When its parent company’s planned merger made national news, NBC News turned into little more than the PR branch of Comcast.
Comcast-owned NBC has been almost eerily silent about opposition to the deal, since news broke that Comcast had plans to merge with Time Warner Cable. NBC’s four segments on the merger were mainly positive. Two of NBC’s four stories failed to mention any controversy about the mega-merger, and NBC disclosed that Comcast owned NBCUniversal in just two stories.
Comcast and Time Warner Cable presented their case before the Senate Judiciary committee on April 9, claiming that their merger doesn’t violate antitrust laws. Those laws are designed to prevent companies from gaining a monopoly in a particular sector.
For those seeking a guide how the proposed merger of the two largest U.S. cable companies could impact news coverage, they need only turn to NBC.
Even when NBC mentioned concerns about the merger, it was quick to dismiss them. On NBC “Nightly News” on Feb. 13, anchor Brian Williams played a clip of CNBC market news analyst David Faber explaining the deal. Faber said: “there are going to be consumer advocacy groups that oppose the deal who say it simply puts too much power in the hands of one company – this being Comcast, our parent company – to control prices and to control, to a certain extent, content. That remains to be seen whether the U.S. government will agree.”
But Williams concluded this segment by noting that, “for his part, Comcast Chairman Brian Roberts said today, quote, ‘We wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t think we could get it approved.’”
NBC News’ coverage of this merger also raised ethical concerns. According to the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, journalists should “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.” NBC has been called out by the SPJ in the past, for allegedly engaging in “checkbook journalism,” by paying for an interview, and for failing to disclose an analyst’s conflict of interest.
To find accurate coverage of the Comcast merger, viewers would have had to turn to another channel. CBS was the only network to mention that Comcast CEO Brian Roberts is “an ally of President Obama,” and six of the seven CBS stories covering this merger mentioned the controversy. ABC had three segments, only one of which mentioned concerns.
On Feb. 13, CBS News Senior Business Correspondent Anthony Mason noted that the fact that Comcast could reach about 66 percent of the country might “raise some red flags” with regulators. Mason said that consumer groups were worried “that Comcast could become the bully in the schoolyard, that it will have unprecedented gatekeeper power to control content.” Mason also noted that Comcast and Time Warner were “two of the least popular companies and one of the most disliked industries,” according to customer surveys.
ABC only mentioned concerns about the merger once, on “World News with Diane Sawyer” on Feb. 13. Chief Business & Economics Correspondent Rebecca Jarvis mentioned in passing that “some industry watchdogs” were telling ABC News that “this deal would lead to less consumer choice, less diversity, and much higher cable bills.” She then added that “in general, mergers do tend to drive up prices and have hurt consumer satisfaction.”
Comcast already owns NBC, MSNBC and CNBC, and recently added liberal blogger Ezra Klein's new venture, Vox, which is hosted by Vox Media, an online platform funded through their Comcast Ventures division. It also owns Telemundo, Bravo, SyFy, The Weather Channel and Universal Parks and Resorts in Florida.
Comcast has had its fair share of self-inflicted controversy in the past year or so. The Media Research Center called on Congress to investigate Comcast in 2012, after NBC News doctored audio from George Zimmerman’s 911 call to make him seem racist. MSNBC has also been plagued by internal problems, including the resignation of Martin Bashir, after he suggested on Nov. 15, 2013, that Sarah Palin should be forced to have someone defecate in her mouth.
The Media Research Center's Business and Media Institute analyzed network coverage of the Comcast/Time Warner merger from Feb. 10, just before the merger was officially announced on Feb. 12, until the morning of April. 14. Only morning and evening news shows from ABC, CBS and NBC were included.