Silence Is Golden
Adam Ruins Everything creator Adam Conover reveals how a Time Warner merger led to censorship. His story isn't unusual. Corporations routinely censor on their own behalf.
Welcome to BIG, a newsletter about the politics of monopoly. If you’d like to sign up, you can do so here. Or just read on…
Today I’m writing about free expression and its relationship with market systems, and I’ll make a basic point. Dominant corporations don’t censor with the goal of helping the right or left, they censor to help themselves.
Random Monopoly of the Day
First, here’s a random monopoly I came across, this one is in Canada. Blake Shaffer, Dave Brown, and Andrew Eckert described how a certain form of utility regulation and concentration in the power plant market in Alberta leads to massive price increases for consumers, mostly going to excess profit. The three firms they cite are ATCO, Heartland Power, and Transalta. The problem is more complex than just price gouging, and has to do with a high-capital cost industry going from busts to booms. The dominant incumbents act a lot like the unregulated ocean shipping cartel, recouping with high prices during high demand what they lose in low prices during low demand. The rest of Canada has rules that smooth these price fluctuations.
So there we go. Consider this write-up a gift to my Canadian readers, who are unhappy that their heavily monopolized economy tends to go unnoticed. If you have a random monopoly you’d like me to highlight, send it my way.
Private Governments Censor all the time
The network that broadcasts your show also owns the studio that makes it, the intellectual property that it’s based on, and the cable infrastructure that brings it to your house. Just six companies now control the production and distribution of almost all entertainment content available to the American public in theaters, on TV, and on streaming services. - Writer’s Guild of America West board member Adam Conover
When I worked in Congress, one of the more illuminating experiences I had about the importance of the entertainment industry was with the United States Marshals Service, which is the Federal body that arrests people with outstanding warrants. The U.S. Marshals have lots of cool toys, like trucks and mini-battering rams, and they would sometimes bring Congressional staff along as they knocked down doors and arrested people. The idea was that Congress should know about the agencies they are funding. The military services do this too, showing Congressional staffers their various cool weaponry. The institutional goal is to have staffers go back to their boss and recommend more funding.
It was a weird experience, like canvassing in a political campaign, except the goal was to put people in jail. (And mostly no one was home.) Afterwards, I had a conversation with the guy leading the arrests where I asked when the U.S. Marshals got the money for their fancy equipment. He said that it happened in the early 1990s. Why? Well, he said, that was when the movie The Fugitive with Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones came out, and that movie is why members of Congress understood what the U.S. Marshals did.
That’s the power of entertainment. The stories we tell shape what we think is possible, they shape our politics, they bound who we as a society consider ourselves to be, and they even help our legislators write laws.
And with that, last week, the antitrust enforcers held a listening session on consolidation in media and entertainment, and at that session, a TV creator named Adam Conover talked about how he was censored in telling a specific story. Conover’s show was called Adam Ruins Everything, and it was a blend of comedy and journalism, where he would walk viewers through a particular corner of the world and expose corruption.
His whole testimony is worth listening to, but the most interesting part was when Conover told the story of how Time Warner threatened free expression, and why it did so. It happened as AT&T was trying to buy Time Warner in a controversial merger. “The only time we were censored by our network was when we did an episode called Adam Ruins the Internet about monopolistic consolidation in the cable industry,” he told FTC Chair Lina Khan and Antitrust Division chief Jonathan Kanter. “And after it aired, Time Warner pulled the episode from reruns and streaming because they were worried it would anger AT&T and jeopardize the merger.”