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 à 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 this industry.”
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 noncommercial media sector. But using antitrust powers would at least be a beginning.