Under Assault: Media Mergers Leave Voters and Consumers Out

Under Assault: Media Mergers Leave Voters and Consumers Out

Americans rely on a free, diverse, and independent media for the information they need to make informed decisions at election time. But every week brings more bad news for those of us who worry that our communications ecosystem is being pushed to the point of collapse. It’s not that we ever had a perfect communications world—far from it—but what we had at least provided a foundation upon which the diverse voices of democracy could contend and build.

Every week brings more bad news for those of us who worry that our communications ecosystem is being pushed to the point of collapse.  It’s not that we ever had a perfect communications world—far from it—but what we had at least provided a foundation upon which the diverse voices of democracy could contend and build.  We had newspapers all across the country that covered community and regional news.  We had independent radio and television stations in local markets that spanned the continent.  We had journalism and journalists who were encouraged to dig deep for facts as they practiced the necessary craft of investigative reporting. And, more recently, along came a dynamic technology capable of making it all work even better—the internet.

Fast forward to the present day. Newspapers are a shell of their former selves.  Independent radio and television outlets in hundreds of markets have been gobbled up in an orgy of media consolidation by a few players whose primary loyalty is to the all-powerful “market.”  Newsrooms employ little more than half the employees who were working as recently as 2000. Those lucky enough to have a job in journalism are too often pushed into the production of vacuous infotainment that is no substitute for the news and information that a self-governing people must have in order to maintain their democracy. As for the internet, so loaded at its inception with almost unlimited potential to widen further our news, information and civic discourse, it is being rapidly cableized by telecom and media giants, in active partnership with an anti-democratic government which looks longingly and lovingly back to the tawdry excesses of the Gilded Age.

Look around.  Every week brings a new communications merger: AT&T-Time Warner, T-Mobile-Sprint, Disney-Fox or Comcast-Fox, Sinclair-Tribune, to mention just a few.  What’s next Verizon and Comcast?   Ten years ago there were some merger combinations that would not even have been contemplated.  Now they are reality.

Sinclair appears about ready to get the green light to take over Tribune from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and its audacious chairman, Ajit Pai. Sinclair keeps changing the terms of the deal on a regular basis in order to make it seem less threatening than it is, but all its changing and adding of loopholes is only aimed at acquiring unprecedented power in broadcast markets across the land.  All the while, the FCC’s majority, more interested in the special interests than the public interest, weakens and/or eliminates long-standing rules that would have prevented this deal from ever getting off the ground. The FCC has paved a wide boulevard to accommodate this transaction. Expect more—many more—such deals.

The FCC’s full-speed-in-reverse course recently got a big helping hand from U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon’s decision to approve the AT&T-TimeWarner merger.  My mind is still reeling from this one!   It was a horse-and-buggy decision utterly blind to the realities of the twenty-first-century economy. His magnum opus means that one of the largest internet service providers is permitted to merge with one of the largest TV and film companies, thereby creating a powerful entity controlling the content and distribution of some of the most important programming in the market.  Marrying content and carriage creates gatekeepers with every incentive to favor their own services at the expense of their competitors, and now the court is telling AT&T and everyone else that’s just fine. The judge tells us that we needn’t worry about a merger that combines both content and distribution. Well, I worry. I worry about sure-to-come rising prices for consumers.  I worry about the disappearance of diverse programmers across the video marketplace. I worry about the newsrooms and journalism jobs that will be lost.  I worry about small and medium-sized innovators and entrepreneurs who will find thousands of opportunities no longer open to them.

I could spend an hour talking about the judge’s decision. He seemed many times more interested in how to increase Time-Warner’s advertising revenues than he was in protecting consumers. He clearly liked some of the witnesses more than others (I will leave it to you to figure out which ones). And then, in a giant cop-out, Judge Leon said there was no precedent for him to decide other than he did. I guess there was no precedent to correct the Dred Scott or Plessy v. Ferguson cases, either.  Someone has to lead, Judge. It is just breaking as I write this that the Department of Justice will appeal Judge Leon’s decision.  That’s positive news, and grounds for at least some hope, but there are miles to go to undo the damage his decision inflicted.

One other note: The decision never got into considering network neutrality. I am told by lawyers this was because the Department of Justice didn’t make network neutrality part of its case, although how we are supposed to have a decision based on the realities of today’s  communications marketplace without even considering the enhanced power given to the business giants by the FCC’s elimination of net neutrality rules is beyond me.

We are already starting to see some real-life consequences of recent merger approvals and of the reckless FCC elimination of the 2015 net neutrality rules. AT&T charged its customers an extra $1.83 on their wireless bill in order to help pay for the Time Warner acquisition.  (Not much, some say?  It adds up, I am told, to around $800 million for the company.)  AT&T also removed HBO from one of its unlimited data plans, effectively raising prices on its customers.  Comcast is going to start throttling its customers on its Xfinity mobile service and charge more for high definition video over its wireless network.  And this is just the beginning.

The upcoming court decision on net neutrality repeal could, rightly decided, put the brakes on some of the mischief described above. Let’s hope reason prevails. But putting the genie back in the bottle doesn’t end there, even with a good outcome. A few telecom and media giants are rapidly taking control of our civic discourse; of our ability to communicate with one another on equal terms; and of our right to organize on behalf of our diverse ideals. They are not only being abetted, but actively encouraged, by a government in the thrall of special interests.  Problems abound across the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches of our government. They are headed in the wrong direction. The cards seem stacked against our very democracy.

Why keep fighting?  Because to win we have to fight.  It’s no hundred-yard sprint, but a long, hard race of endurance that we must run.  No one is going to fix this mess for us.  We will do the fixing, or the fixing won’t get done.  Talking, writing, organizing, demonstrating, insisting that our elected representatives serve us —all this and more is urgently required.  Required from each of us.  And at the top of my list this fall—V-O-T-E.  Everyone, vote!

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.

Benton believes that communications policy—rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity—has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities to bridge our divides. Communications-related Headlines is the only free, reliable, and non-partisan daily digest that curates and distributes news related to universal broadband, while connecting communications, democracy, and public interest issues.