President Trump, who has repeatedly derided CNN’s coverage of his administration as ‘fake news,’ has loomed over the deal since the companies announced it.
Even critics of AT&T’s proposed mega-merger with Time Warner expressed alarm Wednesday at allegations that President Donald Trump’s Justice Department is intervening in the deal for political reasons — namely his oft-expressed complaints about CNN.
“Any indication that this administration is using its power to weaken media organizations it doesn’t like would be a profoundly disturbing development,” Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) said, after POLITICO and other news outlets reported that the DOJ had been pressing the companies to unload the Time Warner-owned news network.
Even so, Franken said he’s sticking by his original opinion of the $85 billion merger — that it would create a “massive corporation that would wield entirely way too much power.”
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) told POLITICO that the DOJ’s reported actions “merit investigation,” and that senators should ask Attorney General Jeff Sessions about it next week.
“Presidential power must be used wisely and fairly. I don’t know the details here but this is worth investigating,” Schatz tweeted earlier in the day. He added: “The burden of proof is on the Justice Department to establish that there is no political interference in their Antitrust Division.”
Sources familiar with the proposed merger told POLITICO that the DOJ issued an ultimatum to the companies Monday — that they either sell Time Warner’s Turner Broadcasting, which includes CNN as well as networks like TBS and TNT, or shed satellite television provider DirecTV. The sources said it’s clear the real sticking point for the government is CNN, whose coverage of the administration has become a frequent target of Trump’s anger.
Unnamed DOJ officials later offered reporters a much different account, saying the companies themselves had offered to sell CNN — an option the officials said they rejected. AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson called that untrue, saying in a statement that he “never offered to sell CNN and have no intention of doing so.”
And with that, weeks of tension between the administration and the companies spilled into the open. The two sides appear to be preparing for a court battle should DOJ reject the merger.
The DOJ officials offered no details about what aspects of the deal concern them. But they said simply selling off CNN would not necessarily solve the harm to the public.
Trump, who has repeatedly derided CNN’s coverage of his administration as “fake news,” has loomed over the deal since the companies announced it a little over a year ago. Shortly after the merger was announced in October 2016, then-candidate Trump said in a speech in Gettysburg, Pa., that his administration would block the deal on populist grounds — that it would place “too much concentration of power in the hands of too few.”
Since becoming president, Trump has muted any unhappiness he might harbor about the size and market power that the combined AT&T-Time Warner would wield. But he has kept up his attacks on CNN’s coverage of his administration, through frequent tweets and a memorable on-air spat with reporter Jim Acosta.
At the same time, the mega-deal has drawn sharp opposition from critics on both the left and right, who warn that the combined company could give higher priority to Time Warner’s content over that of other providers — HBO and CNN instead of Showtime and Fox News, for example — reducing competition and harming consumers. Seven groups of various political persuasions wrote to Sessions last month warning the deal would threaten “diversity of speech.”
Two of those groups voiced support Wednesday for the DOJ’s reported decision to demand the sale of media assets before clearing the deal.
“DOJ staff are unlikely to push for divestitures unless they have a theory they think is solid,” said John Bergmayer, senior counsel at Public Knowledge, a progressive digital rights group. “There are good reasons to be skeptical of vertical integration, and most observers agree that structural remedies such as divestiture are better and more effective than behavioral remedies [such as] lists of conditions.”
Rick Manning, president of the conservative group Americans for Limited Government, praised Sessions for “taking his responsibility very seriously to assure that First Amendment rights are protected and that content flows are protected, and are not going to be skewed based on corporate political agendas.”
At least one Democrat appeared to side with the DOJ’s moves around CNN.
“The DOJ seems to be doing its job, and I hope it will continue imposing scrutiny and action to protect free market competition and First Amendment free expression,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said in an interview. “[Selling CNN] may well be necessary to assure the independence of CNN from political interference and assure that it remains a strong force as a media organization.”
But Trump’s contempt for CNN’s coverage of his presidency — and his other media-bashing — is casting a shadow over the government’s review. Trump has often expressed a desire to punish media outlets whose coverage he deems unfair, promising on the campaign trail to “open up” the libel laws and suggesting in October that NBC News’ non-existent broadcast license should be revoked.
On the other hand, some Trump appointees have pressed ahead with efforts to allow some media organizations to grow bigger — including with an FCC rule change that will help the conservative-leaning broadcaster Sinclair reach as many as 72 percent of U.S. households.
Politics should play no role in these types of decisions, free-speech advocates said Wednesday.
“While there are plenty of good reasons to oppose AT&T’s Time Warner takeover, punishing CNN for trying to hold this administration accountable isn’t one of them,” said Craig Aaron, president of liberal group Free Press, which opposes the AT&T-Time Warner deal. “No matter where you come down on this merger, everyone should agree that the government shouldn’t base antitrust decisions or FCC rulings on whether it likes a newsroom’s coverage.”
Josh Gerstein and Ashley Gold contributed to this report.
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