Dec 1 1996

Goliath vs. Goliath

When two of the world’s most powerful media outlets fight, who do you root for?

Are you cheering for Time Warner, the $7 billion-a-year conglomerate, which provides monopoly cable service to 40 percent of the U.S.-and which has used this position to block competitors to CNN, which Time Warner long had a large investment in, and now owns?

Or are you a fan of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, a company that has specialized in establishing monopoly control of national and international media, taking advantage of this control to promote its owner’s right-wing agenda?

Those are the contenders in a battle over who gets access to New York City cable viewers. Time Warner was told by the Federal Trade Commission that because of its acquisition of Turner Broadcasting, it must allow a competitor to Turner’s CNN on its cable systems. In New York City, and in many other parts of the country where Time Warner has the cable franchise, the company has chosen MSNBC, the joint venture of General Electric and Microsoft, to be the designated competition.

Murdoch was not happy-or quiet-about his brand-new Fox News Channel being left out. His New York Post ran the front-page headline (10/21/96): “Is Ted Turner Nuts? You Decide.” He ran a series of full-page ads for Fox News in the New York Times that complained: “Ted Turner and Time Warner don’t want you to see this channel. They should know that censorship and monopoly control are never a pretty picture.”

Rupert Murdoch complaining about monopoly and censorship is a little like McDonald’s complaining about burgers and fries. He seems to find monopoly quite attractive in Australia and Britain, where he’s been able to achieve overwhelming dominance in the newspaper market. His predatory pricing practices nearly succeeded in driving the London Independent, one of the world’s best newspapers, out of business.

Censorship is a Murdoch stock in trade as well. He took the BBC off his satellite programming to Asia because it sometimes ran stories critical of the Chinese government-which controlled a lucrative market for Murdoch. “The BBC was driving them nuts,” Murdoch told The New Yorker (13/13/95). “It’s not worth it.” Like Time Warner, Murdoch is expert at using one part of his company to promote others: The first day of Fox News Channel featured unsubtle plugs for Murdoch’s TV Guide and 20th Century Fox (USA Today, 10/8/96).

While there isn’t much to choose between Time Warner and News Corporation‘s financial practices, Murdoch’s use of his media empire for political purposes has been more blatant and heavy-handed than that of any other major conglomerate. His hiring as network president of Roger Ailes, a Republican political operative and Rush Limbaugh ‘s former TV producer, signals that Murdoch intends to use his cable news network-despite its “fair and balanced” slogan-to boost his favored political candidates, just as he has used the New York Post to shamelessly flak for Bob Dole.

Perhaps the most alarming aspect of the Time Warner/Murdoch fight was the intervention of New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The Republican mayor threatened to take away Time Warner‘s franchise unless Fox was given a slot; he then suggested that a noncommercial channel dedicated to city government affairs be turned over to Fox. The conflicts of interest are manifold: Murdoch has contributed heavily to the New York Republican party, and the New York Post‘s support for Giuliani was crucial in the 1993 election; Fox News chief Ailes has worked as a consultant for Giuliani, and Giuliani’s wife, Donna Hanover, works as a reporter for Murdoch’s New York affiliate.

Murdoch also received the assistance of New York’s Republican Gov. George Pataki, another beneficiary of the New York Post‘s boosterism, who called Time Warner to persuade them to carry Fox; five days after this fruitless attempt, New York State’s moribund anti-trust division launched an investigation into the Time Warner/Turner merger, which had been pending for a year. (According to the Oct. 28 New York Observer, the state’s subpoena echoed misinformation found in Murdoch’s lawyers’ pleas.)

With support like that, Murdoch hardly needs FAIR’s help. We do object, however, to the power of a giant multinational conglomerate to pick and choose which news outlets make their way into millions of American homes. And to the fact that only a right-wing tycoon with political connections has any hope of breaking that lock. Until a news channel emerges that is independent of big business, there won’t be much to cheer for in the cable wars.