As the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) has spent the past week defending its endorsement of the proposed merger between telecom giants AT&T and T-Mobile, new information has surfaced that calls into question the organization's relationship with AT&T and the judgment of its president.
After learning that GLAAD and the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce had written a letter to the FCC endorsing the merger, activists questioned whether AT&T's financial support of GLAAD had spurred the recommendation. AT&T has given the organization $50,000 so far this year and donated $100,000 last year.
The merger would increase AT&T's power as a communications conglomerate and could pose a powerful threat to net neutrality, the much discussed debate over whether Internet service providers can arbitrarily restrict access to certain networks, websites, or types of content. AT&T opposes net neutrality and lobbies heavily against it. Despite GLAAD's support of the merger, the organization has stated that it does not support AT&T's position on net neutrality.
"GLAAD does not endorse AT&T's position," Communications Director Rich Ferraro said. "GLAAD believes that equal, fair and universal access to the Internet is vital to our community and to our national dialogue. While GLAAD does not take a position on particular legislation or regulations, we continue to believe in the importance of adhering to these values."
Other letters filed with the FCC by GLAAD President Jarrett Barrios about the principles of net neutrality, however, offer a confusing glimpse into the inner workings of the troubled organization and cast doubt on Barrios' leadership.
GLAAD Supports Net Neutrality
On October 13, 2009, Barrios penned a letter to the FCC that supported the principle of net neutrality but didn't address any specific legislation.
"A lot of organizations were weighing in, and as an advocacy organization, I felt that some of the underlying principles should be discussed," Barrios said. "I don't, and still don't, have the authority from my board to take a position. What you see in that letter is an attempt to endorse, in a way that speaks to why GLAAD has an interest in this. It doesn't actually take a position in favor of net neutrality; I'm not allowed to do that. Rather, it elevates the principles of net neutrality."
"I decided to write that letter. It's an important debate that affects the work we do, so it mattered to me that GLAAD was heard," he said. "But we can't support net neutrality regulations. There is no administrative structure - or there wasn't at the time - that allows us to do that."
The letter reads:
The Internet provides an open space and forum for all - to express their views and give voice to their beliefs. What has been truly revolutionary about the Internet is its function as an equalizing medium, providing an unprecedented level of transparency and accountability in public discourse.
At the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) the Internet has been an instrumental tool in advancing our cause. We use a variety of social media tools to reach our constituents, engaging them in action that promotes the full equality of gay and transgender America. Preserving an open Internet is an important goal for policy makers, and important to us because we rely on this medium everyday to accomplish our work. We support policy discussions that are open and inclusive.
Groups like GLAAD and other "minority" voices rely on the Internet to amplify our voices in these debates. As the FCC considers its timetable and process for deciding whether to issue proposed network neutrality rules, we urge it to take the steps and the time necessary to involve impacted stakeholders like GLAAD, and allay concerns that the agency is moving forward without hearing from all those potentially affected.
A better conversation, with a broad range of communities, will produce a better, more inclusive result.
GLAAD Doesn't Support Net Neutrality?
On January 4, 2010 an official letter was sent to the FCC in Barrios' name that he didn't write, read, or sign. This second letter seemed to back off of the previously stated support for net neutrality principles in favor of emphasizing AT&T's priority - broadband proliferation.
I would like to weigh in once again on the net neutrality debate that is currently taking place at the Commission and in our country. I must reiterate the view expressed in our previous letter that the Internet is an important medium for equalizing voices and allowing for an unprecedented level of connection, transparency and accountability. We feel that there is still much unknown about the consequences of net neutrality on Internet access and usage and we ask that the FCC address this.
Our focus at the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) is promoting fair, accurate and inclusive representation of people and events in the media, particularly by eliminating discrimination based on sexual orientation. GLAAD has been called one of the most successful minority organizations influencing the media for inclusion - and a large part of that is due to the accessible and instant Internet. GLAAD depends on the Internet to disseminate information, rally our community and encourage action.
To this end, GLAAD encourages the FCC to prioritize expanding broadband connectivity to every corner of this country and to every American so that we - and other minority groups - can continue our pursuit of inclusion and have our voices heard. As you continue your review of net neutrality, please remember that the Internet provides an open space and forum for all and it IS critical that we make it more accessible, not less.
On January 15, 2010, after being alerted to the letter's existence by Anthony Varona, a board member who formerly worked for the FCC, Barrios wrote a third letter that asked for the January 4 letter to be withdrawn. "The letter has been submitted under my name and title without my permission ... I have never seen this letter and it is not my signature. Furthermore, the contents of the letter do not accurately reflect the views of our organization," Barrios wrote to the government.
Barrios later blamed a secretarial snafu as the source of the problem. "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," he said. "We took this seriously. We asked our pro bono council to conduct an investigation. After a series of interviews, we saw that it was an administrative error."
What Actually Happened
What Barrios originally kept close to his chest was what actually happened. How could an official document be submitted to the government on behalf of GLAAD without the president of the organization writing, reading, or signing it? If Barrios didn't write the letter, who did?
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, she serves 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."
This belies Barrios' earlier statement to the FCC that he didn't authorize the second letter or have any knowledge of it's origins. In actuality, he was trying to cover up for a longtime friend and advisor's mistake.
"At the time, I had never seen the letter that was filed, and did not recognize the signature," he said. "We have since updated our internal approval process to ensure this does not happen again. Further, GLAAD does not currently take a position on particular legislation or regulations."
When the Watchdog Needs More Oversight
Barrios seems more worried about protecting his friend's reputation than his organization's. GLAAD announced support for AT&T's merger plans after being tricked into sending a letter to the FCC that actually opposed what the org calls "an important goal" to achieving success in LGBT rights.
"We agree with our corporate sponsors sometimes, and we disagree sometimes," Barrios shrugged. "We agree with them, not because it's AT&T, but because we think it will improve our advocacy work."
When asked if any internal disciplinary measures were taken regarding the January 4 letter snafu, Barrios indicated that none had. "Singling out any individual employee but me doesn't seem fair," Barrios said. "I own it. I'm the CEO. I'm the one to blame for anything that goes wrong with this organization."
When asked if he had plans to resign over the recent controversies and misstatements, Barrios said he didn't.
"This is a matter that happened a year and a half ago that resulted in a lengthy review process and a discussion with my board. I think that's enough," he said. "It was an honest mistake. I shared it with my board after we learned what happened. I'm grateful my board was understanding."
(Additional reporting by Adam Polaski)
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