Media, Government, US
The media merger pot keeps boiling. It appears that the Federal Communications Commission is about to approve another damaging deal, this one between Nexstar and Tribune. Nextar owns 171 television stations in 100 markets and Tribune has 44 stations in 33 markets. That translates into a national audience reach of 72 percent of U.S. households. The merged entity will be the largest broadcaster in the country, wielding an unprecedented amount of control over our local media. If, as expected, the Republican majority at the FCC green-lights this transaction, we can expect more reporter layoffs, closed or consolidated newsrooms, less deep-dive investigative reporting, and many fewer locally-originated programs. That’s the history of mergers. In short, more news deserts.
Now we hear that CBS and Viacom want to get back together again, although their trial separation over the past few years never struck me as anything remotely close to a divorce. Don’t let the CBS-Viacom lawyers and lobbyists fool you with their assertions the FCC lacks authority to review this $30-plus billion deal. Consumer costs would be sure to rise, program acquisition costs by smaller cable operators will soar, competition gets yet another nail pounded into its coffin, and there are no public-interest benefits to be found. If the current FCC thinks it has no mandate to exercise responsible public-interest oversight regarding these concerns, its Republican majority is ignorant of the law as well as blind to serving the people.
Media and telecom’s lawyers and lobbyists are now trying to sell us on the idea that consolidation has about run its course. “Just a few more deals and that’s all,” they argue. Garbage! I’ve heard this argument since 2001 when I started at the FCC. But consolidation never runs its course. Some you hear about, some you don’t—thanks to mainstream media that provide such paltry coverage of these developments. You’ve heard about some transactions like AT&T-Time Warner ($85 billion) and Disney-Fox ($66 billion) and maybe the pending Gatehouse-Gannett deal that will merge hundreds of daily and weekly newspapers. Most others never make the news. Sinclair for decades operated under the radar and is trying to go there again, and now little-known Apollo Global Management, a major buy-out player, is angling for Tegna, after just buying stations from Cox and others, in an attempt to become one of the nation’s biggest “news” sites.
Then there is the huge Sprint-T-Mobile merger. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai loves the deal, while the Department of Justice (DOJ) already approved it with some so-called “conditions,” conditions which never amount to a hill of beans. Making this deal particularly bizarre is that this Administration’s supposedly anti-regulatory DOJ has decided it can regulate a fourth wireless competitor (DISH) into existence with some additional spectrum, when that company has a widespread reputation for hoarding spectrum and not trying very hard to build out to consumers. Isn’t this the same Administration known for spouting free enterprise and accusing its political opponents of interfering in business? It would be borderline comical if it wasn’t so lethal. Watch what they do, not what they say, I guess.
It’s not just traditional media that is increasingly under the thumb of a few industry giants; it’s the internet, too. I have mentioned in this space previously The New York Times June 2019 report that Facebook has acquired 92 companies and Google 270 over the past two decades. Talk about a tragedy: this open and transformative technology, awash with unlimited democracy-expanding potential, is being turned over to a few twenty-first century Gilded Age barons.
What we are witnessing is the wholesale dismantlement of our media and telecommunications infrastructure—an ecosystem that is essential to us if we mean to keep a viable democracy. Communications isn’t just another industry. It is a public good essential to the successful practice of self-government. I won’t repeat what I’ve said in this space before; I’ll just say you can kiss it all good-bye unless we the people stand up and demand change—putting the brakes on consolidation; bringing back public interest rules for traditional media and instituting them for new media; reinstituting net neutrality which the current FCC eliminated; ditto for privacy protections. And, of course, curbing the power of big money in our elections and our legislating.
Let’s also put an end to the bugaboo that not just the press, but government, is the enemy of the people. My old boss, the recently-departed Senator Fritz Hollings (D-NC), nailed that argument better than anyone. He put it this way:
A veteran returning from Korea went to college on the GI Bill, bought his house with an FHA loan, saw his kids born in a VA hospital, started a business with an SBA loan, got electricity from TVA and, later, water from an EPA project. His parents, living on Social Security, retired to a farm, got electricity from REA, and had their soil tested by the USDA. When his father became ill, the family was saved from financial ruin by Medicare, and a life was saved with a drug developed through NIH. His kids participated in the school lunch program, learned physics from teachers trained in an NSF program, and went to college with guaranteed student loans. He drove to work on the Interstate and moored his boat in a channel dredged by Army engineers. When floods hit, he took Amtrak to Washington to apply for disaster relief and spent some time in the Smithsonian museums. Then one day, he got mad. He wrote his senator an angry letter. ‘Get the government off my back,’ he wrote. ‘I’m tired of paying taxes for all those programs created for ungrateful people!’
Government is the tool of the people; government is the people—when the people insist upon it. Insisting upon it is what the 2020 elections should be all about.
Michael Copps served as a commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission from May 2001 to December 2011 and was the FCC’s Acting Chairman from January to June 2009. His years at the Commission have been highlighted by his strong defense of “the public interest”; outreach to what he calls “non-traditional stakeholders” in the decisions of the FCC, particularly minorities, Native Americans and the various disabilities communities; and actions to stem the tide of what he regards as excessive consolidation in the nation’s media and telecommunications industries. In 2012, former Commissioner Copps joined Common Cause to lead its Media and Democracy Reform Initiative. Common Cause is a nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy organization founded in 1970 by John Gardner as a vehicle for citizens to make their voices heard in the political process and to hold their elected leaders accountable to the public interest. Learn more about Commissioner Copps in The Media Democracy Agenda: The Strategy and Legacy of FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps