Tryst on a Love Boat: Politicians and Media Magnates
For media tycoons and their favorite politicians, it was a love boat. For media consumers, it was a cruise to nowhere. On the first day of summer, mega-media owners and other corporate heavies boarded an old aircraft carrier on the Hudson River in New York City for a gala fundraising dinner -- a "Salute to Newt Gingrich" that grossed $1.7 million for the Republican Congressional Committee's 1996 war chest. Conveners of the dinner included News Corp. head Rupert Murdoch and Time Warner chairman Richard Parsons. The assembled media magnates had good reason to celebrate: Only a few days earlier, the U.S. Senate showered them with enough gifts to make Santa Claus look like Silas Marner. In Washington-ese, the legislation is known as the "Telecommunications Competition and Deregulation Act." Consumer advocates call it the Time Warner Enrichment Act -- but such critics are apt to get little media notice. (Funny thing about that.) The giveaway sailed through the Senate on June 15 with bipartisan support, 81 to 18. But in the race to aid media conglomerates, Republican senators led the charge. The Senate bill bestows many favors, such as: * permitting a single company to own an unlimited number of radio stations; * letting one corporation buy up as many TV stations as it wants until transmitting to 35 percent of the nation's population; * freeing cable TV monopolies from price controls that have saved consumers over $3 billion since being enacted by Congress (over President Bush's veto) in 1992. When the House passes its version of the bill later this summer, supporters will include about 80 House Republicans who flew from the nation's capital in a chartered plane and corporate jets to attend the floating fund-raiser June 21. Years from now, looking back on the summer of 1995, we may remember it as the season when the biggest media giants broke free of nearly all public interest regulation and anti-trust constraints. By the year 2000 or so, the bulk of the country's media outlets could be owned by a half-dozen firms. We tend to forget that just a few years ago, before anyone had ever heard of "Time Warner," there was a company named Time and another called Warner. Now, huge merged companies swallow up other huge merged companies. Would you believe Time Warner Turner Bell Atlantic TCI News Corp.? As media critic A.J. Liebling put it a few decades ago, "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one." But these days, it's not just "the press" that's involved. From broadcast outlets and cable systems to satellites and computer technologies, fewer and fewer companies dominate as they keep getting bigger. What's wrong with that? Ask a few journalists. Especially in private, they're likely to express misgivings -- or outright anger -- about the bottom-line mentality now determining newsroom priorities. If you're sick of so much "infotainment" coverage and so little news substance, you're not alone. The Senate-approved bill would make the situation much worse. Yet, in theory at least, all is not lost. After both houses of Congress take final action -- probably in a couple of months -- the bill will reach President Clinton's desk. He could veto it. But a veto would require political courage. And Clinton, like most politicians in Washington, is a paper tiger who prefers to growl at media moguls in public while purring at their feet behind the scenes. It's one thing to rail against violence and smut coming out of Hollywood and the music industry, as Sen. Bob Dole did last month when he publicly lambasted Time Warner. But, at the same time, Dole was the moving force behind the Senate bill providing multibillion-dollar windfalls and unprecedented power for Time Warner. That bill, points out Jeff Chester of the Washington-based Center for Media Education, "will increase the control that a handful of companies -- including Time Warner -- have over the media culture, and will make them less accountable to the public." "The whole concept of local television, local broadcasting, is threatened by this bill," says TV critic Tom Shales, "because if some big...communications superpower can buy all these local television stations, there ain't gonna be local television stations anymore... [They are] just going to be prepackaged, freeze-dried...and every television station will look alike." Sen. Bob Kerrey, the Nebraska Democrat who led opposition to the bill, is hardly an anti-corporate firebrand. But he couldn't stomach the legislation's extreme provisions. "Ultimately, this bill is about power," Kerrey noted. "The bottom line is that in this bill, corporations have it and consumers don't." Warning of the increased media power that Congress seeks to place in the hands of a few, Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) said: "It would make Citizen Kane look like an underachiever." That's no exaggeration. If the measure becomes law, comments Andrew Jay Schwartzman of the Media Access Project, it will give a big boost to monopolization -- "so that, four, five, six or seven companies could own virtually all the television stations in the United States." Under the banner of "deregulation," Time Warner and TCI -- the two biggest cable companies in the country -- would be able to drastically hike cable rates. Meanwhile, Time Warner and TCI could merge with phone companies, buy more broadcast stations and control both the content and delivery systems of TV programming. So, it's no wonder that the head of Time Warner anted up $100,000 as co-chairman of the recent GOP fundraising bash on a ship in the Hudson River. It may have been billed as a "Salute to Newt Gingrich," but when corporate media brass are on board, politicians seem to be the ones doing most of the saluting.