Some big-time media and telecommunications executives had an unfortunate meeting on Wednesday with representatives of President Trump’s Justice Department. At issue was the proposed $85 billion merger of telecom colossus AT&T with content colossus Time Warner, which owns TNT, HBO, Warner Bros., TBS — and CNN.
As reported by CNN’s Brian Stelter, the Justice Department’s top antitrust official gave AT&T a choice: “If you want us to approve your purchase of Time Warner, either sell off CNN’s parent unit or DirecTV. Otherwise, we’ll see you in court,” wrote Stelter, paraphrasing the Justice official’s position. The corporate parent of CNN is Turner.
For some insight into just how Trump views this deal, toggle back to the presidential campaign trail circa October 2016: “As an example of the power structure I’m fighting, AT&T is buying Time Warner and thus CNN, a deal we will not approve in my administration because it’s too much concentration of power in the hands of too few,” said then-candidate Trump. He went on to attack Comcast’s 2011 merger with NBCUniversal, which, he said, “concentrates far too much power in one massive entity that is trying to tell the voters what to think and what to do. Deals like this destroy democracy.”
Spoken like a real pro on the destruction of democracy, with rhetoric not unlike that of various consumer advocates. Now that Trump is president, we’ve gotten a glimpse of how he views his solemn power over government regulation. Just last month, Trump tweeted a fantasy about retaliating against NBC after its news operation published a negative story about his approach to nuclear policy:
That little autocratic fit also managed to pull in CNN:
For context, NBC News isn’t the No. 1 media target of the president. It merely wrote an article he didn’t like, and there on social media, the president laid out his preferred countermeasure — even though NBC as a network doesn’t even have a license with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Its affiliate stations do.
CNN occupies a far more exalted spot on Trump’s list of media malefactors. “Fake news,” he booms when confronted with a CNN exclusive. His disdain toward the 24/7 news outlet has trickled down into the White House briefing room, where reps for CNN are treated icily. Back in July, the New York Times reported:
White House advisers have discussed a potential point of leverage over their adversary, a senior administration official said: a pending merger between CNN’s parent company, Time Warner, and AT&T. Mr. Trump’s Justice Department will decide whether to approve the merger, and while analysts say there is little to stop the deal from moving forward, the president’s animus toward CNN remains a wild card.
Put these circumstances together, and a noxious concoction emerges. Over more than two years, Trump has degraded the media for his political gain. Now his Justice Department is proposing merger conditions inimical to a Trump media target. It’s a feat of double-tasking, to diminish public trust in the media and the government at once.
AT&T chairman and chief executive Randall Stephenson issued a statement that read, in part, “Throughout this process, I have never offered to sell CNN and have no intention of doing so.”