We should be worried once again about Rupert Murdoch. For unless swift action is taken, Murdoch--and the conservative political causes he supports--will soon become an even more powerful presence in the United States and the world.
Murdoch is on the cusp of fulfilling a longstanding ambition that will finally give him a global network of powerful orbiting, interactive, direct broadcast satellites. Imagine a torrential downpour of dozens of Fox News Channels targeting major US cities; a super-broadband site continuously promoting the viewpoints of the Weekly Standard; and the ability to focus similar political messages simultaneously in Asia, Europe and North and South America. Murdoch's proposed control of DirecTV, the country's leading direct broadcast satellite (DBS) service, will ultimately harm the interests of those seeking greater political and social justice, let alone quality news and entertainment programming.
But despite the outpouring of opposition to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) new media ownership rules, Murdoch's DirecTV grab is expected to win quick approval from federal regulators. In addition to its more than 11.5 million DBS subscribers, Murdoch will also manage the assets of Hughes Electronics, DirecTV's parent company, which will give Murdoch's News Corp. increased clout over programming in Latin America and in the global broadband and video marketplace.
Hughes Electronics is currently a subsidiary of General Motors, which has been trying to sell off the satellite company for several years. GM initially spurned Murdoch and sought almost two years ago to have DirecTV's only major competitor, EchoStar, purchase the company. Livid at the rejection, Murdoch engaged in an elaborate political campaign to derail the deal, including, according to the Wall Street Journal, mobilizing the opposition of politically well-connected religious broadcasters. News Corp. also hired former New York State Attorney General Robert Abrams to generate opposition from local and state policy-makers. The Bush Administration's October 2002 rejection of DirecTV's merger with EchoStar was undoubtedly shaped by Murdoch's relentless--and well-funded--opposition.
Suddenly finding itself with only one possible suitor, GM quickly agreed to Murdoch's terms, which will give him working control of Hughes and a 34 percent stake in the company. Both the FCC and the Justice Department's antitrust division are expected to consent to the merger by this fall. Republicans in Congress, not surprisingly, praised Murdoch and the deal. Democrats did express some concern, especially at a private meeting with Murdoch. But no serious opposition has yet surfaced.
We should not only be aware of the more immediate threats from Murdoch's new acquisition but also reflect on why progressives, labor and others are shut out of any major electronic media resource. First, we should expect that Murdoch will be able to expand his influence over US television. Along with Comcast (now the country's largest cable-TV operator), Murdoch will become one of the most powerful forces in television. Because of the massive distribution platform it controls, News Corp. will be able to create new national programming channels. Satellite-channel technology will allow Fox to "spotbeam" local channels into distinct communities. Murdoch will also quickly enhance DirecTV's ability to provide a suite of interactive, digital channels. Given Murdoch's already significant local broadcast TV and cable channel holdings (including Fox News, FX, National Geographic and numerous Fox Sports channels), along with an increased ability to buy more media outlets, he will continue to be the GOP's own in-house Citizen Kane.
Murdoch already controls key DBS systems serving Europe, Asia and Latin America. As noted in its FCC merger application, News Corp. will benefit from the ability to create and distribute programming on a global basis (such benefits, it disingenuously says, will ultimately serve viewers). By capping its domination of satellite service with this acquisition, News Corp.'s power abroad will also be increased.
There is some opposition to the deal from US media companies, including Cox, Advance Newhouse, small cable operators and even the National Association of Broadcasters (which expressed concern about the fate of Fox affiliates that might be bypassed by Murdoch's spotbeams). These competitors worry about the leverage Murdoch will have in the programming market, although he has already made some assurances that he will treat them fairly. Both the DOJ and FCC may impose some minor conditions to allay these concerns.
But what's not addressed are safeguards that would limit the ability of Murdoch and his conservative allies to achieve significant access to new interactive satellite and cable channels. Or policies that would insure that those outside the corporate sector would have the clout to control their own programming services. Organized labor should be playing a role in shaping this merger, since 20 percent of the stock in the new Murdoch-led Hughes will be owned by GM pension plans (of both salaried and hourly workers). Although the pension stock will be controlled by US Trust bank, unions should be mobilizing to protect both their financial and political interests.
Moreover, progressives and leaders of the Democratic Party should also be engaged in serious media reform organizing. Instead of allowing the Murdochs of the world to own vast chunks of US media, there should be support for new policies that preclude the ability of a News Corp. or a Comcast to treat the digital media system as a private corporate fiefdom. It's time for policies that would provide nondiscriminatory access to satellite and cable channels to all comers; to separate the control these mega-giants have over both conduit and content; to insure that broadband serves community and civic discourse as well as it will serve commerce; and to carve out sections to be used by nonprofit groups.
Recently, Al Gore began exploring the creation of a new cable TV channel, an alleged alternative to the conservative media landscape. Gore has reportedly sought assistance from the cable moguls at Comcast, among others, begging for help. Perhaps Gore will get his channel. But unless we encourage a more serious public-interest intervention on media policy, we will continue to be political and cultural captives of Murdoch and his conglomerate cronies.