GLAAD, AT&T, and Net Neutrality: A Tangled, Sticky Web
Last week, I posted about a bizarrely-phrased letter sent from GLAAD to the FCC touting the AT&T - T-Mobile merger that contained some bizarre language linking LGBT rights to the need for 4G coverage.
That news last week uncovered some other items, and has raised questions about GLAAD and its operations that I will attempt to explain in this post, as they unraveled this week. It's a long post with a lot of various elements.
GLAAD — which has received $50,000 from AT&T — recently backed the deal as well, saying it had “the understanding that the merger will increase functionality and speed, thus growing engagement and improving the effectiveness of the online advocacy work that is advancing equality for all,” a GLAAD spokesman said.
“We do not make policy decisions based on what’s best for our corporate sponsors,” Rich Ferraro, a GLAAD spokesman, told POLITICO. GLAAD publicly criticized Comcast’s merger with NBC, a corporate sponsor of the nonprofit, because of the company’s low grade on GLAAD’s Network Responsibility Index, Ferraro noted.
So, that's one story which has been percolating this week with regard to the LGBT's largest media watchdog. The other has to do with a letter written in 2010 that was uncovered as a result of folks finding out that GLAAD had written the FCC backing the AT&T merger, and it relates to GLAAD, AT&T, and net neutrality.
CONTINUED, AFTER THE JUMP...
Daniel Villareal at Queerty* wrote, earlier this week:
Most interestingly, AT&T is against Net Neutrality—the principle stating that all information on the web should get delivered at the same speed, not at different speeds and prices depending on who owns the service). Timothy Karr, Campaign Director of Free Press and SavetheInternet.com says that “AT&T is brokering a deal with the FCC to ensure they have the legal right to block online content and charge application developers additional tolls just to reach AT&T customers.”
GLAAD says it doesn’t share AT&T’s stance on Net Neutrality which is a bit like Target saying it doesn’t share a Minnesota Republican’s anti-gay views while still supporting his pro-business campaign—GLAAD can’t support one without also supporting the other, whether they disagree or not.
The 2010 letter argues for retraction of a letter written ten days earlier (scroll down at link), which could be seen as arguing in favor of net neutrality (but is actually, we later find out, a letter that would be perceived by the FCC to be opposing it). Dan Savage made note of the language in the letter that aroused attention:
Someone outside GLAAD was maliciously submitted a fake letter to the FCC supporting net neutrality and forged the president of GLAAD's signature... or someone at GLAAD signed a letter in support of net neutrality to the FCC on behalf of the head of GLAAD because the organization, like almost all other lefty and progressive orgs, supported net neutrality... or GLAAD flipped on net neutrality because that's what their BFF's at AT&T wanted and they wanted to stuff their past support of net neutrality down the memory hole.
The Atlantic wrote about it as well, adding:
...regardless of the varying views on the merger, it's just odd that GLAAD would weigh in on an issue so detached from the LGBT cause...Sounds like GLAAD's got a problem on its hands.
Americablog, noting that AT&T had recently refused to sign a letter to the governor of Tennessee calling for the veto of a bill banning municipalities from enacting LGBT anti-discrimination ordinances, asked why GLAAD might be in bed with AT&T:
There's a lot of talk already that this is happening because AT&T underwrites the GLAAD awards, because the company has made monetary grants to GLAAD, and has a member on GLAAD's board. It certainly looks that way. How else to explain why our community is using up its limited political capital to weigh in on an issue that has nothing to do with the gay or trans communities, on behalf of a company that just recently did a lot of harm to both communities.
Earlier this week, SiriusXM radio host Michelangelo Signorile invited a former GLAAD board member, Laurie Perper on the show, to discuss what might be behind GLAAD's interest in the ATT/T-Mobile merger. Perper slammed GLAAD and said that the whole organization should be dissolved.
You can listen to Perper's interview with Signorile HERE.
She came into the studio today for an in-depth interview in which she said that GLAAD president Jarrett Barrios supported the FCC on the merger by trading favors with GLAAD board member Troup Coronado, a recent ATT official. Barrios she said, needed his support because of number resignations of board members and staffers (unhappy with Barrios), and dwindling support for Barrios among the rest of the board.
Perper calls for GLAAD to be completely dissolved. Says that other groups can take up the work and that GLAAD's brand is damaged.
Perper says that Barrios wrote a letter to FCC opposed to Net Neutrality but then withdrew it after an uproar. However, in his retraction Barrios said the letter was not from him, and was not his signature. She claims that he told people his secretary wrote the letter without his permission when in fact he had written it. (GLAAD curiously had not launch an investigation into the allegedly forged letter.)
GLAAD's Jarrett Barrios refused to appear on Signorile's show to defend the accusations unless he could be accompanied by another board member, Gary Bitner, who happens to be a PR guy specializing in crisis management.
GLAAD's media rep claimed only the board member could respond to what Perper said about the board members and key staffers (upwards of 14) who left the organization because of Barrios' performance. But only those board members and staffers who left could speak to that, not a current board member.
And it's interesting that they weren't even offering a board co-chair or even the board member at the center of this, the AT&T official, but rather one who does p.r.
GLAAD did give an interview to Adam Polaski at the Bilerico Project in which Barrios, Bitner, and Rich Ferraro, Director of Communications for GLAAD, defended the organization:
They discussed why they would not go on the Signorile show:
"Our decision was to go on," Bitner said, explaining that Signorile and his producers wanted to speak exclusively with Barrios. "But for the issues that would have obviously have come up, Jarrett wouldn't have been qualified to answer those questions."
Rich Ferraro, Director of Communications for GLAAD, told Bilerico that the main reason the organization wanted a board member to accompany Ferraro was because, GLAAD says, the "main narrative in the interview [with Perper] was that the board does not support Jarrett, which is false" and that if Barrios were asked if the board supports him, someone would be there to provide confirmation other than Barrios.
Ferraro further explained that Bitner could address several of Perper's other claims more effectively than Barrios. These included her statement that a large number of GLAAD personnel stepped down due to the direction in which Barrios was leading the organization and that Barrios has not raised any money for GLAAD since he came on board.
They also offer an explanation the AT&T letters:
"We are not supporting this merger because Troup - an AT&T consultant - is on our board," Barrios said. "Although Troup has played an appropriate role in facilitating our relationship with AT&T, we would still be supporting the merger if Troup were not on our board. The GLAAD Staff, independent of Troup, reached the same conclusion arrived at by dozens of other civil rights organizations - such as the NAACP, the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, LULAC, and Pride at Work. Namely, that the merger will be a good one for the sake of broadband proliferation, increased speeds and functionality, and the extension of AT&T's very LGBT-friendly employment and advertising policies."
Barrios maintains that he did not sign off on the Jan. 4 letter, saying, "The letter was submitted in administrative error over a year and a half ago, and when I realized it [a few days later], I withdrew it.
What was asserted to be a forgery and submitted "without [Barrios] permission" in the 2010 letter, GLAAD officials were now calling an "administrative error".
Polaski concludes: "...[F]or a media organization to be this off-message and out of sync with its various parts is disconcerting and leaves more questions than answers."
In a post published earlier today, Barrios admitted to Bil Browning that the letter he was demanding be retracted was verbatim language from AT&T that would be seen by the FCC as arguing against net neutrality, and contradicted earlier statements that he had no knowledge of the letter:
The letter's origins lay with AT&T; the telecom giant sent Barrios suggested wording for another letter to the FCC. Barrios' special assistant used the language verbatim to create the letter, signed his name to it, and sent it in.
Barrios recounts that he was at an airport when his assistant called him to go through some items on his agenda. In a hurry to board his plane, when she told him that "they" wanted him to send in the letter to the FCC, Barrios assumed he needed to resend his first letter again. He authorized her to send the letter without any oversight.
Barrios' special assistant, Jeanne Christiano, is a longtime staffer for the embattled leader. When he served in the Massachusetts state senate, she was his Director of Budget & District Relations. When Barrios became the president of the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation, Christiano joined him at the new office. When Barrios accepted the position with GLAAD in New York, Christiano relocated with him to continue serving as his special assistant.
While her job entails administrative duties like scheduling and filing expense reports, staffers describe her more as an advisor and confidante of Barrios. He confirmed she fills a much larger role than an administrative assistant and says she advises him on administrative decisions but not policy decisions.
"This was from a letter with language from AT&T suggesting that we support this, and at the time, it was not something I had seen," Barrios said. "When I saw it, we withdrew it to reflect our perspective."
"We made a mistake. I authorized my assistant over the phone to sign and submit a letter that I understood to be a refiling of the October letter in support of broadband proliferation," Barrios continued. "When I realized she had inadvertently submitted an anti-net neutrality letter, I withdrew it."
Folks around the blogosphere are taking note. Dan Savage made note of the whole mess today as well.
So, there are a few different stories here. One is that GLAAD (perhaps unsurprisingly, in this day and age) is in the pocket of AT&T, arguing for a merger that would likely serve to support a very serious issue (net neutrality) which GLAAD says it actively opposes. The other is that confusion at the organization is contributing to bungled messaging on an issue that many wonder why GLAAD is even involved with in the first place — as the defamation and media watchdog for the LGBT community.
* NOTE: GLAAD later clarified its stance in support of net neutrality with Queerty, and clarified why it stands behind the AT&T-T-Mobile merger.
This post has been updated, clarifying some of the language and providing a few updates to various aspects of the story.