The president's inconsistent positions suggest that his true objection to the merger of AT&T and Time Warner might be his personal animus toward CNN, which he often decries as “fake news.”
What could move Trump to drop his protest? Ousting Zucker would certainly fit into an appeasement effort.
Trump seems to think that Zucker owes him favorable coverage because Zucker was chief executive of NBC Universal when Trump's “Apprentice” series became a hit for NBC. When Zucker took the helm of CNN in 2012, Trump called him a “great choice,” but Trump's opinion changed with CNN's tough coverage of his campaign and presidency.
“Jeff Zucker, I hear he's going to resign at some point pretty soon,” the president told donors at a dinner event in June. The New York Times reported a short time later that White House officials have discussed the AT&T-Time Warner deal as a point of leverage over CNN.
The notion that Trump could pressure a media company into making a leadership change is not entirely hypothetical. In January, Trump raged at Stephen K. Bannon, a former White House chief strategist who had returned to the top post at Breitbart News. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Breitbart should consider firing Bannon; five days later, it did.
Of course, it would not be unusual for a company to shake up its executive team after a merger. Zucker was a casualty of Comcast's acquisition of NBC Universal in 2010. AT&T, which has been noncommittal about Zucker, could install a new president at CNN and plausibly deny that it did so to assuage Trump.
Still, when Trump says that Zucker's “job is in jeopardy,” it is not hard to guess what the president would like to happen.
Trump's tweet about Zucker followed a head-scratching message about Sinclair Broadcast Group, the nation's largest owner of local TV stations, which recently required news anchors nationwide to record promos accusing other outlets of reporting “fake stories.” Trump tweeted that national networks “are worried about the competition and quality of Sinclair Broadcast” — an odd claim, because many Sinclair stations are affiliates, not competitors, of NBC, ABC and CBS.
In the past, however, Sinclair has explored launching a cable news channel that would compete with existing, national networks. The company's proposed $3.9 billion acquisition of Tribune Media, which would require regulatory approval by the Trump administration, reignited speculation that Sinclair could venture into cable news.
Sinclair chief executive Chris Ripley told Variety last year that the company does not plan to start a national network. But Trump's recent praise for “superior” Sinclair could be a signal that his administration will be accommodating, in the event that the company changes its mind again.
The purchase of Tribune, if approved, would give Sinclair control of WGN America, an entertainment-focused cable channel available in about 80 million homes. The fastest way for Sinclair to compete with the networks Trump targeted in his tweet would be to shift WGN's focus to right-leaning news and commentary.