It has been widely reported that the the Trump administration is telling AT&T they might need to sell CNN as part of their conditions for approving its proposed merger with Time Warner. Many are crying foul, convinced this is an attempt by Trump to get back at CNN for what he considers biased, negative reporting about him and his administration.
“Is there anybody who doubts that the president would tell his Department of Justice to knuckle CNN’s parent company because Jake Tapper was mean to him?,” wrote Charles Pierce at Esquire. “The only reason you would divest CNN would be to kowtow to the president because he doesn’t like the coverage,” an anonymous source described by as someone close to the discussions told Politico. “It would send a chilling message to every news organization in the country.”
But the left needs to watch their step as they navigate this minefield. If they defend the deal too vociferously, they risk undermining an effort to make fighting monopoly like corporate mergers a focal point for the party’s economic agenda.
Progressives and the resurgent left wing of the Democratic Party have made increased corporate consolidation one of their causes, arguing that the increased dominance of corporate behemoths has led to an uptick in white collar crime, price-fixing, a falling business start-up, increased economic inequality and the decline of consumer rights. Mainstream Democrats have more recently adopted the issue: It’s even a plank in the party’s Better Deal, which pledges a commitment to “cracking down on corporate monopolies.”
The proposed ATT Time Warner merger was announced last year. The deal seemed to be slowly moving forward, despite the fact many Democrats, now concerned about these sorts of mergers, were speaking up. This past summer, a group of Senate Democrats sent a letter to the Justice Department, saying they had significant concerns the proposed merger would “lead to higher prices, fewer choices, and poorer quality services for Americans – substantial harms that cannot be remedied with unreliable, unenforceable and time-limited behavioral conditions.”
Then it was reported yesterday by the Financial Times and others that the Justice Department told AT&T to either sell Turner Broadcasting, the parent of CNN, or DirecTV (to avoid too much concentration in the industry) if they wanted the deal to be approved. Both the White House and Justice Department are denying that Trump is exerting any influence in this manner.
But if Democrats are going to make an issue of this, it could get complicated. Any Democratic attack on alleged inappropriate Trump motives for acting against the deal — or any Democratic support for administration actions blocking it or imposing significant requirements on companies entering into the merger — need to be carefully calibrated. Democrats need to say they don’t support either the merger or any administration action against the merger that seems rooted in an attempt to get back at CNN for negative coverage. They also need to make the point that Trump is not really acting out of concern over the growth of giant corporations and their increasing influence in American life.
After all, Trump did attack the deal during the campaign in terms that the left would use, saying it would be, “too much concentration of power in the hands of too few.” But it’s also true that Trump’s anti-corporate agenda is almost all talk and very little action. Given that, and his well-known anger at CNN, it’s more than fair to say that Trump is not the most credible spokesperson for the anti-monopoly cause out there — or that his motives for attacking the merger might be suspect.
So how to strike the right balance? I reached out via email to Matt Stoller, a fellow at the Open Markets Institute, and he suggested doing it this way: “We should be wary of the AT&T merger. We should also be wary of Trump’s potential abuse of power. That’s why it’s the right thing for the Trump DOJ to challenge this deal, and why there should be open Congressional hearings.”
Stoller has it exactly right. Worries about Trump engaging in an authoritarian shake-down of AT&T out of anger at CNN should not be allowed to put the kibosh on an important Democratic effort to make anti-trust and monopolization, and its impact on the economic fortunes of Americans, a centerpiece of their economic agenda.
For Democrats, this means threading a very narrow needle. But let’s hope they can pull it off.