Soundings

Jonathan Foreman
Politically Wired
Winter 1997

As autumn's leaves came wafting down, New York witnessed a nasty row between the titans who stand atop the city's leading media companies. Ted Turner, vice-chairman of Time Warner, likened News Corporation head Rupert Murdoch to Hitler and called him a "scumbag." Murdoch's New York Post returned the compliment by questioning Turner's sanity. All this because Time Warner—forced after its $7.5 billion merger with Turner Broadcasting System to make room on its cable TV service for a competitor to Turner's CNN—chose MSNBC instead of Murdoch's fledgling Fox News, reneging on an earlier deal between Murdoch and Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin (or so Murdoch claims in a pending lawsuit).

Modern-day Citizen Kane that he is, Murdoch turned to his friends in politics. The head of Fox News, former Republican operative Roger Ailes, buttonholed Mayor Giuliani at a party and related the injustice of it all. Indignant over the threat to an operation that might someday employ as many as 1,400—and perhaps even mindful of the New York Post's unstinting support of his administration—Giuliani leapt to Murdoch's defense. He made threatening noises about Warner's upcoming franchise review in 1998 and tried hard to put Fox News on one of the city's non-commercial public-service channels, only to be stymied by a federal judge. Ted Turner proclaimed that he was shocked—shocked—that politics played so prominent a role in New York's cable business.

Turner obviously has some reading up to do on his new corporate partner. Time Warner did not become the monopoly supplier of cable in most of the city by forswearing politics. Its late chairman Steve Ross, a flamboyant but ruthless fixer with reputed connections to organized crime, was pulling political strings for the company's cable interests as far back as the early seventies, when he arranged a large contribution to President Nixon's reelection campaign and hired White House aide (and Watergate co-conspirator) Charles Colson as a consultant. The object of both moves: to discourage Nixon from recommending regulations that would have treated cable systems—the hardware, that is, as opposed to the programming—as public utilities.

When New York City began parceling out cable franchises in the late seventies and early eighties, Ross hastened to make further important political friends. In 1978 he was finance co-chairman for Hugh Carey's gubernatorial campaign, and four years later, he gave generously to Mario Cuomo. He also tapped political insiders to work for him at Warner, hiring Carey assistant Robert Morgado and Richard Aurelio, a deputy mayor under John Lindsay. Aurelio helped the company to secure the lion's share of franchises in the outer boroughs. Today he is president of Time Warner Cable.

Such dealings are perhaps inevitable when government hands out so valuable a natural monopoly. It will be years before TV technology takes care of the problem—replacing cable with phone lines or some combination of satellite and microwave broadcast—but in the meantime, the Federal Communications Commission should declare Time Warner a "common carrier," as they say in communications parlance. The company should have no more right to keep Fox from using its cable system than AT&T does to keep NYNEX off its phone lines. The FCC might have clarified this matter long ago—if not for Time Warner's masterful politicking.

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