Consumer Advocate’s Role in Ad Campaign Questioned

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Los Angeles Times

Longtime consumer TV show host David Horowitz’s voice boomed through commercials last week as his piercing gaze adorned full-page newspaper ads and direct mailings, all railing against a Los Angeles City Council proposal to force cable TV companies to open their high-speed Internet lines to competitors.


Horowitz–known nationally for his attacks on would-be rip-offs and deceptive advertising–said he opposes the measure because it would cost the public millions of dollars and slow the development of Internet technology. The council postponed its scheduled Friday vote on the proposal, though that delay was due to a related federal court ruling Thursday.


In the so-called “open access” debate, a multimillion-dollar nationwide lobbying battle pitting cable companies against Internet service providers, Horowitz is one of many hired guns.


He is allied with AT&T–which owns cable systems across the country–and other cable companies. The firms are among those funding “Hands Off the Internet,” the group for which Horowitz is a paid spokesman.


But Horowitz said he joined the ad campaign because he supports the cause, not for the money. “My whole reason for going into this,” Horowitz said, “was that I felt [the proposal] was anti-competitive and anti-consumer.”


It is the same thing that motivated his career as a crusading consumer reporter, Horowitz said.


Before deciding to speak for the cable industry position, Horowitz considered working for the other side of the dispute, backed by Internet service and phone companies.


Horowitz met several times with those he now opposes. Two sources familiar with the discussions said Horowitz was eager to work for the so-called “open access” side, led by America Online. The talks fell apart over pay, the sources said.


Horowitz insisted that he met with both camps only to discuss the merits of each side’s position, not money, and that he made the pro-consumer choice.


Nonprofit consumer groups, however, have attacked Horowitz for his role in the campaign. “He’s used his name and journalistic credentials to mislead the public,” said Harvey Rosenfield, president of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, which has no position in the open access debate.


Rosenfield said Horowitz–who still calls himself a journalist–has crossed the line from providing information to promoting a cause for money, which may be deceiving the public. “People should be aware that when they see David Horowitz he’s being paid for by corporate interest groups,” he said. The offense is even greater, Rosenfield said, if Horowitz chose to work for the highest bidder.


In his defense, Horowitz said he doesn’t hide that he is paid and that he agreed to work for the cable companies and their backers only after deciding that they were right on the issues.


Horowitz won’t say how much he is being paid. “One thing I do not discuss is what I earn,” he said, repeating that his fees simply pay for his labor and do not shape his views.


Those familiar with Horowitz’s meetings with the anti-cable side have a different view. “David was in active negotiations to sell his services” and met several times with anti-cable partisans in July and August of last year, the source said. Horowitz had asked for several hundred thousand dollars, the source said.


Horowitz told the “open access” group that he would consider working for the pro-cable side, according to the source. “He was looking for the best rate,” the source said.


Another person familiar with the talks said Horowitz “told us he had already talked to AT&T, but he would prefer to be on our side of the issue.”


Horowitz has a different version of what was discussed at the meetings. He said he met with George Vradenburg, an AOL lawyer, and others he declined to name from the open access side. Horowitz said he told the group that he would hear their arguments but was not interested in discussing payment.


Vradenburg and his associates were the ones who brought up money, Horowitz said. “They tried to woo me by offering me money,” he said. Horowitz said he rebuffed the Vradenburg group after deciding that the cable industry was on the right side of the dispute.


An AOL representative said Vradenburg was vacationing and unavailable for comment.


Horowitz has been accused before of trading his clout for cash. In 1998, he was a spokesman for a group backed by power companies that successfully fought a ballot measure–co-authored by Rosenfield–to cut utility rates. Horowitz said he sided with the position that was best for consumers.


Rosenfield at the time berated Horowitz for taking $106,000 for his work.


Horowitz dismissed Rosenfield’s criticism as sour grapes. “He can’t win on the issues so he attacks the messenger,” Horowitz said. On Rosenfield, Horowitz pulls no punches: “He’s a wart,”


Rosenfield said he didn’t know how to respond to such a charge.


Horowitz, 62, has cultivated a pugnacious image through his long-running television show “Fight Back” and his more recent program “Steals and Deals.”


Horowitz said he was drawn to journalism in the sixth grade, when his South Bronx elementary school teacher put him in charge of the school paper to channel his hyperactivity. Later, he covered consumer news for KNBC-TV and KCBS-TV in Los Angeles. He also was an NBC news reporter in Vietnam and has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University.


Horowitz runs a for-profit consumer information Web site and produces syndicated radio commentaries. He makes paid public appearances, including speeches booked through the Los Angeles Times Syndicate.


“I consider myself a journalist,” Horowitz said. Representing interest groups for a fee does not affect his credibility, because he only works for those in which he believes, Horowitz said.


That, he said, explains his latest ad campaign role: “It isn’t about money. The issue here is who is telling the truth.”

Consumer Watchdog
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