A year ago, AT&T announced that it had struck a deal to buy Time Warner for $85.4 billion. On the left, people were worried about the negative effects of media consolidation on our public discourse. And on the right? Well, it gave Donald Trump a potentially perfect way to get back at CNN.
A huge media merger like this requires government approval. When the deal was announced, everyone assumed that Hillary Clinton was about to be elected president, and the biggest challenge the companies would face would be proving that combining all these huge media and cable companies would not hurt consumer choice or the, uh, multiplicity of voices in the media. (lol). When Donald Trump was elected, though, the landscape changed. On the one hand, Republicans are more pro-business and therefore more pro-merger, so his election would seem to be a good thing for the companies in question. On the other hand, there has always been at least a small Bannonesque faction in the Trump camp that might see blocking a deal like this as a way to polish up Trump’s populist credentials. And, more pertinent still, Time Warner owns CNN—one of our president’s least favorite media outlets.
If you do not believe that President Donald Trump would interfere in the government approval of an $85 billion corporate merger as revenge for bad press, you have not adjusted to the new world in which we live.
Of course, everyone on all sides has denied that this is a concern. But publicly denying that such things are a concern is what they do. Let’s be realistic here. There is an $85 billion deal at stake. The head of the federal government is a petty, vindictive man who is obsessed with bad press, holds grudges, and has little concern about government norms and procedures. It has been clear since election day that Trump’s hatred of CNN might prove to be a factor in this merger’s approval. (And if the merger gets blocked: Good! It should get blocked. It’s bad for everyone except the companies in question and their shareholders. But normally this would be a point in its favor, for Republicans.)
Would you like to guess what happened today? That’s right: the Wall Street Journal reports that the Justice Department is considering a lawsuit to block this deal on antitrust grounds. Time Warner shares are already falling on the news. Surprise. This is when the pressure starts.
The real danger here is not of the deal getting blocked. The real danger is that Time Warner leans on CNN ever so subtly to bring them into line in a way that might win the president’s favor. This is the natural way things would happen in a kleptocracy, and we are moving closer to that every day. This doesn’t mean that CNN would suddenly go pro-Trump; it could simply mean whispered assurances that things would be “toned down,” that strident voices would become more soothing, that troublesome stories would be cast in a somewhat less clear fashion, that on the whole there would be a bit of added “balance” to the news mix. Major news networks are not known for being fountains of boldness and bravery to begin with. Adding in an $85 billion incentive to go easier on the White House is a real, not imaginary, concern.
I do not have any evidence that this is happening behind the scenes. I’m just laying out common sense here. If I were a journalist at CNN, I would want something more than an empty assurance that my work would not be influenced by business concerns. I would want a contract guaranteeing editorial independence. I would want a union. Without that, they are placing an awful lot of faith in the integrity of corporate executives, bankers, and Donald Trump.