News & Politics

Gerald Levin's Negative Legacy

As front-page stories gush over the accomplishments of Gerald Levin, AOL Time Warner’s CEO, his retirement has obscured the more negative part of his legacy.
As front-page stories gush over the accomplishments of Gerald Levin, AOL Time Warner’s CEO, his retirement has obscured the more negative part of his legacy. For under Mr. Levin, Time Warner embarked on a political and legal campaign that ultimately weakened the First Amendment rights of citizens, harmed consumers and currently threatens the future of the Internet.

Time Warner became, in the last decade, the principle political force in a communications industry that has sought to overturn public policies designed to ensure the public's right to a democratic and diverse electronic media system. In endless court challenges, Time Warner has consistently argued that its First Amendment rights as a cable operator trump the public interest. Under Mr. Levin's vision, no law or rule that placed modest limits on Time Warner corporate power could stand. In what New York University professor Yochai Benkler has termed a "moral inversion" of the First Amendment, Time Warner has cloaked an economic and political power grab in the guise of protecting free speech. In Levin's view, a cable company has the right to determine who can speak, with the ability to pick and choose programming. Anything less than "publisher" status has been anathema to Levin.

But the rules that Levin's Time Warner have fought were designed to guarantee that cable TV didn't have a monopoly over the viewpoints expressed on what are already basically local monopolies. In most communities in the U.S., there is only one cable company. (In fact, today, seven companies now control 85 percent of the nation's cable TV households. Time Warner is the second largest cable company, controlling about 25 percent of the nation's cable TV households.) In opposing a 1992 provision designed to ensure that local broadcast stations -- including public TV -- had the right to be "carried" on cable systems, Time Warner fought a rule designed to ensure that local voices in a community could also be heard.

Perhaps the most chilling example of Time Warner's misuse of the First Amendment has been its legal and political campaign to kill even very weak safeguards that placed a ceiling on the number of cable systems and channels a single company can control. Since 1992, a cable company such as Time Warner has been restricted from swallowing up more than 30 percent of the nation's cable TV households. Cable also has been limited from occupying all the programming channels. But Time Warner has argued that any limit violates the company's First Amendment rights. Not mentioned in their extensive legal briefs are the implications to the public of such a stance. Time Warner claims it has the right to own all the cable programming outlets and channels it wishes. In Mr. Levin's vision, no safeguard can stand -- even if it's designed to promote competition, content diversity and a more democratic media. This week, Levin was able to make a bid for AT&T's cable empire. If the two companies merge, then AOL Time Warner will control 50 percent of the nation's cable households. This bid for AT&T has been made possible by Time Warner's attack on cable ownership safeguards.

Of course, there is an irony here, for fueling the deep pockets supporting Mr. Levin's corporate advocacy have been millions of captive cable subscribers, who have witnessed ever-spiralling rate increases during Levin's tenure. It's also worth mentioning that, according to a Dec. 3 Ad Age report, Levin was the highest paid media executive in the U.S. last year. He made $164,387,897 in total compensation (compared to Michael Eisner, Disney's CEO, who made a paltry $72,848,842).

Finally, Time Warner has been an opponent of "open access" to broadband cable, as part of a strategy to extend cable TV's monopoly over multichannel TV in the digital world. The Net's open architecture, a hallmark of its founding, is now threatened. Time Warner lobbyists have helped to undermine any proposal that would ensure the Internet doesn't end up an extension of its cable empire. Prior to its merger with Time Warner, AOL's Steve Case was the country's leading corporate supporter of "open access" for the Internet. But once the merger was announced, Levin announced the reversal of the AOL policy, saying that the new company no longer supported an open access public policy.

Indeed, when AOL and Time Warner filed their "public interest" statement with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in February 2000, it revealed the narrow vision of Mr. Levin. Despite the fact that the merger involved some of the country's most important news outlets -- such as CNN and Time magazine -- what was promised to the public as a benefit from the merger had nothing to do with journalism or public service. The only "benefits" were that the merger would stimulate broadband deployment and that there would be a new generation of interactive, commercial applications.

Despite his departure, Mr. Levin's political agenda will likely continue. Time Warner has been successful in many of its lawsuits; last March a Federal Court of Appeals overturned the cable ownership limits. The future of cable is now before the FCC, which is likely to adopt Mr. Levin's perspective. If so, it is very possible that just two companies will control the nation's cable TV households, and a good part of the Internet with it. To protest this development, you can file an opposition through the Center for Digital Democracy.

While I sincerely wish Mr. Levin well as he moves on to work on social and philanthropic issues, I can't help but point out that his tenure at Time Warner -- while good for stockholders -- has not been positive for America's democratic stakeholders.

Jeffrey Chester is the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. Newsweek named him as one of the "Fifty People Who Matter Most on the Internet."

Don't let big tech control what news you see. Get more stories like this in your inbox, every day.