Net Neutrality: The Dangers of Consolidated Media
While Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota is exactly right to caution against an “internet fast lane” available at a premium to deep-pocketed customers, his other claim that media mergers threatens democracy is worth examining. Currently, two major mergers are happening with Comcast buying Time Warner Cable and AT&T in talks to buy satellite TV provider DirectTV.
AT&T’s inclusion in this discussion should not be surprising to anyone whose familiarity with the company extends past it simply being the exclusive carrier of the iPhone for some years. AT&T began as part of the original Bell Telephone company and by 1984, when the government broken up the company, it owned all of the telephone service (and even the phones themselves, which were “leased” to customers) in the United States.
Since the company broke up it has had its share of peaks and valleys in terms of success, but it remains one of the top ten companies in the United States and in the top 20 globally. In a sense, AT&T’s goal (and that of its corporate-giant competitors/peers) seems to be to regain not just the monopoly it once had, but to hold all of telecommunications in its grasp.
The fear then is that parent companies could put pressure on their subsidiaries—specifically those responsible for news and creative content—to ensure they toe the corporate line and stay “on message.”
It’s not that it doesn’t happen either. A 2011 article in The Washington Post criticizes NBC News for not covering the story that then-parent company General Electric paid no federal taxes that year. Interestingly, the Post has been the subject of recent criticism because of its lack of coverage of “bitter dispute” between Hachette Book Group and Amazon, after it was purchased by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.*
This is evidence not just that sometimes the parent company/media outlet relations can be tricky, but also why it is so important to keep some diversity of ownership amongst these companies. A media outlet may not cover its own parent company’s “embarrassing” stories, but you can be certain their competitors will.
Photo by Bill Bradford via Flickr Creative Commons