DOJ Won't Tackle Politically Biased Media: "It's Not Our Job"

ONE TIME USE ONLY -Rupert Murdoch names Roger Ailes as the head of Fox News, January 30, 1996 - Getty-H 2020
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Despite complaints from conservatives who say left-leaning tech companies are shadow-banning on social media, the top U.S. competition regulator says he won’t get involved.

Conservatives are unhappy with Big Tech. Some even accuse social media companies like Twitter and Facebook of suppressing their political viewpoints through "shadow-banning," the act of making certain posts less visible than others. And politicians like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz have suggested that the Justice Department should review that supposed censorship. During a Senate hearing in April, Cruz commented, "By almost any measure, the giant tech companies today are larger and more powerful than Standard Oil was when it was broken up [in the early 20th century]. They are larger and more powerful than AT&T when it was broken up [in 1982]. If we have tech companies using the power of monopoly to sanction political speech, I think that raises real antitrust issues."

Asked whether it's the role of antitrust regulators to ensure diversity of viewpoints in social media, DOJ Antitrust Division chief Makan Delrahim is hesitant. "It's not my job to ensure diversity," he says. "It is my job to ensure that there's competition should there be, in what we call in economic parlance, a revealed preference on behalf of consumers to want that type of diversity."

But Delrahim does imagine a scenario where the DOJ could get involved. "Obviously, Rupert Murdoch at Fox showed there was a market for half the country who wanted a different viewpoint of news presented to them," he says. "And they did that. Now, if the market was blocked for him to invest and create something that he felt the market needed or demanded, that would be a problem. But otherwise, it's not our job to regulate the content of speech."

Interestingly, his comment about Murdoch recalls a nearly forgotten episode nearly a quarter century ago.

When Time Warner merged with Turner Broadcasting in 1995, the company agreed to pick up an additional cable news network on top of CNN, one of its subsidiaries.Time Warner chose MSNBC instead of Murdoch’s Fox News, which led to a big courtroom brawl. Encouraged by then-New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, Fox News filed antitrust claims while Time Warner countersued with the allegation that city officials had conspired with Murdoch’s companies to suppress its free speech rights to offer what it wished on its cable system. The judge ruled in favor of Time Warner. “The city's purpose in acting to compel Time Warner to give Fox one of its commercial channels was to reward a friend and to further a particular viewpoint,'' wrote the judge.

Fortunately for Murdoch, he eventually negotiated a deal for wider carriage of Fox News. History is still being written as a result of what happened.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.