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Safire on Media Consolidation

In today's New York Times, William Safire makes a plaintive cry to stop the consolidation of mass media:

If one huge corporation controlled both the production and the dissemination of most of our news and entertainment, couldn't it rule the world?

Can't happen here, you say; America is the land of competition that generates new technology to ensure a diversity of voices. But consider how a supine Congress and a feckless majority of the Federal Communications Commission have been failing to protect our access to a variety of news, views and entertainment.

The media giant known as Viacom-CBS-MTV just showed us how it controls both content and communication of the sexiest Super Bowl. The five other big sisters that now bestride the world are (1) Murdoch-FoxTV-HarperCollins-WeeklyStandard-NewYorkPost-LondonTimes-DirecTV; (2) G.E.-NBC-Universal-Vivendi; (3) Time-Warner-CNN-AOL; (4) Disney-ABC-ESPN; and (5) the biggest cable company, Comcast...

Comcast has just bid to take over Disney... If the $50 billion deal is successful, the six giants would shrink to five, with Disney-Comcast becoming the biggest.

Would Rupert Murdoch stand for being merely No. 2? Not on your life. He would take over a competitor, perhaps the Time-Warner-CNN-AOL combine, making him biggest again. Meanwhile, cash-rich Microsoft -- which already owns 7 percent of Comcast and is a partner of G.E.'s MSNBC -- would swallow both Disney-ABC and G.E.-NBC. Then there would be three, on the way to one.

You say the U.S. government would never allow that? The Horatius lollygagging at the bridge is the F.C.C.'s Michael Powell, who never met a merger he didn't like. Cowering next to him is General Roundheels at the Bush Justice Department's Pro-Trust Division, which last year waved through Murdoch's takeover of DirecTV...

But what of the Senate, guardian of free speech? There was Powell last week before Chairman John McCain's Commerce Committee, currying favor with cultural conservatives by pretending to be outraged over Janet Jackson's "costume reveal." The F.C.C. chairman, looking stern, pledged "ruthless and rigorous scrutiny" of any Comcast bid to merge Disney-ABC-ESPN into a huge DisCast. Media giants -- always willing to agree to cosmetic "restrictions" on their way to amalgamation -- chuckled at the notion of a "ruthless Mike." ...

[T]he message in this latest potential merger is not about a clash of media megalomaniacs, nor about a conspiracy driven by "special interests." The issue is this: As technology changes, how do we better protect the competition that keeps us free and different?

You don't have to be a populist to want to stop this rush by ever-fewer entities to dominate both the content and the conduit of what we see and hear and write and say.

While politicians and pundits are falling over themselves to express outrage at Janet Jackson's brief nudity -- which occurred, by the way, during the midst of a halftime show that featured those paragons of virtue Nelly and P. Diddy, and which took place during a game in which we had commercials featuring horse flatulence, erectile dysfunction, and crotch-biting dogs -- this is the real story, the consolidation of American media.

I tend to disbelieve in conspiracies, but it's almost enough to make me wonder: could the Jackson-Timberlake scandal have been bread and circuses for the masses, distracting everyone from the monopolization of media?


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I remember from history the adverse effects of having William Randolf Hearst controlling much of the popular press during the turn of the last century. Hearst papers are still blamed by conspriacy theorists for the outbreak of hostilities with Spain. Broadcast media and film eventually broke up the monopoly. Perhaps the internet will be the means by which the broadcast/cable media monopolies will be prevented from actually taking over. Hopefully, the new monopolies will be prevented from totally controlling internet content, even though they will (already have) become the single greatest blocks of ISPs.

The FCC should reinstate its previous policies of limiting monopoly ownership of media markets, and foster more competition. This agency is one whose deregulation has gone too far.

On the other hand, the FCC can become too powerful. Censorship is pretty often viewed as a bad thing. The backlash from the superbowl half-time show (and Biance's recent public overexposure)will end up being a new, Comstock-like effort to stifle free speech through "decency" screening.


I agree: I don't want Rupert Murdoch deciding what I can and can't see, but neither do I want George W. Bush (nor his proxy Michael Powell). Over-regulation is not the answer, nor is unfettered consolidation. Vigorous anti-trust measures are the only measure I can imagine working.

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