The pending merger between TV giant Univision and radio colossus Hispanic Broadcasting Corp. (HBC), both major players in the Spanish-language media market, is a disaster waiting to happen for Latinos in the United States.
The merger currently awaits final approval from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), an agency that has deregulation at the top of its agenda. If Univision and HBC are allowed to merge, there will be major repercussions on the nation's political landscape -- from the 2004 presidential race to the long-term control of the information disseminated to millions of Spanish-speaking U.S. residents.
Univision owns 50 television stations (including three networks), Univision Music Group (which has a 35 percent market share of the Latin music market) and Univision Online. HBC owns 63 Spanish-language radio stations and an online portal.
A deal between the two companies could be a political time bomb.
Univision's chairman, Jerry Perenchio, who is not Hispanic, has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to campaigns supporting former California governor and leading Republican anti-immigration activist Pete Wilson. Univision has also been accused of presenting biased coverage in favor of Miguel Estrada, a conservative nominated for a judgeship by President Bush to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals.
On the HBC side, Clear Channel Communications, the conservative radio conglomerate that owns 1,200 radio stations and 37 television stations nationwide, is the major shareholder.
Clear Channel CEO Lowry Mays, like Perenchio, is a Republican billionaire, close to the Bush family and Texas investment banker Tom Hicks, who bought the Texas Rangers baseball team from President Bush in 1998, and is on the board of directors.
Clear Channel also employs conservative radio announcer Rush Limbaugh, has sponsored "Rallies for America" in support of the recent Iraq invasion and has been accused of censoring music artists against the Iraq war through its control of radio station playlists.
More than 20 Democratic senators and representatives, including Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, have lobbied FCC Chairman Michael Powell to block the merger. They say the $2.5 billion merger would consolidate power in the hands of Republican interests and influence the outcome of the 2004 presidential election through unprecedented media access to the all-important Hispanic swing vote. (The Hispanic population in the United States is expected to grow from 35 million, or 13 percent of the U.S. population, to about 25 percent of all Americans by 2020.)
Even without Univision's and HBC's conservative ties, the consolidation of media entities into smaller and smaller hands is a threat to the integrity of journalism in this country.
And while Latinos are increasingly proficient in English, allowing them to gain access to a more varied spectrum of media information, the Univision-HBC merger would give conservative Republicans unfair influence over the less-educated immigrant classes of Hispanics who are the core audience of Spanish-language television.
While it is true that Hispanic networks are trying to compete with the mainstream networks for advertising revenues, they should be considered a separate market from the mainstream. Because their programming is in Spanish, Hispanic media is the only source of broadcast information for Spanish speakers, and that source is in danger of falling under monopoly control.
The tacky telenovela programming that already wields too much power over my older relatives' living rooms is bad enough. It doesn't need a new infusion of pro-Republican bias to keep them from participating in the free America, with diverse opinions, that they dreamed of emigrating to.
Ed Morales is a contributor to the Village Voice and Newsday in New York, and author of "Living in Spanglish" (St. Martin's Press, 2002).