Comcast/NBC Merger Reflects a Broken Washington

Today, the Federal Communications Commission blessed the merger of Comcast, the nation’s largest cable and Internet provider, with the iconic NBC-Universal. This comes just weeks after the FCC passed a toothless Net Neutrality rule, so full of loopholes that you could drive a truck through it. Together, these two decisions will transform American media, consolidating even more control over even more platforms, in the hands of fewer and fewer corporations. The Justice Department approved the merger just hours after the FCC.

With this decision, Comcast has the power and the incentive to apply a cable TV model to the way we access the Internet, can bully competitors like Netflix, and will inevitably jack up prices on consumers. In addition, the merger will squeeze out already struggling independent, diverse voices. We’ve shown over and over that media consolidation decreases diversity in the media, hurts jobs and consumers, and leads to more junk news, sensationalism and celebrity gossip, rather than real news and debate we need in our communities. And that was before this merger was approved.

Now, Comcast will control both what you see and how you see it. And, this merger will create a baseline for media mergers to follow, with more companies pursuing an ever larger media empire.

How did we get here? Today’s Wall Street Journal offers us a clue.

On the same day that the agency tasked to protect the public interest gives the green light to one of the largest media mergers in history, President Barack Obama published an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal on reforming regulatory agencies, and promising to “make sure we avoid excessive, inconsistent and redundant regulation.” Obama’s commitment to Main Street seems like just a footnote in this love letter to Wall Street.

Obama’s editorial is a far cry from his 2008 interview about media consolidation, when he said, “There is a clear need in this country for the reinvigoration of antitrust enforcement. Our competition agencies, the Department of Justice and the FTC [Federal Trade Commission], need to step up review of merger activity and take effective action to stop or restructure those mergers that are likely to harm consumer welfare, while quickly clearing those that do not.”

But this goes beyond Barak Obama. This merger is another indication that Washington is broken.

Comcast was able to get America to swallow this poison pill by sugarcoating it with money, influence and misinformation. Comcast is estimated to have spent $100 million in its bid to win regulatory approval for the merger. You can buy a lot of good will and friends for $100 million, and that appears to be exactly what Comcast has done.

As part of this lobbying effort, Comcast and NBC have employed more than 100 former government employees and 30 different lobbying firms to work on the deal. The former chief of staff for Sen. Arlen Specter turned Comcast lobbyist authored a letter in support of the merger that was ultimately signed by 15 of 18 Pennsylvania representatives. One congressional staffer described Comcast’s lobbying as “the most aggressive merger outreach I’ve seen in many years.” Another staffer remarked that he had “never seen anything like” the lobbying effort surrounding the merger.

In addition to hiring former government officials to sell their former colleagues on the deal, Comcast also sought to influence members of Congress through more pecuniary means. During the 2010 election cycle, Comcast’s PAC and its employees distributed $2.7 million to nearly three-quarters of the members of Congress, ranking the company sixth out of all corporate contributors to congressional election campaigns (more stats here). Bloomberg News has reported that “Ninety-one of the 99 House members and three of the five senators who wrote the FCC urging support for the $28 billion merger received donations from Comcast in the election cycle that began Jan. 1, 2009, sometimes within days of the letters.”

Over and over again, we have seen the results of the intersection of money and politics on the issues that matter most to people like you and me. To fix this problem, we also have to fix the media that should be holding our government and corporate leaders accountable. It may seem like a catch-22, but it’s not. In the long run, mobilized people can and do trump mobilized money.

After today’s announcement, we are building a national team of local media watchdogs to keep an eye on Comcast and NBC. You can sign up to protect your local community against Comcast abuses and we’ll connect you to a growing network of activists in your area and beyond.

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