Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor Kevin Riley will testify before a Congressional subcommittee Tuesday as part of Congress’ new push for antitrust regulation of Big Tech.

Riley will appear in support of a bill offering newspapers a four year exemption to antitrust regulation in order to collective bargain will Google and Facebook over ad revenues and content sharing.

The AJC has been part of a regional media monopoly for generations. Cox Media Group owns Atlanta and the state of Georgia’s newspaper, highest rated local TV news station and dominant news/talk radio station plus extensive other media holdings.

In May I asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Cox for abusing its market dominance in anti-competitive ways. The effect being to stifle a diversity of voices and suppress watchdog coverage of state officials and institutions.

From my e-mail to the FTC:

“Using open records requests I uncovered evidence of Cox colluding with state-run Georgia Public Broadcasting to obtain student-funded college radio station WRAS as another platform for themselves:

https://www.scribd.com/lists/14561715/GPB-and-AJC-Open-Records-Request

The AJC and Georgia State University

Fox and Cox

Last week conservative media figure Erick Erickson, who hosts a show on Cox Media’s leading Atlanta news and talk station WSB, announced plans for a second radio show to focus on Georgia state politics to air on stations outside of Atlanta.

https://twitter.com/EWErickson/status/1123224407550377989

[Link seems to no longer work, thread may have been taken down.]

It will be anchored at Cox’s WGAU in Athens but will be offered free to other stations.

Erickson is pitching it as an effort to help fill local news deserts and counter selective national coverage of Georgia politics.

https://www.ajc.com/blog/radiotvtalk/erick-erickson-adding-three-hour-radio-show-from-noon-about-georgia-politics-starting-wgau-athens/q6W7EZpbqUAeAujFFMo67K/

This is in response to the 2018 Gubernatorial election where the Stacey Abrams campaign actively pursued a national media strategy that allowed it to go over the heads of Cox-dominated local media with coverage in outlets like MSNBC, The New Yorker, and The Daily Show.”

The FTC’s response:

Whether a full investigation is ongoing, I can’t say, but potentially a newspaper editor asking for an antitrust exemption may be part of an antitrust investigation.

Cox Media itself is in transition with a sale of its TV stations to a new entity backed by private equity under its own regulatory review.

Common Cause in Ohio has opposed the sale citing Cox’s regional monopoly in Dayton as itself being harmful to localism:

https://www.commoncause.org/press-release/common-cause-files-petition-to-deny-proposed-apollo-cox-northwest-broadcasting-merger/

There are news reports that sales of other Cox media properties to private equity will follow:

http://www.insideradio.com/free/from-the-rumor-mill-cox-in-talks-to-sell-radio/article_480cf0e8-3c6e-11e9-948f-2f7ecd1b15f7.html

As Common Cause argues in its concerns about private equity “These firms typically implement cost cutting measures such as layoffs, frozen wages, and consolidated newsroom functions. Profits generated from cost cutting are not returned to into improving the newspaper but rather to pay off loans, manage fees, and shareholder dividends. As a result, the quality of news and information newspapers produce significantly diminishes …”

If Tech Companies have become monopolies to the detriment of local journalism, giving legacy regional monopolies and ever-expanding private equity firms there own antitrust exemptions seems like rewarding bad behavior.

The bill before the committee granting newspapers the right to collectively bargain, even if their employees are unable to as is the case in right-to-work Georgia where no major newsroom is unionized, is co-sponsored by Republican Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the Judiciary Committee’s ranking member.

Rep. Collins was given space in the AJC’s op-ed pages to promote his bill. A second opinion column in favor with the byline “by the New Media Alliance” appeared just below. No opinion opposed to Collins’ bill appeared.

A shared consensus among a powerful, incumbent politician and his state’s largest newspaper, which also owns conservative talk radio stations, may be genuine, but hints at another concern about Collins and Dem. David Cicilline’s proposed bill.

Is protecting their legacy local newspapers also an act of incumbent protection by members of Congress.

Pointedly, no major incumbent politician in Georgia has called for new leadership at Georgia Public Broadcasting, despite its layoffs, financial losses, and lax oversight, although Stacey Abrams’ former campaign manager did criticize a GPB news story via Twitter last week:

If local news is a civic need, protecting for-profit media companies like Cox seems misguided. Especially if they collude with a non-commercial, but politically-controlled, public broadcaster like GPB to the detriment of other news outlets or current or former Cox/GPB journalists unable or unwilling to criticize Cox’s actions.

GPB now competes in Atlanta with independent NPR affiliate WABE, instead of focusing on better serving news deserts throughout Georgia where corporate and private equity-owned newspapers are often shells of their former selves..

WABE receives no state funding and could presumably grow to replace some of the news gathering efforts of a diminished AJC. As could other nonprofit newsrooms such as Pro-Publica or the digital only, locally-focused newsrooms now emerging in some cities.

In observing the 2018 election outside groups challenging the integrity of Georgia’s touchscreen voting machines and election integrity had their own concerns about local media.

Cox and the AJC too often took state officials’ word without skepticism and acted as their defense when national outlets reported more critically.

Big Tech may well be a threat to Democracy and in need of increased regulation or breaking up.

But part of its disruption has been of Good Old Boy networks.

Preserving and protecting those should not be the priority.

Atlanta writer and comedian. Occasional citizen journalist. Diagnosed with Asperger’s at age 40. No relation to Steve.

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