Antitrust & the Media - I
by Robert W. McChesney
The Nation magazine, May 22, 2000
This spring the topic of antitrust returned to the headlines
after a long absence as the government pursued and won (for the
time being) its case against Microsoft and' in a more muted way,
as Time Warner and Disney got into a fight over distribution that
is part of a high-stakes battle for control of access to America's
homes. Let's hope that the two cases will reinvigorate the notion
of antitrust in our political culture. Over the past year or two
there have been rumblings that antitrust should go beyond its
current narrow application to firms that have virtual monopolies
in markets and return to its original populist purpose of breaking
up concentrated wealth as a cancer on democratic governance.
If this takes place, most experts argue, corporate media will
be first on any target list. After a decade of deal-making, the
US system is now dominated by nine massive media conglomerates.
Although not one is a monopoly of any one national market
a la Microsoft or Standard Oil, these are closed markets for all
intents and purposes. And, as the AOL/Time Warner marriage highlighted,
these firms have largely tamed the commercialized Internet. It
is not merely their economic power, or even their cultural power,
that causes concern. It is their political power. They have grown
so large that they are close to being untamable by government.
On Capitol Hill progressive legislators like Senator Paul
Wellstone have announced their support for applying antitrust
to the existing media system. "There's no question that we
have to start talking in a serious way about media, about media
mergers and monopolies, about the balance between public and commercial
television, about how we can encourage more diversity in ownership
and in content, about the role that media plays in a democracy
where most people don't vote," says Wellstone. Nor is this
an issue with appeal only to the left. When Time Warner briefly
removed Disney's ABC from its cable offerings in several cities
in early May, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani told reporters,
"This is an example of what happens when you allow monopolies
to get too big and they become too predatory and then the consumer
is hurt. For the life of me, I can't figure out why the Justice
Department has spent so much time on Microsoft and so little on
Applying antitrust to media will not be enough. Even with
an enlightened policy of media ownership in the digital age, there
would still be too much power in the hands of owners and advertisers.
That is why antitrust must be complemented by an aggressive and
wide-ranging program to establish a viable nonprofit and non-commercial
media sector. But using antitrust powers would at least be a beginning.
Robert W. McChesney, a professor at the University of Illinois,
is the author of Rich Media, Poor Democracy (Illinois).