On Monday, the Washington Post published a piece of unabashed corporate advocacy, arguing that the pending mega-merger of cable giant Comcast and NBC-Universal should be swiftly approved by regulators. The editorial claims that media concentration is not a problem, and that "advocacy groups (opposing consolidation) have been poor prognosticators of the effects of large media mergers."
I'm not sure what planet the WaPo editors live on.
Weakened media ownership limits have led to a media system with far too many newspapers, radio and television stations in too few hands. Public interest groups have correctly predicted the host of problems brought by rampant consolidation: woefully few outlets owned by women and people of color, huge profit pressures that result in job cuts, closed news bureaus, and a system where hard hitting, investigative commercial television and radio journalism is nearly an oxymoron. Radio is homogenized, with too many ads and opinions, and scant original reporting. On television, the most important issues are synthesized into seven second sound bites and impossibly short segments that are devoid of context and crucial information.
The net result of ownership consolidation (aided and abetted by the rise of the Internet) is poorly-staffed newspapers and commercial television and radio that are long on hot-headed opinions, advertisements and mindless entertainment, but short on the substance that an informed democracy requires. Defenders of the status quo are either benefiting from it, or are like frogs in warming water: it happened so slowly, they haven't realized it's boiling over.
The great irony of the Post's endorsement is that the editorial itself is a poignant example of why the Comcast-NBC merger is so dangerous. When media companies control too much, their own interests - and opinions - directly conflict with the public's desperate need for sound policy and diverse, independent, critical viewpoints.
The Post is not a disinterested or neutral observer in this case. The Washington Post Company owns Cable One, provider of television, internet and phone services to several states. They own six television stations, a long list of print publications, plus Slate.com, Foreign Policy and other online sites. Yes, the op-ed technically discloses this, but fails to disclose how greatly these interests influence the Post's position on this issue.
The Post suggests that "FCC officials should resist calls by some merger opponents to impose 'net neutrality' principles." Yet it fails to explain that, as an Internet service provider, the company has self-interest in abolishing Net Neutrality, the rule that prevents Internet providers from creating fast lanes and slow lanes on the Internet in order to maximize profits.
The Post argues that the $30 billion deal "should be allowed to proceed," and that strong conditions need not be applied to the deal. Instead "[c]ompetitors who believed that they were harmed by unfair dealing could have their complaints adjudicated by the FCC" on a case by case basis. But to anyone familiar with the FCC, the threat of enforcement is almost always an empty one. The process is long and expensive - and complaints languish for months or even years before any FCC action, if at all.
And that's for companies that can afford high-powered connections and high priced-attorneys. If you're an average person whose cable bill is skyrocketing, or whose internet connection is slow and expensive - well, you're screwed. The backlog of consumer complaints at the FCC is notorious. For the vast majority of people, the agency's complaint process is a right without a remedy.
Comcast is already the nation's largest Internet broadband and cable television provider. NBCU owns 26 television stations, Universal Pictures, the NBC Television Network, Bravo, CNBC, NBC News, MSNBC, Oxygen, Syfy (Sci Fi Channel), Telemundo, USA Network, and the Weather Channel. If the merger is approved, a single corporation would own a huge array of popular content and would control how that content - and the content produced by its competitors - is distributed over the airwaves, cable, and Internet.
As all media moves to a digital platform, the harms of the "vertical integration" of content and distribution become more severe. Comcast can starve competing online video providers by withholding access to NBC programming. It can also move video content that is currently offered for free on sites like NBC.com behind a "paywall" tied to a cable subscription so that you must pay for cable TV if you want to watch TV online.
President Obama boldly proclaimed - on the campaign trail and once he took office - that he would promote policies that "encourage diversity in the ownership of broadcast media, promote the development of new media outlets for expression of diverse viewpoints, and clarify the public interest obligations of broadcasters who occupy the nation's spectrum."
Obama's top antitrust official Christine Varney said in May 2009, that "vigorous antitrust enforcement must play a significant role in the government's response to economic crises to ensure that markets remain competitive."
Yet today, Wall Street analysts are increasingly bullish that the merger will be approved by the FCC and the Justice Department, cheered on by Washington Post's editorial page. Score yet another victory for the entrenched big money interests that rule Washington, and yet another defeat for the American people.
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