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Robber Barons Redux By Lewis H. Lapham There is more poetry in the rush of a single railroad train across the continent than in all the gory story of the burn ing of Troy. Joaquin Miller, 1884 At least twice a week for the last several months, the newspapers have been bringing word of yet another massive deal in progress among the gargantuan media syndicates, and always the breathless tenor of the prose implies exclamation points Murdoch Acquires Rights to Asia! Viacom Bids $10 billion for Paramount! Pygmies Flee! Giants Walk the Earth! The stories invariably extol the wonders of the nation’s new “information superhighway,” and on reading the dispatches from New York and Los Angeles, I think of the furious building of railroads that excited the American imagination during the last decades of the nineteenth century. The New York Times on October 21 published a front-page photograph of eight prominent media executives \(among them John C. Malone, president of Tele-Communications Inc.; John L. Clendenin, chairman of Bell South Corporation; side by side behind a row of microphones in Washington, whither they had come, a week after Mr. Smith’s Bell Atlantic announced its intention to buy Mr. Malone’s TCI for the sum of $33 billion, to assure the American people that the maneuver was in no way harmful to the public interest. But even as I admired their upright posture and the modesty of their dark and unassuming suits, I wondered how the political cartoonist Thomas Nast would have drawn their caricatures in the old Harper’s Weekly. Certainly he would have furnished them with top hats and broad grins, also watch chains, florid jowls, brocaded waistcoats bulging with greenbacks, cigars, pet politicians, and a general likeness to dressed pork. If the editors had been generous in their allotment of space \(a full page and some color in the engraving Nast undoubtedly would have placed the ragged figure of Liberty under the conference table, a soiled but once-beautiful woman dressed in a tattered American flag on whom the fine gentlemen rested their dainty hog feet. But Nast has gone off into the mist with Teddy Roosevelt and the buffalo, and “monopoly” is a word no longer extant in the language except when applied to the board game. The Times preferred the word “synergy” and stressed the feats of miraculous deliverance certain to take place in the clean, well-lighted rooms of technological advancement. It was an impression encouraged by the gentlemen seated at the microphones, who presented themselves as agents of benevolent dynamism and wholesome change. Not unexpectedly, they were unanimous in their judgment that any interference from the government \(i.e., any spoilsport nonsense about the arrival of that happy day when all America would travel together along the new superhighway in the sky to the land of the brave and the home of the free. John Sculley, until last October the chairman of Apple Computer and a Close adviser to President Bill Clinton, announced the theme of the proceedings in two sentences: “It’s impossible for regulators to move as quickly and effectively as the private sector. Government needs to give the private sector a green light to go ahead with investment and innovation.” All present at the conference table seconded the motion, none more loudly than Bert C. Roberts, the chairman of MCI Communications. “All too often,” he said, “what we have seen is the government thwarts progress.” Elsewhere in the room Ronald H. Brown, the secretary of commerce, glistened with the smile of an obliging headwaiter, always happy to be of service, glad to bring the important guests from the media syndicates another pheasant or tax exemption. “I feel like I’m at the Academy Awards,” Brown said. “… The .issue in my mind is not whether companies are big, but whether they are agile, competitive and forward-looking.” Given the unqualified dependence of the communications industries on government subsidy and patronage in the form of broadcast licenses and cable franchises assigning public property to private use the ringing endorsements of free trade and free enterprise sounded the customary false note, but, again as customary, nobody in the room made a tasteless joke about the pretensions to good citizenship. Nor did anybody remind the audience that the subject under discussion was monopoly present, past and future or that despite the very large sums of money in transit, the combination and recombination of companies served the interests of a very small number of individuals, none of them known for their love of free speech. John C. Malone, president of TCI \(the gentleman seated at the extreme left of the photograph, and the one whom Nast undoubtedly would best exemplified the presiding spirit of implacable and wellorganized greed. As the largest cable television company in the world, TCI owns 1,200 delivery systems in 49 states \(roughly 20 perin Turner Broadcasting, Teleport Communications, TeleWest and the Discovery Channel. An ancillary company, Liberty Media, also tendered by Mr. Malone to Mr. Smith, holds lesser but still extensive interests in Black Entertainment Television, QVC, Home Shopping Network, Courtroom Television 16 MARCH 11, 1994