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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Who owns your cable connection?

I learned something new and interesting in the July 21 Louisville Courier Journal. My cable TV company was purchased last year by the Carlyle Group:
Insight accepted a $710 million buyout offer last year from its co-founders and investment firm Carlyle Group, a move that took the company private.
Why is this interesting?

Well, newshounds might remember the publicity Carlyle received in fall 2001 when it was revealed that the multi-billion dollar company (apparently the "largest private equity firm in the world") included former President George H.W. Bush, his Secretary of State James Baker, and many other politicians among its Board of Directors and employees.

Moreover, Saudi members of Osama bin Laden's family were among the company's smaller investors -- at least until October 2001 when the connection was revealed. G.H.W. Bush reportedly twice visited the Bin Ladens in Saudi Arabia to represent the company's interests. Bush, however, apparently left the Board of Directors in fall 2003.

Some stories made it sound as if Carlyle was a sinister Republican profit-machine highly motivated to push a war agenda.

Bush and bin Laden, in cahoots, don't you see?

It was sometimes reported during the buildup to war in Afghanistan and Iraq that Carlyle is a defense contractor, but that is inaccurate. Rather, the equity firm owns controlling -- or sometimes partial -- interests in a number of defense contractors.

The always-controversial George Soros is also an investor. As I've noted before, these global elites tend to be networked together.

Indeed, if one reads some press reports about Carlyle, the journalists always come off like name-droppers. The company has hired former British Prime Minister John Major, AOL founder Steve Case, Colin Powell, Reagan-era defense secretary Frank Carlucci, etc.

Apparently, the Insight cable deal wasn't Carlyle's first move into media. A July 18 Business Wire press release summarized its activity:
The Carlyle Group is a global private equity firm with $41.9 billion under management. Carlyle invests in buyouts, venture & growth capital, real estate and leveraged finance in Asia, Europe and North America, focusing on telecommunications & media, industrial, automotive & transportation, aerospace, consumer & retail, energy & power, technology & business services and healthcare. Since 1987, the firm has invested $19.7 billion of equity in 500 transactions for a total purchase price of $79.7 billion. The Carlyle Group employs more than 670 people in 15 countries. In the aggregate, Carlyle portfolio companies have more than $46 billion in revenue and employ more than 184,000 people around the world. Significant telecom and media investments include Comhem, Insight, Taiwan Broadband, Willcom, PanAmSat, Hawai Telecom and VNU.
According to the Wikipedia article, over 30% of Carlyle's investments are in media and telecommunications.

As I've written before, much more needs to be explored about large corporate ownership of mass media.

Marshall McLuhan used to say that the "medium is the message." What message is Carlyle sending by acquiring so many media companies?

Is this just about profit?

Or, are media critics right? Large, private, corporate ownership of media reduces the number and variety of voices with access to the public sphere. This particularly limits audience access to local and minority perspectives. Ultimately, it also constricts competition and thereby reduces innovation and increases prices.

Maybe Carlyle's move into media explains why there doesn't seem to be as many negative stories about the firm as there were in 2001.

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