The oped looks great and I've sent it to the Journal," Ettinger wrote.

On Monday, November 15, Ettinger sent Giusti, McCarthy, and Cinelli a note indicating that the final op-ed had run in the Albuquerque paper. Printed under the headline "Open Internet Needed for All," it was signed by "Michael J. Copps, Federal Communications Commissioner." The piece begins with the words, "The Internet was born on openness…" 

Read my feature-length chronicle of the FCC's quest for net neutrality regulations here. More on Copps's quest for control of the Net here and here