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Who’s Afraid of Big Media?

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the United States Justice Department today approved a merger of Comcast, the nation’s largest cable and Internet provider, with NBC Universal which is owned mostly by General Electrics (GE).

Comcast and GE announced their buyout agreement for NBC in December 2009. Comcast intends to own 51 percent of NBC while GE will retain 49 percent of its shares.

Regulators took more than a year to approve the sale but attached some conditions. Comcast will have to surrender NBC’s online video website Hulu and ensure that NBC programming is available to competing cable operators.

Or, if you adhere to an antibusiness mentality, it “sets the table for Comcast to turn the Internet into cable television, where it has the ability to speed up its content, slow down or block its competitors such as Netflix, and hike the rates for its programming and services.”

That is, according to Josh Silver, president of the an organization that calls itself Free Press. At The Huffington Post, he writes that Americans should be afraid and “mad as hell” about the merger.

Silver’s Free Press claims to advocate “vibrant, diverse and independent” news media; regards media “reform” as a “civil rights issue” and campaigns against the “corrupt media policy” that currently dominates in the United States.

The new Comcast, he writes, “will control an obscene number of media outlets, including the NBC broadcast network, numerous cable channels, two dozen local NBC and Telemundo stations, movie studios, online video portals, and the physical network that distributes that media content to millions of Americans through Internet and cable connections.”

Such power in the hands of a single company absolutely petrifies Silver and he wants his government to protect him against the specter of media monopoly. In the long run he fears that that the merger will squeeze out “what’s left of independent, diverse voices from television dials” and predicts that it will “forever [change] the Internet as we know it.”

As television, radio, phone and other services become Internet-based, cable internet service is becoming the only connection that’s fast enough to handle streaming video and cutting-edge applications. That means you’re stuck with whatever Comcast and their cable buddies dish out.

Those “cable buddies”—otherwise known as the competition—should prevent exactly what Silver fears however: unreasonable prices. In a free market, where companies are allowed to merge and expand at will, there will always be alternatives to consumers, as long as there are enough who are willing to pay for it.

But Silver can’t meet those conditions because he wants the impossible: high quality news content online that’s cheap if not totally free of charge. It doesn’t seem to matter to him that news and cable providers simply cannot (continue) to provide a service for free.

The Comcast-NBC merger is a “disaster,” according to Silver, “for anyone who hopes the American public might someday emerge from the propaganda morass that is embodied by cable television, and now threatens to consume the internet.”

Our democracy is certain to fail if we cannot figure out a way to foster media that is less sensational and superficial, and more thoughtful and informative.

Who is to determine what is “thoughtful” and “informative” news? How would he ensure that “independent, diverse voices” are heard in news media? And how exactly does sensationalism undermine the fabric of American democracy? Silver answers none of those questions.

He is disappointed with President Barack Obama and the FCC for not having stopped the merger. They should have been more aggressive in testing the limits of antitrust law, he suggests. Does America really need even more invasive laws against free enterprise?

If Silver’s proposals were implemented it would effectively amount to government control of the news media. Corruption is invariably the rule rather than the exception in markets where the state decides which companies are allowed to cooperate and merge and exist because it is the last method at business’ disposal to try to turn a profit—squeezing out precisely the vibrant and innovative startups Silvers professes to cherish.

Government control of the news would moreover amount to censorship. Does Silver really want the state to decide for him what’s “thoughtful” and “informative” news? If it heralds the demise of Fox News probably, but what gives him or anyone the right to deprive millions of viewers and listeners and readers of the news they like to consume?

Consumer demand currently drives the (at least partially) free media market in the United States. There are major news channels for people of any political inclination. There are major newspapers for readers of any level of superficiality or intelligence. And anyone can create their own blog or website to service a niche that’s too small for major news providers to cover. The Comcast-NBC merger won’t change any of that. But even if it would, it couldn’t stop competitors from finding alternatives. People always have. People always will.

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