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On Call: GLAAD backtracks on AT&T-T-Mobile merger support

After intense criticism for its support for the AT&T-T-Mobile merger, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation has changed its mind.

AT&T to buy T-Mobile

Though AT&T continues to win widespread support from state governors for its $39 billion T-Mobile bid, at least one group from outside the wireless industry thankfully is returning to sanity. This week, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) withdrew its support for the merger after strongly offering it six weeks ago.

In a statement issued Wednesday, Acting President Mike Thompson said that while AT&T has a "strong record of support" for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, support for the merger "was not sufficiently consistent" with GLAAD's mission of ensuring that LGBT people are portrayed fairly in the media.

Thompson also pointed to a July 13 letter (PDF) sent to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), where he said that GLAAD's board of directors decided to take a neutral stance on the transaction after receiving "many expression of concerns."

"We have taken those concerns under consideration and have, over the last several weeks, engaged in a more rigorous and consultative examination of the relative benefits and drawbacks to AT&T's application than we undertook in advance of the filing of our initial letter," he wrote. "We concluded at the end of this reconsideration process that GLAAD should return to a neutral position regarding AT&T's merger application." Thompson also used the letter to emphasize that his organization supports the principles of Net neutrality (previously, GLAAD had issued another FCC statement, now withdrawn, that aligned it more with AT&T's stance of closer scrutiny of the issue).

Not so shocking
In retrospect, "expressions of concern" is a serious understatement. Shortly after GLAAD announced its support for the merger in a May 31 letter to the FCC (PDF), the group was lambasted, especially in the LGBT press, for its position. Critics charged that GLAAD was motivated only by AT&T's financial contributions and that it had no business commenting on a corporate merger of that size, particularly in an industry (wireless) in which it had no obvious interest.

The outcry grew so intense that GLAAD President Jarrett Barrios resigned last month. A GLAAD board member, Troup Coronado, who had formerly served as a lobbyist for AT&T also resigned.

The real deal
So in the end, a single letter to the FCC ended up cutting through GLAAD like a knife. Yet, as troubling as the "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" allegations were, I was more bothered by GLAAD's narrow-minded view of the merger's potentials benefits.

In his original letter to the FCC, Barrios said GLADD supported the merger because it will speed 4G LTE deployment. "The LGBT community has a longstanding commitment to all forms of social justice," he wrote. "That is why we look at the deployment of faster wireless Internet options not only from financial and technological viewpoints, but also in terms of how this improves society."

Equating 4G with social justice is a stretch by any measure, and as I said in my June 15 column, the statement was straight out of AT&T's initial FCC filing. What's more, GLAAD conveniently ignored critically important issues. How will the merger affect spectrum allocation and 4G? Will prices increase? How will the merger affect competition in the industry? How will it affect innovation and consumer choice? And my favorite, should a nation the size of the United States have one GSM carrier?

Have an opinion, but back it up
Unfortunately, GLAAD avoided these questions as did the Sierra Club (PDF) and civil rights groups like the NAACP, the League of United Latin American Citizens (PDF), and the Japanese Americans Citizens League. Their letters also talk up 4G, but say little else.

Similarly, AT&T continues to win support from unions across the country given that it's been less resistant than T-Mobile to workplace organizing (GLAAD jumped on that bandwagon, too). But that approach is shortsighted as well. Sure, AT&T may have a better record with unions, but what about the people who will lose their jobs when the two companies consolidate? I guess they don't matter as much.

In the end, there's too much going on with this merger to gloss over the real issues at stake. If outside groups and state governors are going to support it, then they should lay out all of those issues and argue their position thoroughly. Sadly, that's not happening and we are left with letters that read more like they were written by AT&T. To its credit, GLAAD backed down. I wonder if the other groups will follow.