This week, President Donald J. Trump said it is “sad and unfair” that the Federal Communications Commission has yet to approve Sinclair Broadcasting Group’s merger with Tribune Media.
The president has a point. Sinclair and Tribune announced their intent to merge over a year ago, and yet a federal decision still hasn’t been made. The top FCC official said he has “serious concerns” about the merger, ostensibly because Sinclair will obtain greater household reach after the partnership.
Tom DeLay, former House Majority Leader, echoed this dubious sentiment. In an article for Politico, he cited Ronald Reagan’s successful bid for the presidency in 1980 as grounds for stopping the merger, arguing that federal restrictions on broadcast television ownership helped get Reagan’s message out into the public domain and that not adhering to this antiquated requirement could, while assisting conservatives in the short-term, become a stepping stone for long-term political warfare.
To be sure, it is the role of Washington to ensure fair competition. However, as market landscapes change, so too should the regulations that govern them. Americans shouldn’t go back to writing on typewriters like they did during the 1980 election, and neither should the government go back to utilizing the same FCC regulations of that period. Even the Reagan administration understood the importance of ensuring federal rules evolve with the growing industries they restrict, which is why it changed the TV rules that Mr. DeLay mentioned in his piece.
Fast forward a few decades to now, and it’s clear that consumer demands and preferences have shaped an entirely new competitive atmosphere in America’s television industry.
Back when Ronald Reagan first ran for office, right-leaning cable TV stations like Fox News and One America News didn’t exist. Thanks to their entry into the marketplace, the strict rules on broadcast TV stations have become less necessary. With undeniably left-leaning stations such as ABC, CBS, and NBC still reaching most homes, it would be foolish for government bureaucrats to prohibit the personal business decision of Sinclair and Tribune Media, two private companies, from moving forward.
From a free market standpoint, antitrust action is only warranted in industries and circumstances where, because of government involvement, the forces of supply and demand don’t exist.
One example of a necessary marketplace intervention is the 70-year-old antitrust consent decrees restraining ASCAP and BMI, the nation’s two largest music collectives, which staunch conservatives such as Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) have seemingly applauded for years. The rationale for their existence is radically different than the arguments made in favor of halting the Sinclair-Tribune merger.
Any small business that wishes to play music must go through ASCAP and BMI, which control the rights to nearly 90 percent of the songs on the radio. They amassed this market share not because of merited ingenuity, but rather due to the market-stifling government copyright laws that are needed to protect songwriters. To prevent these two unnatural monopolies from using these laws to needlessly raise prices, ASCAP and BMI agreed to these light-touch DOJ regulatory agreements, which assert the need for the music collectives to provide blanket licenses for their entire collection of songs at fair rates, with a rate court resolving any potential cases of dispute.
Any free market advocate that compares the reasons for the existence of the conservative-endorsed ASCAP and BMI antitrust agreements with the arguments in favor of big-stick action against Sinclair can easily see how the latter isn’t compatible with their philosophical reasoning.
The music decrees that center-right thinkers embrace restrain two anti-competitive, government-created monopolies. Antitrust action against Sinclair would intercede in an environment where consumer choice and competition has thrived on its own accord.
The ASCAP and BMI agreements set parameters in a fossilized industry where there have been negligible amounts of innovation. Preventing the Sinclair merger could restrict breakthroughs in a space where ingenuity has otherwise thrived.
Perhaps the most crucial distinction between the two is that the music consent decrees protect private property, while restrictions imposed on Sinclair would, by getting the federal government in the way of an individual decision, destroy it.
The last thing conservatives want are Republicans in Washington needlessly increasing the size and scope of big government. Here’s hoping that those at the FCC recognize the validity of President Trump’s concerns before it’s too late.
Tim Young is a Washington, D.C.-based political comedian and host of the show “No Things Considered.” He has appeared on CNN and Fox News, and has provided branding consulting to political candidates.