Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters.
Did President Donald Trump torpedo AT&Tâs purchase of Time Warner as part of an ongoing feud with Time Warner subsidiary CNN? At this point, it almost doesnât matter. The fact that the question can be raised shows that the damage to the press and to the political system has already been done.
AnnouncedÂ just over a year ago, the $85.4 billion deal would create a media and telecommunications goliath, marrying Time Warnerâs film and television studio and popular cable TV offerings including HBO to AT&Tâs massive holdings in satellite television, telephone, cellular, and broadband. The resulting company would be larger than Disney or Comcast Corp.
If, that is, the deal goes through. This afternoon,Â severalÂ mediaÂ outletsÂ reported that the Justice Department is planning to block the merger on antitrust grounds, unless either Time Warner agrees to spin off Turner Broadcasting, the bundle of cable channels that includes CNN, or AT&T sells its satellite television subsidiary DirectTV.
The reported requirement has led someÂ toÂ questionÂ whether the Trump administration is retaliating against CNN for its critical coverage of the president.
Attacks on the press have been one of theÂ clearest throughlinesÂ of Trumpâs campaign and administration, and no outlet has been the subject of more vitriol than CNN. During a press conference in January, TrumpÂ shouted downÂ correspondent Jim Acosta, yelling, âYou are fake news!â Heâs singled out the network and its journalists for vitriol, constantly attacking them for their tough reporting on his administration inÂ interviews, atÂ rallies, and onÂ Twitter, often in particularly disturbingÂ fashion. Trump aide and son-in-law Jared KushnerÂ reportedly tookthose complaints about CNN to a top Time Warner executive earlier this year.
Trump is on the record opposing the deal; during an October 2016 rally, he specificallyÂ highlightedÂ CNNâs inclusion while saying he would stop it if elected president âbecause itâs too much concentration of power.â The comments were unusual as Republicans generally support such acquisitions. In fact, Makan Delrahim, who Trump would later appoint to leadÂ the DOJâs antitrust unit, said in a television interview that month that heÂ didnât think the mergerÂ posed a âmajor antitrust problem.â Over the summer,Â The New York TimesÂ provided another clue as to why Trump opposed the deal, reporting that White House advisers hadÂ discussedÂ the merger not simply as a legal question but as a âpotential point of leverage over their adversary,â CNN.
I am not a lawyer, and have no expertise in whether or not there are legitimate reasons to halt the AT&T/Time Warner deal. According toÂ reports, stopping the merger wouldÂ defy precedent. But Iâm generally disinclined to defend massive accumulations of corporate wealth and power.
Last year, media reform advocates like Free Press and the anti-monopoly expert Barry LynnÂ wrote to both presidential candidates urging themÂ to scrutinize the takeover if elected, stating that the deal would provide little benefit to consumers and represents âa serious threat to the openness and competitiveness of our nationâs communications systems, hence to American democracy.â
Maybe the president played no role in the DOJâs decision. Maybe the DOJâs antitrust division just took that letter to heart. Maybe theyâre tapping the breaks on the merger for legitimate reasons. Maybe theyâre really worried about how, in the words of the activistsâ letter, âthe recent history of media concentration is littered with broken promises and higher prices for customers.â Itâs possible.
But the fact that the action comes after years of the presidentâs attacks on CNN, and his recentÂ exhortationsÂ for the DOJ to act against his political enemies, render the action suspect and raise serious questions about its legitimacy. And that in itself is incredibly damaging to both the political system and the media environment.
As the Cato Instituteâs Julian SanchezÂ notes, even if the DOJâs decision had nothing to do with the presidentâs feud with CNN, it cannot help but create a âchilling effectâ on other media outlets. Other multinational corporations with media divisions may now try to restrain their journalists lest they run afoul of government action in the future as well.
This is the sort of systemic corruption that authoritarians create by wielding the power of the state against their political enemies. In the end, businessmen can only be successful by agreeing to yield to the leader, and thereby receiving favorable treatment from regulators while their rivals are destroyed.
âTrump is not going to crush the free media in one fell swoop,â Vox.comâs Matt YglesiasÂ warnedÂ shortly after Trumpâs election. âBut big corporate media does face enough regulatory matters that even a single exemplary case would suffice to induce large-scale self-censorship. AT&T, for example, is currently seeking permission from antitrust authorities to buy Time Warner Â â permission that Time Warner executives might plausible fear is contingent on Trump believing that CNN has covered him âfairly.ââ
A year later, Trumpâs bureaucracy is moving against one of the media companies he hates the most. And he has poisoned the well so completely that itâs impossible to view the deal without focusing on that reality.
Header image byÂ Sarah Wasko / Media Matters