The Politics of the "Same Level Playing Field": Race, Citizenship, and Net Neutrality

Curator's Note

If you attend a media reform event, there is a good chance you’ll hear the slogan,  “if you’re first issue is x (racism, sexism, pacifism, environmentalism, etc), your second issue should be media reform.”  The slogan, though catchy,  presumes a synergy of interests and confidence that “media reform” will elicit analogous priorities across activist groups.  Yet fissures have emerged between organizations over how to pursue public interest goals.  Net neutrality has been one of those issues.

Free Press, who produced this video, is a media reform organization whose most active campaigns have been against media consolidation, and for net neutrality and an invigorated public media system. Though it advocates for media diversity, and has penned two important studies on minority and female ownership of broadcasting stations, it has been accused of an insensitivity to the pressing media needs of minorities and women, its focus on structural change occluding how racism and sexism still inform media content and the construction of the public on which policy is built.

While net neutrality has garnered the support of civil rights groups like and the National Hispanic Media Coalition, others like the NAACP and LULAC have been more tepid. People of color consistently have had lower levels of access to broadband than white consumers, and thus the primary Internet policy concern for them has been to bridge the digital divide. It’s a frustrating position for Free Press, who has tried to debunk the belief that in the absence of net neutrality ISPs will invest in broadband in minority communities or lower costs.

It’s within this context that I am interested in the visual iconography of this video, which opposes faceless (or green-faced) media corporations and an embodied, unified public and which instantiates the “everyday citizen” as an African American boy. One could read this cynically, as intending to conceal the tensions among reformers or to persuade that the primary Internet civil rights issue is access of content, rather than access to broadband itself; I’m inclined to be more generous, and to view it as a sincere gesture for inclusion. Even so, I cringe when the voiceover intones how “everyone is connected to each other through the same level playing field” against the image of the “everyday citizen,” which feels like a thumb in the eye to activist groups concerned about uneven rates of connection. 

We should remember that the 1980s and 1990s were a pretty devastating time for minority media rights, as policies to promote diversity and redress historic inequities were gutted or vacated, victims of both deregulation and a conservative culture war discourse that presumed an equal playing field for all citizens. All this made it tougher for civil rights groups to get a toehold in the policymaking process, and enshrined a race-less construction of citizenship insensitive to the realities of inequality in myriad forms of access. 

I don't suggest here that Free Press has indulged in analogous forms of whitewashing. Instead, I hope to question how media reformers can proceed forward by challenging, rather than replicating, the notion of a unitary and knowable public, one that has the potential to efface the continuing discrepancies in power amongst citizens even as it highlights those between the public and media corporations.


I have seen this clip a dozen times and used it in class, but I confess I had never considered the class and racial politics of it before, so thank you for opening my eyes to this.  

Your insight into the resonances and silences of the "level playing field" discourse is especially good.  If I were Free Press, I might retort that "level playing field" is a trope that has been proven to resonate with conservatives, so it's just good politics (one that can also be deployed to address the problem of connection rates--see the rhetoric of the National Broadband Plan).

But you further connect that trope to our notion of citizenship and the unitary/knowable public, calling into question our imagination of the role and power of "citizens" in media policy.  In that move, I see some overlap with my post on Monday:  how we imagine citizens is, I think, not just a "problem for" but now a "crisis in" media policy and regulation, especially as citizens gain new/different forms of political power.  You highlight a different aspect of that issue (and, no false modesty, articulate it much more elegantly), but I think we're both grappling with similar questions. Very cool.

Excellent observations Allison, and timely. It's hugely important that net neutrality has worked as well as it has; seven or eight years ago, I never would have thought it would have gotten this far, to be honest.

But conceptual weaknesses associated with slogans have a way of resurfacing as the years go by, and undermining the political strength of once powerful but over-simplifying constructs, like "the public interest." Does Net Neutrality face that risk? If so, where should we go with it? 

One of the most frustrating aspects of left-leaning political reform is the constant threat of splintered interests and divergent tactics.  Your post has brought to light for me how important is a consideration of minority groups and access.

So I went looking...

Indeed, there are minority coalitions actively working against the FCC's current efforts to preserve net neutrality.  As the article notes, the group's filing incorporates some of the same wording as AT&T's filing.  Net neutrality advocates may not be getting their point across to minority groups, but AT&T sure is.

To what extent might the issue be a better merging of the advocacy of net neutrality with the Broadband Expansion Plan?  How often do these conversations occur at the same time?  In setting up the ISPs as the "alien," does the fight to preseve net neutrality get caught on the fact that our dependence on industry empowers the same ISPs to bring broadband to the underserved? 


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