After months of the president attacking CNN, calling its reporting “fake news” and retweeting a video of himself body-slamming a figure with the network’s logo for a head, the US Department of Justice is suing to block the acquisition of CNN’s parent company, Time Warner, by AT&T. The lawsuit, filed Monday, argues that the newly formed company would likely “use its control of Time Warner’s popular programming as a weapon to harm competition.”
The move by the Justice Department breaks from a traditionally lax approach to media mergers, signaling that the days in which a giant like Comcast could acquire NBCUniversal may be over. AT&T, one of the country’s largest telecom providers, already owns DirecTV. Adding Time Warner properties, which include Warner Bros. Studio, HBO, TNT, and CNN, to its stable would create a company with what The New York Times called “an unrivaled ability to reach consumers through news and entertainment programming.”
Consolidation of media properties is a long-running, and disturbing, trend, and some industry critics cheered the DOJ’s decision, at least at face value. But the specter of political interference looms over the move, muddling any conversation about possible consumer harm. Speaking at a press conference on Monday evening, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson addressed the elephant in the room: “There’s been a lot of reporting and speculation whether this is all about CNN, and frankly I don’t know. But nobody should be surprised that the question keeps coming up because we’ve been witnessing such an abrupt change in the application of antitrust law here. But the bottom line is that we cannot and we will not be party to any agreement that would even give the perception of compromising the First Amendment protections to the press.”
The White House and DOJ have denied that the president’s antipathy toward CNN played any role in the decision to block the deal, but the unusual move by antitrust regulators has raised concerns that Trump may have influenced the decision, even if only through his Twitter tirades against CNN. AT&T has said it will defend the deal in court, and the case will be closely watched by those trying to determine whether the move represents a genuine change in approach by regulators or a disturbing breach of judicial independence by a president bent on political revenge.
Below, more on the administration and the media.
- The lay of the land: “There are two competing narratives about what’s going on,” writes CNN’s Brian Stelter. “The first point of view is that the Justice Department is intervening to protect consumers. The countervailing point of view is that political games are being played.”
- Trump’s interference: Last week, The Washington Post’s editorial board argued that “the White House has put itself in a position where the nation may reasonably presume bad faith. If it wants trust, it must now earn it.”
- Meanwhile, at the FCC… : Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai plans to “fully dismantle the agency’s Obama-era net neutrality regulations,” reports Politico’s Margaret Harding McGill.
- More deregulation: As the Justice Department sues to prevent the AT&T Time Warner deal, the FCC has rolled back rules blocking media mergers, making it easier for Sinclair Broadcasting to complete its purchase of Tribune stations. The Washington Post’s Brian Fung has an overview.
Other notable stories
- The Washington Post’s Irin Carmon and Amy Brittain report that eight women have accused Charlie Rose of sexual harassment. Rose has been suspended from his position at CBS, and PBS announced it would stop airing his show. Business Insider and The New York Times each published followups including accusations against Rose by other women.
- The New York Times has suspended star reporter Glenn Thrush after Vox’s Laura McGann reported on his history of bad judgment around young women journalists.
- BuzzFeed reports that Michigan Democratic Representative John Conyers has a history of sexual misconduct and settled a wrongful termination suit brought by a former employee who alleged she was fired because she would not “succumb to [his] sexual advances.” The story included this interesting disclosure: “The documents were first provided to BuzzFeed News by Mike Cernovich, the men’s rights figure turned pro-Trump media activist who propagated a number of false conspiracy theories including the ‘Pizzagate’ conspiracy.”
- Reuters’s Jonathan Stempel reports that 21st Century Fox Inc reached a $90 million settlement of shareholder claims arising from the sexual harassment scandal at its Fox News Channel.
- The past six weeks have seen a numbing onslaught of revelations about sexual misconduct by powerful men, and the flood of stories yesterday continued that trend. The Washington Post’s Karen Attiah provided a depressing coda to the day’s news, tweeting: “We need an accounting of the economic toll of sexual harassment and workplace abuse on women. Having to turn down new [opportunities] instead of working with a harasser. Losses in productivity. Getting fired for reporting toxic behavior. Choosing to quit altogether.”