The proposed merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable into a telecommunications behemoth is the media equivalent of “too big to fail” banking. If the largest cable provider in the United States is allowed to merge with the second-largest, people living in major cities, suburbs and small towns across the country will find themselves even more tightly locked into a dysfunctional relationship with a monopolistic corporation focused on maximizing profits rather than serving local citizens. At the same time, the new cable giant will own national news, entertainment, sports and Spanish-language networks. With its dominance of communications in population centers, its networks and its defining role in digital communications (as a prime provider of Internet service), a single corporation will be in an unprecedented position to dictate the development and character of media content for decades to come.
That’s too much power for any one company in a country founded on the premise that a free press must be diverse and competitive in order to provide citizens with the information they need to govern themselves. Media reform groups like Free Press have joined groups representing artists and creators like the Future of Music Coalition, as well as watchdogs like Public Knowledge, Consumers Union and Common Cause, to echo the concerns of former Federal Communications Commission head Michael Copps. “The proposed deal runs roughshod over competition and consumer choice and is an affront to the public interest,” argues Copps. The arrangement is so bad, he adds, that it should be considered “dead on arrival” when it’s presented to regulators.
Unfortunately, warns Susan Crawford, who served as President Obama’s special assistant for science, technology and innovation policy, Comcast is working to “create an air of inevitability about the deal.” It won’t be hard. Telecom corporations have developed sophisticated lobbying operations in Washington; they know how to work the back rooms and the spin cycles of the media system they seek to dominate.
To maintain competition and shape a digital future that realizes the promise of the Internet as a democratizing and enlightening force, this deal must be blocked. Is that possible? Yes. As Free Press president Craig Aaron reminds us, “Stopping this kind of deal is exactly why we have anti-trust laws.” Anti-trust arguments have worked before; indeed, as Aaron notes, “after a year of sustained organizing, we convinced the Department of Justice and the FCC to stop AT&T from gobbling up T-Mobile.” In the case of the Comcast–Time Warner deal, the Justice Department, the FCC and the Federal Trade Commission all have roles to play, and Minnesota Senator Al Franken has asked those agencies “to act quickly and decisively to ensure that consumers are not exposed to increased cable prices and decreased quality of service as a result of this transaction.”
Franken has become one of the best-regarded voices in Congress on communications policy, but his letter won’t be enough. Scrutiny must be aggressive and intense. The chair of the Senate anti-trust subcommittee, Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar, has announced plans to “scrutinize the details of this merger.” That’s the right signal. Now it must be amplified. Every member of Congress must hear demands from constituents to oppose this deal. So, too, must federal regulators and Attorney General Eric Holder. This merger can be stopped. But it will require outrage and a sustained outcry from Americans who know that the only way to halt an affront to the public interest is with an overwhelming assertion of the public interest.