For weeks, newspapers have reported in their business pages on a possible Comcast-NBC Universal merger (announced today), as a business story. The merger is more than a routine business story. The merger signifies massive media consolidation. This consolidation gives one company--Comcast--enormous control over the speech shaping Americans' lives and shaping our democracy. The merger puts Comcast in control of MSNBC (a 24 hour news channel with an enormous impact on public opinion), CNBC (which impacts public opinion about Wall Street, now a hotly debated political question), NBC network (whose nightly news show averages eight million viewers, many times that of cable shows like those on Fox News), and 27 television stations (which generally have programs covering local news).
Putting so much power in the hands of one company--and, specifically, its executives--is dangerous for a democracy. There is a reason why autocratic regimes control the media--media shape public opinion and define what is "possible" in politics. We have seen the problem of private media consolidation in many countries. In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi used his massive media empire to win elections and is now Prime Minister (Italy's longest serving ever). In Argentina, the government had to pass a media consolidation law because of the power of one media company that happens to be far smaller than a combined Comcast-NBCU.
How exactly is consolidation bad for democracy? Without being exhaustive, I'll list three ways--targeted private censorship, structurally closing out independents, and favoring one-way communications.
First, consider private censorship. Big media companies can "censor" ideas they disagree with--they either don't cover the censored ideas or cover them unfairly. You may remember what a poorly job the big media did with the run-up to the Iraq War. Specifically with Comcast, Comcast has censored important political ideas it disagreed with. For example, last year, cable and phone companies involved in the White House's illegal, secret wiretapping program were lobbying for immunity from lawsuits. [Clarification, and note below: Comcast did not itself lobby on the wiretapping legislation.] While they lobbied to be above the law, some organizations took out advertisements criticizing the Congressmen collaborating with the phone and cable industry. One Congressman was a Democrat in Pennsylvania (Comcast's home) Christopher Carney; that Congressman had taken lots of campaign money from Comcast and supported their immunity. While many media outlets ran an advertisement linking Carney and Comcast, Comcast refused. Comcast came up with excuse after excuse, and then simply didn't run the ad. If Comcast had owned NBCU then, more outlets would have censored their advertisement--and people watching MSNBC, CNBC, NBC nightly news, and one of the 27 NBC stations would not have seen the ad on those outlets. Of course, a key goal of free speech would be frustrated--to ensure that the public can debate and be informed about the decisions of Congressmen. Keep in mind also that Comcast now owns MSNBC, the home of Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, and is the company that paid people to sit at a government hearing (on net neutrality) and clap every time their executive spoke. We hope its newsmen don't do the same. But here are the campaign contributions of the Comcast CEO, which are worth studying, as he may soon have even more political influence than he has today.
Second, this merger may make it harder for independent voices. When Comcast owns many TV networks, Comcast has incentives to favor the networks it owns and to carry them on cable TV. Put simply, independent cable TV networks have fewer slots to be carried, as Comcast will use channel slots on networks owned by Comcast. Already, independent networks argue that companies like Comcast discriminate against them and force the networks to give up some ownership of their company to be carried on cable. The biggest content companies--like NBC before--can force Comcast to carry their biggest channels and can force Comcast to carry some less popular channels as a price for carrying the big ones. So what happens in the end is a small independent network often has to sell itself to a Comcast or an NBC to get on cable TV and to survive. That is not a good outcome for Americans. Rather than having the option of cable channels owned by lots of different, independent groups, the speech is owned and controlled by a small club of companies. That club gets much smaller with a Comcast-NBCU merger. This club that would expand greatly if Comcast didn't own TV networks.
Third, this merger favors one-way communications over open, two-way, "read-write" communications. As I mentioned, Comcast has an incentive to favor its own networks (for the economics/law geeks out there, see here and here). As a result, Comcast does not have an incentive to permit all forms of communication to flourish, but has incentives to favor its own programming, and to control other programming delivered over its cable TV and Internet access platforms. Comcast has less incentive to support wide open two-way communications available on an open Internet--which is why the FCC had to punish Comcast for blocking Miro and other BitTorrent applications on the Internet, finding also that Comcast had an anticompetitive incentive to block online TV technologies. It's why Comcast has been spearheading something called TV Everywhere, which ties consumers' ability to access online TV to payment for a Comcast cable TV subscription.
So, for three reasons, this merger is bad for democracy--private censorship, closing out independents, favoring one-way Comcast-controlled communications. It is not routine business. The public should take note of this affect on our democracy.
That is why organizations like Free Press and Media Access Project and Consumer Federation of America are working with allies in the StopBigMedia Coalition to oppose this merger (here's a recent report).
It's also why the Obama Administration, whose president campaigned on a promise to promote media diversity, and whose campaign inspired democratic participation, should stand with the public and likely block this merger.
Note: I added a clarification above that Comcast did not lobby on the wiretapping issue, according to their lobbying reports (which Comcast shared with me and are available here, here, here, here, and here). To have implied otherwise was a mistake. Comcast's expressed problem with the proposed advertisement was that the ad was inaccurate by (a) implying Comcast lobbied for immunity and, apparently without evidence, that (b) Comcast would get a specific benefit from the specific bill at issue. I thank the folks at Comcast for calling me to discuss that point.
More broadly, the principle is correct--media companies have the legal power to engage in private censorship, which is an important potential source of power over our discourse. Moreover, stories of media companies altering reporting to benefit their own self interest are not uncommon (for some stories, see paragraphs 360-365 of even the controversial 2003 FCC Order relaxing broadcast ownership rules).