Last I checked, we lived in a populist moment: Americans deeply distrust large institutions such as government, corporations, and banks. The public's distrust of concentrated power also extends to the news media, with Gallup polling showing that over half of Americans have little or no trust in the media's ability to report news fairly or accurately. Trust in the media actually hit an all-time low in 2012.
So here's a question: if Americans are wary of big institutions, if they distrust corporations, and if they distrust media, then why aren't people freaking out about the creation of the biggest corporation ever seen in media? Why is the proposed Comcast merger with Time Warner being met with a shrug -- not just by the public but by policy thinkers, politicians, and editorial writers?
To be sure, not everyone is looking the over way. Katrina vanden Heuvel recently noted in the Washington Post that
The resulting company would have at least 30 million cable customers, just under 30 percent of the TV market, as well as 38 percent of high-speed Internet customers. It will have virtual monopoly cable control over news and public service programming in cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New York City and Washington, D.C. It will be able to exact price concessions from content providers, forcing some out of business, limiting innovation and variety. With net neutrality rules now under assault, it will be positioned to charge discriminatory rates for high-speed access or to discriminate against Netflix and other companies seeking to stream over its cable.
Vanden Heuvel's last point is especially unnerving. This mega merger is coming on the heels of a judicial ruling against net neutrality. So we're talking not about more power in the hands in this potential new cable giant, but more freedom to abuse that power. Not a good combination.
Consumers will be the big losers. As I have been writing this piece, my Time Warner cable went down for a few minutes, which it often does. Why do I and millions of Americans tolerate lousy Internet service, the worst in the developed world? Because we have few other choices of providers. If this merger goes through, we'll have even fewer.
This merger, of course, is part of a larger trend toward monopoly capitalism. As Barry Lynn pointed out in a recent paper
co-published by Demos, consolidation has been steamrolling forward in nearly every sector of the economy -- banking, retail, heavy industry, energy, food processing, health care, book publishing, and so on.
Of course, the difference with consolidation of media is that the means by which citizens get informed in our democracy are now controlled by fewer and fewer big corporations.
So why isn't there greater concern about monopoly capitalism in general and media concentration specifically? One reason may be that Americans perceive an overabundance of choices in the marketplace and so don't recognize the threat of monopolism. Sure, the food industry has consolidated, for example, but walk down a supermarket aisle, and you can feel overwhelmed. Once upon a time there were just Triscuits. Now there are five different kinds of Triscuits. And three different kind of Cheerios. Also, you don't even have to go to a standard supermarket anymore. You can go to Whole Foods or Trader Joe's. Or shop for groceries at Target or Wal-Mart. Or you can just stay home and order from FreshDirect. Or you can join a food coop. Or a CSA in some places.
Book publishing is more consolidated, but it's now easier than ever to find to any book you can think of, however out-of-date, at a wide varieties of price points.
And yes, media is more consolidated, but current affairs buffs can feel like they are drinking from a fire hose these days -- much more than in the past -- with multiple cable news networks (now including Al-Jazeera America), and a seemingly infinite number of blogs and online media sites.
Of course, what people don't see amid this apparent bounty is how a few players are setting prices and controlling choices. Yes, there are five brands of Triscuits, but maybe fewer choices of non-Nabisco crackers. There are more cable networks, but fewer cable companies can decide which ones to carry. And all that great media on the Internet may get fewer eyeballs if net neutrality rules go out the window and certain outlets get preferential treatment.
So the threat posed monopoly capitalism is definitely real, and there are a bunch of potential solutions, starting with more vigorous enforcement of existing anti-trust laws. First, though, we need more political leaders to get on the case. To me, this issue seems like a sure winner for politicians of any party. Like it or not, we live in an age where big is bad to lots of Americans. Well here's a place to fight big, and fight it now before this merger goes through.