The rise of drama in regulatory decision-making has been a major contributor to the decline of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) over the past few years. If articles in major newspapers over the past few days are to be believed, the forces that gave rise to regulatory theater at the agency are continuing to press their spectacle. Let’s hope Chairman Ajit Pai and his colleagues Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Michael O’Rielly continue to fight back and return the agency to its former solid analytical footing.
What is regulation by drama?
Regulation by drama is using simplistic narratives of good versus evil to influence regulatory decision makers. The practitioners of the drama depend on the emotional impacts of their imagery, ad hominem attacks, and exaggerations to hijack situations and drown out thoughtful discussion. The drama can be effective because it makes use of biases and powerful story formats that have earned Hollywood and some Silicon Valley content providers billions of dollars.
The basic story format is the drama of good versus evil involving three major types of players. First there are villains. These typically include certain companies and people who think about free-market solutions, but who in the drama are out to commit evil acts against the second type of player, the victims. Customers and edge providers are typical victims in the stories. These villains’ supposed acts of wickedness are thwarted by the third type of player, the heroes. This drama triangle (a name created by the Conscious Leadership Group (0)) was evident in the effort to regulate set-top boxes, where US Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) (i.e., the heroes), for example, talked about (1) big monopoly cable companies (i.e., the villains) muscling consumers (i.e., the victims) into paying excessive prices.
What are recent examples of using drama?
Illustrations of usingdrama emerged over the past few days in articles about the new FCC possibly rolling back the Wheeler FCC’s decision on net neutrality. A Wall Street Journal article (2) described activists organizing protests to pressure Chairman Pai. It quoted activist Evan Greer of Fight for the Future, who threatened that rolling back net neutrality “won’t be easy if we have anything to do with it!” The article also quoted Lawrence Spiwak, president of the conservative Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal and Economic Public Policy Studies, as saying that the possible rollback depends more on public pressure than on substance: “The question is how immune Ajit is going to be to the political pressure.”
In an op-ed (3) in The New York Times this week, Harvard Law Professor Susan Crawford made extensive use of the drama triangle. She used demagoguery — “If there’s one thing that brings Americans together, it’s our hatred of the giant companies that sell us high-speed data services” — to paint internet service providers (ISPs) as having “untrammeled power” and “total power” over distribution, AT&T as a “behemoth” that swallows up smaller companies, and Chairman Pai as “fiercely deregulatory” and intent on “letting [ISPs] do whatever they want.” The op-ed was so dramatic and light on substance that economist Hal Singer issued a number of tweets (4) highlighting errors and exaggerations and appealing for substantive discussions.
About a month ago, on National Public Radio program 1A (5), Craig Aaron, president of the advocacy group Free Press, provided another example. He characterized Congress’ rollback of the FCC’s adopted but never implemented privacy rules as letting ISPs into your bedroom. In a more thoughtful analysis (6), AEI scholar Daniel Lyons explained that congressional action did not change anyone’s privacy rights.
How can we overcome the drama?
Making regulation substantive again will require efforts on many fronts. Chairman Pai is taking some of the right steps by reorganizing parts of the FCC (7) to give economic analysis a larger role. He and his fellow commissioners should continue to build nonpartisan relationships (8) so that they can stay above the drama triangle to talk and debate issues on their substantive merits. Congressional leaders should continue pressing (9) for effective leadership at the FCC as the damage done over the past several years won’t be corrected overnight.
And those who prefer substance over drama must avoid being pulled in. That can be done by providing thoughtful analyses that are explained clearly and forcefully, staying out of the drama triangle, and critiquing what others say without critiquing the persons who say it.