In a speech today about his first 100 days in the White House, Donald Trump got more specific about how the universe is allegedly rigged against him. Trump, who has routinely called journalists nasty liars for bringing up his own record, blasted the media by turning his ire toward Comcast / NBC Universal. Saying the merged company is “trying to poison the mind of the American voter,” Trump said that the now-five-year-old deal should never have been approved in the first place, and that it’s bad for democracy. Trump is certainly saying this for the wrong reasons, but as AT&T is rumored to be buying Time Warner this weekend, it’s a good time to note that he’s partially — if accidentally — right.
Is telling the truth about Trump’s record poison to the American voter? No, of course — just the opposite. (He’s also still probably feeling a little raw about NBC putting The Apprentice on ice.) But on the short list of capital-E Establishments worth talking about seriously in the US, the telecommunications industry is near the top. Comcast may not be trying to poison the minds of voters, but for years it has definitely been putting something in the well for regulators and members of Congress. If there were ever a revolving door in Washington, DC, this is it: four months after the FCC approved Comcast’s acquisition of NBC, an FCC commissioner who approved the deal was hired as a lobbyist for Comcast.
If there was ever an establishment worth talking about, it’s the telecom-Congressional complex
Since then, Comcast has done some of the exact things that critics of the deal warned against, like refusing to air ads for Sling TV on NBC: a product that competes with Comcast’s set top boxes. After the NBC deal, Comcast also tried to flex its muscle to become a virtual broadband monopoly by trying to buy Time Warner Cable. That didn’t work, but its existing muscle allowed it to strong-arm Netflix into paying for better access to its customers — something that may have been even more effective had its plan to seize effective monopoly power in 19 of the 20 biggest broadband markets been successful. And remember: the only reason Comcast has appeared to play nice with net neutrality rules since 2011 is because it’s part of a temporary deal the company made with the government as a condition of buying NBC.
To the extent that ISP / media consolidation can hurt consumers by restricting or complicating the free flow of information, then Trump is right: deals like the Comcast / NBC merger are probably bad for democracy. We’ve seen what happens when the companies that own the pipes also try to control the information that flows through them, and the consequences are usually bad. In the least, these business structures create toxic incentives for ISPs to behave like toll collectors and gatekeepers instead of innovators.
The telecommunications lobby is lucrative, and effective, and Comcast isn’t the only company pulling the levers. It looks like AT&T is reportedly about to make a huge $85 billion play for Time Warner, which owns HBO, CNN, and a bunch of other subsidiaries. If that sounds familiar, that’s because it’s part of a trend — ISPs are eager to gobble up content creators. Verizon, which led the charge to destroy net neutrality, bought AOL and Yahoo, and like AT&T, is experimenting with “sponsored data” schemes which are really just arbitrary internet tolls.
And while Trump may be the least believable person in the world to launch accusations about media bias, who’s to say that just a few media conglomerates controlling all the internet pipes, radio waves, and the information that flows through them wouldn’t become incredibly biased in some way? There’s no guarantee, and no mechanism to guard against it — except regulation. And history has shown that the people doing the regulating are usually part of, or want to be part of, the same corporate establishment the regulation affects. There’s a word for that: corruption.
Trump wants to stand up to media conglomerates because he suspects they treat him unfairly. The rest of us should stand up to them because we know they treat us unfairly.
Disclosure: Comcast Ventures and NBCUniversal are investors in Vox Media, The Verge’s parent company.