Saturday, April 28, 2007

Big media's assault on democracy

Ryan Blethen / Times editorial columnist

"Enough" is a word that means little to corporate media. The few bloated companies that remain atop the media food-chain have crossed the line from growing profits to actively pushing rule and law changes that will wound our nation.

These mega-companies move from one industry to the next in the name of consolidation, driven by a Wall Street appetite that demands more every quarter. Companies once devoted to a particular sector are now behemoths that have control over almost everything read, watched or listened to.

Time Warner is a prime example. A magazine publisher and a movie studio is now a leviathan made up of Time Inc., AOL, HBO, Time Warner Cable, New Line Cinema, Turner Broadcasting Systems and Warner Bros. Entertainment. Each part comprises a number of other companies. Time Inc. consists of 130 magazines.

It is Time Warner that is responsible for the latest assault on a mechanism set up to promote democracy and innovation. I am not talking about the Internet, but the U.S. Postal Service. That's right, old snail mail.

Our postal system is written into the Constitution and was set up in a way that all publications, regardless of size or influence, could reach the public. James Madison even said that publications should be sent free.

"It is really one of the great build-outs of democracy in our country," said Bob McChesney, professor of communication at the University of Illinois and president of Free Press.

The mail system faces new challenges in an electronic world, but it is still vital, and democracy will suffer if the new rates instituted by the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC) are allowed to stand.

The Postal Service sought a modest increase that was acceptable for magazines and periodicals. Then Time Warner got the ear of the PRC, which thrust an incredibly convoluted pay metric written by Time Warner on the Postal Service. The new rates are good for Time Warner because it will be cheaper for them to send out their 130 titles, while smaller and independent publications will be paying crippling rates.

McChesney believes this change, scheduled to go into effect July 15, is dangerous for the nation because it will silence voices that are the bedrock of original reporting.

"The crucial point here is that most of the original material online and most of the articles that bloggers are blogging about come from ink on paper," said McChesney, who is fighting the PRC's decision.

Time Warner is hardly the only Biggie to cozy up to a regulatory agency. The consolidation of the press has been going strong for nearly three decades. Radio contracted like an imploding sun after the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The act allowed companies to own an obscene number of stations in the same market, while the Federal Communications Commission did little.

This push to collect and condense has now infringed on the Internet. Cable and telecommunications companies such as Comcast and Verizon are fighting the network-neutrality effort. There are currently no permanent rules stopping these companies that supply the pipes through which the Internet flows from tinkering with different pay scales. Without a neutrality law and strict oversight by the FCC, companies and Web sites would have to pay additional fees to the network provider so Web pages could load at the speed they should. The American consumer — who already pays more than consumers in other countries for broadband service — would pay an even larger bill.

Progress has been made on the net-neutrality front. Late last year, AT&T accepted a net-neutrality rule so its merger with BellSouth would be approved by the FCC. Problem is, AT&T is only held to the rule for two years. Net neutrality has not seemed to hurt AT&T. The company posted a first-quarter profit of $2.8 billion, up from $1.4 billion.

Radio on the Internet is now also under attack. If a recent ruling by the Copyright Royalty Board stands, small and independent Internet radio stations will have to pay royalty fees so onerous that many might not survive.

The aggression directed at democratizing systems that have long served — and should continue to serve — our nation is worrisome. The institutions charged to protect the public have failed.

Americans have had enough. Now is the time to get active.

Ryan Blethen's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is

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