Items relating to media ownership

We Need To Fix The News Media, Not Just Social Media Part I

A substantially similar version of this appeared on the blog of my employer, Public Knowledge.

Focusing blame Google and Facebook for the decline of in-depth news reporting and print journalism ignores the real and long-standing problems that lie at the heart of our troubled relationship with corporate media. Insisting that these companies should fund existing corporate media, or that we should solve the problem by allowing even more consolidation, would be a disaster for democracy.

Almost 20 years ago, I left private practice to work for a nonprofit law firm called Media Access Project (MAP). MAP focused on promoting policies designed to encourage the production of diverse news and views in the electronic media. When I joined MAP in July of 1999, we were facing a crisis of consolidation in the news industry, the rise of polarization, and the dissemination of “fake news” for both commercial and political purposes. Academics and pundits lamented the death of serious journalism, the tyranny of the ever faster news cycle, and the poisoning public discourse with increasingly coarse, angry, and vile commentary that pandered to people’s worst instincts. A new class of wildly popular and increasingly influential pundits sowed distrust for the “MSM” (“mainstream media”) and denounced anyone who disagreed with them as enemies of freedom. Meanwhile, the increasingly vertically and horizontally concentrated news industry cut costs by dramatically cutting reporting staff and reporting resources, and chased “synergies” by using the news to shamelessly cross-promote their entertainment and publishing products. News coverage was increasingly turning into “infotainment” (or, more politely, “soft news”). To the extent political coverage existed outside the polarized world of political punditry, it was reduced from genuine analysis to “horse race” coverage. No one in the news, it seemed, wanted to discuss actual substance – only which political party or politician was “winning” or “losing.” Even worse, a new cottage industry emerged to create and promote “fake news” in the form of Video News Releases and national syndicated broadcasts designed to appear both local and live.

Small wonder that audiences for news increasingly declined, and distrust of the media reached historic levels. To make matters even worse, the “cure” proposed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was to relax the remaining broadcast ownership rules, inviting further consolidation. Only by increasing consolidation, the industry argued, could the news industry survive in the face of fragmenting audiences, emerging competition from the internet, and declining newspaper revenues.

That was back in the late 1990s and early 00s. To quote Yogi Berra, “it’s déjà vu all over again.” Except this time, instead of blaming “the internet” and the public’s supposed lack of interest in real news, people now blame Google and Facebook. Why? Because they are big. Because they derive their revenue from digital advertising at a time when print journalism has seen revenue from classified advertising drop precipitously low. Because “Google and Facebook, we hates it precious!,” and one should never miss an opportunity to link a problem to Google and Facebook and proclaim “delenda est!” Likewise, the proposed remedies have a very familiar feel. Allow the news media to consolidate further by relaxing the FCC ownership rules and creating exemptions to existing antitrust law, and/or preserve their historic revenue stream from classified ads (either by destroying Google and Facebook or making them pay tribute to existing media companies). These solutions have particular appeal to incumbent publishers, as they simultaneously absolve the existing media of any responsibility for the current state of journalism and cement the dominance of the existing corporate media giants.

It is precisely because the stakes are so high, however, that we need to look with extreme skepticism at proposals primarily designed to prop up the current consolidated and dysfunctional media landscape. If we want to address the very real problems created by a dysfunctional media, we need to separate which of these problems can properly be attributed to dominant platforms and which to structural problems in the traditional news industry. Additionally, legitimate fears of the ability of dominant platforms to act as gatekeepers, or concerns about their outsized influence on the economics of news production and dissemination, should not justify solutions that destroy the extremely important role these platforms have played – and continue to play – in civic engagement and enhancing the creation of new and independent outlets for news.

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Also posted in "A Republic, if you can keep it", Digital Platforms, How Democracy Works, Or Doesn't, Tales of the Sausage Factory | Comments closed

7 Reasons Why The AT&T/TW Trial Matters So Much The Future of Antitrust (+1 for Appeal).

Starting this week, AT&T and Time Warner get their day in court to prove that their proposed merger does not violate the anti-trust laws. I outlined the basic line of reasoning in the government’s case back shortly after it became clear the government intended to oppose. Since then, the parties have engaged in discovery, lined up their experts, and now filed their pre-trial briefs outlining their arguments on the relevant issues and standards. You can read the AT&T pre-trial brief here, and the DoJ pre-trial brief here.

 

It’s a lot easier to outline what the parties will try to show, and their differing strategies for trying to show it, than it is to guess how Judge Leon will decide at this point. But while the outcome alone makes this pretty important, it has the potential to massively shape antitrust going forward (assuming antitrust law survives the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision in Ohio v. American Express). Below, I unpack what makes this case so potentially important from a law perspective.

 

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Also posted in Tales of the Sausage Factory | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments (Comments closed)

The DOJ’s Case Against AT&T Is Stronger Than You Think — Again.

I want to start by applauding Randal Stephenson for coming out quickly and denying the rumors that DoJ asked them to sell CNN as the price of getting the merger done. At the same time, however, he acknowledged that negotiations were “complicated,” and that he and recently confirmed Asst A.G. for Antitrust Makan Delrahim were still “getting to know each other” and “figure out the ask on the other side of the table.” He also made it clear that, if DoJ does challenge, AT&T is prepared to go to court and are confident they will win.

 

AT&T is generally pretty good at persuading everyone that DoJ doesn’t really have a case against them. As folks may recall, despite the fact that the proposed AT&T/T-Mo transaction violated just about every basic tenant of existing antitrust law, AT&T managed to convince everyone for the longest time that DoJ was just playing hardball with them and didn’t really mean it because DoJ didn’t really have a case. While Stephenson refused to discuss what was negotiated, the rumors suggest it was a demand to divest either DIRECTV or the Turner Broadcasting cable channels (which include CNN, as well as TNT, HBO and a bunch of other real popular programming.) Once again, you have antitrust experts who do not have any particular experience with cable mergers shaking their heads and predicting that DoJ has no case.

 

In  fact, demanding divestiture of either the must have content or the DIRECTV distribution platform is precisely the remedy you would expect if you believe the deal presents significant harm because of the vertical integration issues. That’s been the position of my employer, Public Knowledge, which has opposed the transaction since AT&T announced the deal. (That predates Trump’s election, for those of you wondering.) If you want a more detailed understanding of the theory of the harms, you can find it in my boss Gene Kimmelman’s testimony to Congress here. While generally true that vertical deals are hard to challenge, the cable industry has long been something of an exception, and the remedy here is similar to what the FTC imposed on the AT&T/Turner deal in 1996, where the FTC imposed stock divestitures and restructuring to eliminate the voting interest of John Malone and Liberty Media because of Malone/Liberty’s ownership TCI, which was then the largest cable operator in the United States (25% national market share). Given the massive criticism of “behavioral” remedies and a call to return to “structural” remedies from the right and the left, it’s unsurprising that DoJ would want actual divestiture rather than go the Comcast/NBCU consent decree route.

 

But as Stephenson noted, negotiations have only just begun in earnest, so we may end up with behavioral remedies after all. We’ll see.

 

I dig into details below . . . .

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Comcast/TWC/Charter — Looking Good But Too Early To Pop The Champagne.

We’ve seen a bunch of news reports recently that the Department of Justice Anti-Trust Division (DOJ) staff and the staff at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) appear ready to recommend that the proposed Comcast acquisition of Time Warner Cable does not pass statutory muster and their respective agencies should take appropriate action. You can review what that means in these two lengthier blog posts I wrote about how DoJ merger review works and how FCC merger review works.

 

Critically, however, as this CNN piece notes, we only have rumors and speculation. Obviously, as an opponent of the deal, I would not be surprised of staff at DoJ and the FCC, after reviewing the record, concluded that this deal caused serious anti-competitive harm and offered no offsetting benefits. But, as someone who has played regulatory poker with Comcast for 15 years now, I can say from personal experience that no one counts Comcast out until the game is well and truly over. Even if the rumors are true (and I have no way of knowing), these would only be staff recommendations. Comcast still has plenty of opportunities to plead, cajole and bully DoJ and FCC into submission.

 

Which is why it’s important to remember my advice from last February with regard to Title II reclassification: DON’T BE THE SEA HAWKS! We need to continue to keep the pressure on to get this over the goal line. You can start at my employer, Public Knowledge, which has this action page up over here.

 

At the same time, while not getting ahead of ourselves, it is important to understand how this deal went from “sure thing, no antitrust issues, these aren’t the drioids you’re looking for, move along, move along” to “on the ropes and sinking fast.” While I’m not going to fall into the trap of thinking we have already won, we have a lot of good reasons to believe that this fight is winnable. I elaborate a bit below . . . .

 

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The Comcast Witness Protection Program and Misplaced Rage.

There is a style of article I find online occasionally that takes a classic work of film or literature and tries to flip your idea about who are the good guys and who are the bad guys, or vice versa. For example, this piece explaining why Glinda the Good Witch is really the villain of the Wizard of Oz and the Wicked Witch of the West is just an innocent woman wronged.

 

I thought of that when I saw recent pieces by Randolph May and Geoffrey Manne explaining how the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), by complying with its rules and doing its job soliciting input on the Comcast/Time Warner Cable from stakeholders scared to come forward for fear of reprisals, makes the FCC the bad guy and Comcast the innocent victim. Some of this concern seems to flow from a misunderstanding of the law. The FCC can’t act on anything outside the public record, so the concern that Comcast won’t get to make its case because of some body of secret evidence is groundless.

 

In addition – and this is why I’m particularly bitter here – Comcast set the precedent more than ten years ago for having the FCC look at stuff outside the public record as part of a merger review, and the D.C. Circuit affirmed it when I challenged it as a due process violation. So even if it did make a practical difference, the D.C. Circuit says it’s totally OK (at least when exclusion of evidence from the record favors Comcast).

 

Nor is this process so unusual as my Opposite Numbers (as I call my colleagues on the Libertarian side) believe. True, this is the first time the FCC actually listened to me (and others) and publicized the relevant FCC rules (although, as I explain below, I don’t think I actually had much to do with this). But this is also a rather exceptional merger. As for use of the relevant procedures, my experience is rather contrary to that of Randy May. I’ve not only urged the FCC to use (and publicize) the relevant procedures, I’ve invoked them.  Nor is it unusual for the FCC to solicit input from stakeholders.

 

Below, I offer an alternate perspective and deal with the various objections my Opposite Numbers raise for why they think the FCC shouldn’t be telling stakeholders afraid of retaliation to come in and speak off the record.

 

More below . . .

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Is Comcast’s Awful Service Grounds For Blocking The TWC Deal? Yes, Actually.

The last few months have brought us a spate of Comcast horror stories and Comcast-hate. As captured by this totally not safe for work “Comcast — We Don’t Give a F—“ video from Funny or Die, the announcement that Comcast would acquire Time Warner Cable (TWC) has brought to boil a great deal of simmering resentment. Most recently, a recording of a subscriber spending 20 minutes trying to disconnect his Comcast service has prompted some investigating into Comcast’s service and employment practices. In particular, Adrianne Jefferies at  The Verge has been running an excellent series called “Comcast Confessions” based on hundreds of interviews with current and former Comcast employees showing that these long-standing customer service problems are not a blip but the result of systemic problems and deliberate business and strategy decisions pursued by the company (first three articles published so far herehere and here). I want to highlight this article in particular that puts together the pieces and shows how the TWC acquisition makes things worse.

 

From an academic standpoint, the wealth of data coming to light provides a great study on how conflicting economic incentives and difficulties in melding together a giant company by merger create awful customer service despite the persistent efforts of Comcast top management to improve customer service. But this blog isn’t about industrial organization and business practices for the fun of it. For me at the moment, the hot question is: does Comcast’s awful customer actually provide legal grounds for the FCC to block the Comcast/TWC merger?

 

Actually, yes. And I don’t just mean in the political “so many people hate Comcast the FCC can designate for hearing and survive Comcast’s political pushback.” I mean in the legal “the FCC has jurisdiction over this and should designate, as an issue for hearing, whether Comcast’s proposed acquisition of Time Warner Cable is contrary to the public interest and in violation of various provisions of the Communications Act” sense. And yes, I get that customers are pretty much equally dissatisfied with TWC, which would prompt one to think this should be a wash as “not merger specific” (i.e., service is crappy before merger and crappy after merger, so who cares — other than customers?)  However, as I shall elaborate below, the unique nature of Comcast’s pervasive problems — combined with several other factors — makes this a rare (but not unprecedented) case where the nature of the problems is both merger specific and subject to FCC review.

 

And while I would not normally suggest that such problems alone could block a merger, it becomes one more factor in a deal that already has a lot of problems. At a minimum, it becomes one more set of potentially pervasive behavioral conditions that would prompt Comcast to walk away whether or not the FCC actually designates for hearing, especially if lots of consumers write to the FCC about it (hint, hint).

 

More below . . .

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My Insanely Long Field Guide To Understanding FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler Statement On Peering.

At the press conference following the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) March 31 Open Meeting, Chairman Tom Wheeler made the following observation:

 

“Interconnection is part of the Network Compact.” Peering “is just a $3.50 word for interconnection.”

 

Wheeler followed up this statement by explaining that there was a difference between “network neutrality” and the “open internet” on one hand and “interconnection” as the ‘path to the Internet’ on the other hand. While government has a critical role in monitoring peering/interconnection to protect the values of the Network Compact, it isn’t a network neutrality issue. You can see Wheeler’s full statement here (Start at 144:45 – 147:23 has unrelated stuff in middle) (transcript here).

 

After the meeting, the FCC released a separate statement that they really mean it when they say that they aren’t going to do peering as part of the Net Neutrality rules. While Brendan Sasso at National Journal gets points for noticing that “the FCC could decide to enact separate regulations on the issue or force Comcast to accept new rules in order to receive permission to buy Time Warner Cable,” most folks I’ve read in the press have broadly interpreted this as indicating the FCC will not look into the Comcast/Netflix dispute or complaints by Cogent and Level 3 about large edge-providers squeezing them for higher interconnection fees.

 

Personally, I think most people are totally misreading this. Wheeler’s statements make it look more likely to me that the FCC will start looking closely at the Internet peering market, not less likely, especially as part of the Comcast/TWC deal. Indeed, Comcast’s Chief Lobbyist David Cohen, who ranks in my book as one of the absolutely smartest and most effective telecom lobbyists ever, has already started backing away from earlier statements that regulators would ignore peering issues and that he expects them to look at the Comcast/Netflix deal. (Unsurprisingly, Cohen also said he expects regulators to find no problems with the deal and called Netflix CEO Reed Hasting’s arguments that this eviscerated net neutrality “hogwash.”)

 

Below, I will rant at considerable length that (a) Wheeler is right, this is not a “network neutrality” issue, but the same goddam interconnection issue that we have struggled with for more than a hundred years in every networked industry from railroads to electricity to broadband; (b) The FCC needs to actually look at this and study it and understand how the market works before it makes any decisions on what to do; and, (c) While Wheeler is not saying in any way, shape or form he actually plans to do anything before he has real information on which to base a decision, he is signaling — for anyone actually paying attention — that he is, in fact, going to actually look at this as part of his overall transition of the agency around his “Fourth Network Revolution” and “Network Compact” ideas.

 

 

While this last would seem pretty basic and obvious, it represents a significant change in policy from the previous insistence that IP magic pixie dust obscures all things Internet and makes them invisible to the FCC. Whether I agree with what Wheeler ultimately does or not — and I have no idea what he might ultimately do here, he could decide the market is competitive and working just fine — I don’t believe Wheeler is going to go around with his eyes and ears covered blathering about the magic nature of the Internet. I think Wheeler is actually going to check under the hood and see what actually makes the damn thing tick — and Comcast is just the company to help him do it.

 

Much ranting below . . .

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A Guide To The Mechanics of the Comcast/TWC Deal. Part IV: Congress, The White House And The Public.

If you read most of the reporting on the Comcast/TWC deal, you would think that Congress and the White House play a huge role. In reality, as I alluded to in the Part I intro, not so much. The political stuff tends to get over-reported in part because it’s easier (it took me about 3000 words just to explain how the antitrust and the FCC review work never mind any actual reporting), and in part because everyone assumes that Washington is a corrupt cesspit where politics invariably determine outcomes.

 

As always, while the political matters, it plays a much more complicated role in the mix. Below, I will unpack how the political pieces (including public input) play into the actual legal and merits analysis. Again, keep in mind that I’m not talking about merits here. I’m just trying to explain how the process works so people can keep track over the course of the merger review (which will last a minimum of 6 months and may well run for more than a year).

 

Political details below . . . .

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Also posted in Cable, How Democracy Works, Or Doesn't, Life In The Sausage Factory, Series of Tubes, Tales of the Sausage Factory | Comments closed

A Guide To The Mechanics of the Comcast/TWC Deal. Part III: The Federal Communications Commission.

In Part II, I described how the Department of Justice will conduct its antitrust review of the Comcast/TWC. Here, I describe how the Federal Communications Commission will conduct its review under the Communications Act. While the FCC and the DoJ will coordinate their reviews and work together, the two agencies have very different procedures and operate under very different legal standards. (For those wondering why, you can see this article I wrote on the subject about 15 years ago.)

 

Details on FCC process below . . .

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A Guide to The Mechanics of the Comcast/TWC Deal. Part II: Antitrust Review

In Part I, I gave a general overview of the regulatory review process for the Comcast/TWC Deal. In Part II, I describe how the antitrust review works (which, in this case, will be conducted by the Department of Justice Antitrust Division). Keep in mind I am not discussing any of the arguments on the merits. I’m just trying to give people a sense of how the process will work and where they can weigh in if they feel so inclined.

Part III will address the review by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) under the Communications Act.  Part IV will talk about Congress, the White House and the public.

 

Antitrust process described below . . .

 

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