President Trump is getting back at CNN for its negative coverage by insisting the network be sold before a controversial merger between AT&T and its parent company, Time-Warner, will be approved.
The proposed merger has attracted a lot of critics, who worry it will consolidate too much media and telecom industry power in the hands of one firm. News of the potential challenge has thrown plans to complete the $85 billion merger by the end of the year into uncertainty.
Trump has expressed opposition to the deal, saying it concentrates too much media power in one company. For now, the Justice Department is requesting, not ordering, the sale, and experts are divided on whether the Justice Department would prevail if it tried. Randall Stephenson, CEO of AT&T, said he has never offered to sell CNN and has no intention to do so.
Reports have suggested the president doesn’t care about the rest of the Turner family of networks, which were founded by liberal billionaire Ted Turner – but he wants CNN sold.
This “sparked concerns that President Trump, who has long berated CNN as ‘fake news,’ was punishing the company for its critical coverage of the information,” wrote Derek Thompson of the Atlantic. “Indeed, for any president to use the Department of Justice to punish enemies – either individuals or companies – would be the stuff of authoritarians.”
Media have accused Trump of displaying authoritative tendencies since before he took office. Fears he would unilaterally end protections for gay Americans, forcibly remove millions of immigrants and otherwise harass his enemies have proven unfounded. Now, the media are using his opposition to a deal on antitrust grounds – a complaint that seems to have plenty of support outside the administration – to accuse him of using authoritarian tactics to shut down an unfriendly media source.
Thompson’s main evidence is that Makan Delrahim, whom he described as “Trump’s hand-picked head of antitrust at the Justice Department, had previously announced that this merger would be acceptable.” His change of mind after coming to the White House suggests he was pressured, which Peter Kafka of Recode called “chilling.”
But even Thompson admitted the claim makes little sense.
Even if Trump forced the sale, CNN would remain on the air. If he allows the deal to go through, the new boss of CNN would be Stephenson, a Republican from Texas who has praised Trump publicly.
If he forces the sale, someone such as CBS, led by Democrat and fierce Trump critic Les Moonves, would be at the helm.
“I don’t see how anyone can know right now whether this is Trump trying to punish CNN,” said Georgetown law professor Steven Salop. “But it does not matter. Retaliation or not, this is just good vertical-merger enforcement.”
But Thompson speculates AT&T is pushing the story to counter without responding to the Department of Justice’s objections to the deal.
The president has mused about shutting down media, opening up libel law and other measures to punish the press for inaccuracies, so although he has not taken any steps in this direction, his adversaries can claim it’s on his mind.
“There is another disconcerting possibility here, which is that AT&T recognized it could co-opt the news media’s disgust toward the president to distribute a pro-merger narrative that would drown out the Justice Department’s reasonable objections to its acquisition,” Thompson wrote.
“It’s important for the news media to remain on authoritarian watch. But a convenient union between anti-Trump journalists and big business would be another dangerous merger.”