By Lena Williams
Last October, Donald Trump, then a candidate for president, made a commonsensical observation about media consolidation.
“As an example of the power structure I’m fighting, AT&T is buying Time Warner and thus CNN, a deal we will not approve in my administration because it’s too much concentration of power in the hands of a few,” Trump said during a campaign rally on Oct. 22, 2016.
He also criticized Comcast’s purchase of NBC, saying it “concentrates far too much power in one massive entity trying to tell the voters what to think and what to do.”
Deals like the proposed AT&T merger, Comcast’s and Amazon’s purchase of The Washington Post “destroy democracy,” Trump said at the time, adding that his administration would look at “breaking up that deal and others like it.”
It was one of those rare moments that Trump seemingly came down on the same side of an issue as some of his most ardent critics.
For years, journalists, public advocacy groups, politicians on both sides of the aisle and unions like The News-Guild-CWA have argued that the growth in media consolidation was a threat to democracy, hurt consumers by restricting the free flow of information, and places control of what the public sees, hears or reads in the hands of a powerful few.
“The widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the welfare of the public,” Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black wrote in a 1945 antitrust case involving major newspaper publishers and The Associated Press. “The First Amendment affords not the slightest support for the contention that a combination to restrain trade in news and views has any constitutional immunity.”
So why are anti-consolidation advocates concerned now that President Trump has reiterated his opposition to the AT&T and Time-Warner merger?
Is it because they believe Trump is trying to block the merger as part of a personal vendetta against CNN, a network he has repeatedly attacked for its critical coverage of him? Trump has reportedly pressured the Justice Department to make selling Turner Broadcast, which owns CNN, a condition for regulatory approval of the proposed merger. It’s clear that the president is using the power of his office to block the merger because he wants to punish his political enemies in the free press.
Unions, led by The News-Guild; state and federal courts; Congress and citizens have strenuously opposed past attempts, under Republican administrations, to enhance media concentration. Increased concentration of media power in the hands of a few conglomerates has also led to declines in newsroom and television numbers, especially women and minority-group members.
But on Nov. 16, the Federal Communications Commission lifted restrictions on the number of multi-media outlets a single company can own.
In a 3-2 vote, the FCC approved new regulations that will allow a single company to own newspapers, television stations and radio stations in the same town, reversing a decades-old rule aimed at preventing any single company from having too much power over local coverage.
The change paves the way for companies like the Sinclair Broadcast Group to merge with Tribune Media, creating a powerful conglomerate with control over 233 stations that reach 72 percent of the households throughout the country.
“The merger of these media giants would lead to the overwhelming dominance of the nation’s local broadcast stations by a single company,” NewsGuild President Bernie Lunzer warned. “It also would expand Sinclair’ insidious ‘must-run’ segments to additional outlets around the country. You have to wonder which represents the greater danger.”
Mignon Clyburn, a Democrat and the only African-American on the commission, opposed relaxing the rule.
“Do I start by describing why the wholesale elimination of key media ownership rules will harm localism, diversity and competition?” Clyburn asked. “Let me begin by establishing this: that despite what you have been told about the genesis of this Order, it is not really about helping small, struggling broadcasters or newspapers.”
Clyburn said the jury is still out on whether it could actually achieve that goal, noting that the rule is really about “helping large media companies grow even larger, which is actually in stark contrast to what the president said just last week in discussing the importance of having “as many news outlets as you can.”
Despite what Trump has said in the past, it is clear that the president is for media consolidation when it suits his purposes and political agenda.
The Washington Post reported in December that Sinclair “gave a disproportionate amount of neutral or favorable coverage to Trump during the campaign” while airing negative stories on Hillary Clinton.
Ajit Pai, the chairman of the FCC and a Trump appointee, spearheaded efforts to eliminate the rule with the backing of a Republican-majority on the commission.
Pai has claimed that the FCC wasn’t giving Sinclair any special favors by lifting the restrictions, but it is clear that he was doing Trump’s bidding when he announced plans in October to do away with the media ownership rules, saying they were “outdated.”
In November, The News-Guild circulated a petition to prevent the FCC from moving forward with the proposal. The News-Guild said the plan is “tailor-made” for big media companies like the right-wing Sinclair Broadcast Group..
The petition read as follows: “I oppose proposals to gut the FCC’s longstanding media-ownership rules. Our communities need exposure to diverse views and we need strong newsrooms. The proposed changes would give a few huge companies far too much power over the public airwaves and local news. They also would destroy jobs.”
Commissioners on both sides of the issue acknowledged that the vote would likely be challenged in court. Activist groups like Free Press have also mentioned potential legal challenges.
Ultimately, the courts will decide who controls the free-flow of information Americans obtain from news sources and the variety of ways in which it is received.
As Lowell Peterson, executive director of the Writers Guild of America, East, noted: “Democracy depends on the vibrant exchanges of ideas; on information presented in coherent, meaningful ways; on dependent thought which is not tailored for commercial advantage.
“Consolidation of ownership and power in the media removes these vital elements from the marketplace. Instead of a town square where ideas flow freely, the news business becomes more like a shopping mall dominated by a small number of megastores. This thwarts the public’s interest in robust, well-informed discussion of the critical issues of our times.”