DENVER —To hear speakers at April's National Conference for Media Reform tell it, it's almost as if they'd like to see Teddy Roosevelt come back and take on a new century's monopolies and trusts.
And this was before Dish Network, the satellite TV service, made a bid to buy cell phone firm Sprint Nextel on top of its deal to buy Blockbuster Video in 2011.
Former Federal Communications Commission commissioner Michael Copps, speaking at the conference, lamented the "legal words" that enticed the FCC to approve the acquisition of NBC Universal by Comcast. Copps, a Catholic, pointed out during his time at the microphone that he was part of the FCC minority voting against the merger.
Arizona State University journalism professor Dan Gillmor -- during a separate presentation titled "Is Facebook a Threat to a Free Press?" -- talked about an unnamed Facebook employee who said of the social media behemoth, "We're almost like electricity." Gillmor didn't elaborate, but the clear inference was that Facebook is almost everywhere, just like electricity.
Facebook now touts 1 billion users worldwide. Given that there are only -- only? -- 7 billion people on the planet, and a goodly number of them are either too old, too young, or live in countries too repressive to use Facebook, that's an incredible number.
But should it be regulated like a public-service utility such as electricity, water, gas or phone? "Not yet," Gillmor said, adding later that some would seize on the concept and assert a governmental right to regulate Facebook.
While Facebook is undeniably huge, it does not have a monopoly in the social-media field. Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram and a raft of other sites try to do something distinctively different to keep people coming back.
Gillmor believes in the power of the market. Is Facebook too big to fail, or could it become the next MySpace? The odds-on choice to be social-media king less than a decade ago, MySpace was bought by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. in 2005, two years after its founding. It surpassed Google as the world's most-visited website a year later, only to be eclipsed by Facebook in 2008. And not even propping it up with help from "American Idol" and "Glee" -- both hot properties of the News Corp.-owned Fox network -- could keep it from sliding into irrelevance.
Now called Myspace, the social media outlet is currently down to 25 million unique visitors, and was ranked last year at 133rd in U.S. web traffic. It had more 100 million unique visitors at its peak.
The quest for dominance in the media world seems to continue unabated. Certainly, speakers at the media reform conference were disappointed in outgoing FCC chairman Julius Genachowski's hands-off treatment of mergers and acquisitions. The only merger deal the FCC declared to be against the public interest was AT&T's failed attempt to by cell-phone rival T-Mobile.
Sinclair Broadcast Group said in March it is buying all 18 stations run by Barrington Broadcasting Group for $370 million -- on top of an earlier purchase of some stations previous owned by Cox. Even though Sinclair is, on the surface, bumping up against the FCC's cap of coverage of 39 percent of U.S. households, a Sinclair spokesman noted the FCC counts UHF channels as only half, and that most of the stations Sinclair owns are in the UHF spectrum, so it figures it can continue to expand.
If Tribune Co., fresh out of bankruptcy, sells its newspapers as has been widely suspected, who will buy? One easy answer is Murdoch, who recently split his newspaper holdings from News Corp. after the cell phone-hacking scandal that has plagued his British newspapers for the past two years. And Murdoch has been successful at getting the FCC to grant waivers permitting him to run both a newspaper and a TV station in the same city under the guise of keeping newspapers alive. It's already worked in New York and Boston, and the issue could get raised anew in Chicago and Los Angeles, where News Corp. owns TV stations and Tribune owns the cities' biggest newspapers.
Verizon, a onetime "baby Bell" regional phone company which is now a nationwide phone-cable-Internet giant, is asserting a right to edit the Internet, which it said in a court filing last July in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
"Broadband providers possess 'editorial discretion,'" Verizon said in the brief. "Just as a newspaper is entitled to decide which content to publish and where, broadband providers may feature some content over others." Even if they don't own the content?
The media reform conference was sponsored by media-policy think tank Free Press, which was founded in part to stem the growth and consolidation of media. Its greatest triumph came in 2003, when an FCC proposal to relax TV and radio station ownership limits even beyond those in the 1996 Telecommunications Act met with fierce resistance: 3 million signatures in an online petition and a myriad of town-hall meetings blasting the proposal.
Those higher limits were ultimately shelved, but the FCC recently reintroduced a plan to loosen the ownership reins once more and permit greater media concentration. The proposal is on hold while President Barack Obama nominates a new FCC chair.