William Safire: Conservative Critic of Media Monopoly

The Nation

By:  John Nichols

Bill Safire and I disagreed on more issues than we agreed.

It's like that with former Nixon speechwriters and Nation scribes.

But Safire, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist who has died at age 79, was an honest conservative.

He had ideological commitments, and partisan inclinations. He did not merely work in Richard Nixon's White House, he shared many of Nixon's ideas. And where they disagreed, it was often because Safire stood to the right of the 37th president.

Once he exited Nixon's employ -– with his honor essentially intact -- Safire was free to advance conservative views without having to play political games.

Unlike so many of today's faux (or should we spell it "Fox") conservatives, he did not barter his ideology's good name off to the highest corporate bidder.

Because of this, Safire and found common ground with progressives during one of the most intense battles of the Bush-Cheney era.

When Bob McChesney and I were campaigning with our allies in the media-reform movement to prevent Bush administration appointees on the Federal Communications Commission from removing the few remaining barriers to media consolidation, Safire was an ally. We were in frequent communication during that spring and summer, and I found myself referencing Safire's columns on a regular basis. Indeed, when I testified at the FCC building on the eve of the June 2003 FCC vote, I had the honor of highlighting the vital contribution my conservative compatriot had made to the struggle for media diversity.

Safire wrote a number of columns arguing against lifting regulatory caps and barriers that had been put in place to prevent a handful of corporations from gaining control of media conglomerates from gaining control of the national discourse -- and to prevent an individual corporation from dominating print, broadcast, cable and digital communications in a city.

"(While) political paranoids accuse each other of vast conspiracies, the truth is that media mergers have narrowed the range of information and entertainment available to people of all ideologies," he explained a Times column written when most major media outlets were ignoring the FCC fight.

To a greater extent than most prominent conservatives (and quite a few prominent liberals), Safire understood that a one-size-fits-all media would diminish the range of debate -- squeezing out dissent from the left and the right in a manner that would ultimately undermine democracy.

"Does this make me (gasp!) pro-regulation?" asked Safire in one of his 2003 columns. "Michael Powell, appointed by Bush to be F.C.C. chairman, likes to say 'the market is my religion.' My conservative economic religion is founded on the rock of competition, which -- since Teddy Roosevelt's day -- has protected small business and consumers against predatory pricing leading to market monopolization."

When the FCC voted 3-2 in favor of removing the barriers to media consolidation, Safire observed that:

The Federal Communications Commission, in business to protect the public's interest in our nation's airwaves, has by a 3-to-2 vote opened the floodgates to a wave of media mergers that will further crush local diversity and concentrate the power to mold public opinion in the hands of ever-fewer giant corporations.

This troubles some readers, listeners and viewers who don't like homogenized news or one-size-fits-all entertainment forced down their throats. When I inveighed against this impending sellout a couple of weeks ago, thousands -- no kidding, an unprecedented torrent -- of e-mails came roaring in, many beginning "Though I consider you a rightwing nutcase on most issues, I'm 100% with you against this big-media power grab.


It wasn't just people who thought Safire was a rightwing nutcase who paid attention to what he was writing.

A considerable crowd of conservatives – including a few genuine "rightwing nutcases" -- allied with progressives to defend media diversity.

After the commission's vote, Safire declared "Now it's up to Congress to overturn the ruling by the roundheeled FCC."

And darned if a number of conservatives in the House and Senate didn't sign on with progressives like Vermont independent Bernie Sanders, Wisconsin's Russ Feingold and North Dakota's Bryon Dorgan.

Ultimately, Congress and the courts signaled their opposition to big media's power grab. And the FCC was forced to back down.

It was one the most successful fight backs against the Bush-Cheney's administrations pro-corporate agenda during the former president's first term.

And Bill Safire, an honest conservative, played a critical role in popularizing the project and in getting other honest conservatives to accept that debates about media consolidation were really debates about whether America would have a democratic discourse in which all voices could compete and be heard.

"The effect of the media's march to amalgamation on Americans' freedom of voice is too worrisome to be left to three unelected commissioners," Safire explained, in a scathing attack on the corporate-friendly FCC majority, which media reformers circulated broadly. "This far-reaching political decision should be made by Congress and the White House, after extensive hearings and fair coverage by too-shy broadcasters, no-local-news cable networks and conflicted newspapers."

That argument, on basic democracy and good government principles, paralleled the one made by progressives on the issue. It was grounded in an understanding that some issues, and some threats, transcend ideological differences.

Safire believed that, in a fair debate, conservative ideas would prevail.

I believed that, in a fair debate, progressive ideas would prevail.

What we shared was a faith in the value of that fair debate, and a recognition that it can only occur when the media has many different owners -- and many distinct and dissenting voices.