Illegitimate retaliation against the press

Corrupt much?

On Monday, November 6, AT&T C.E.O. Randall Stephenson was in Washington, D.C., for a meeting with Makan Delrahim, the Justice Department’s new anti-trust chief, who was confirmed by the Senate in late September. They were there to discuss AT&T’s long-awaited purchase of Time Warner, which has been in the final stages of a protracted regulatory review. According to three people briefed on the conversation, Delrahim told Stephenson that if AT&T wanted the D.O.J. to green-light the $85 billion mega merger, he would have have to either sell Turner Broadcasting, the parent entity of CNN, which AT&T would acquire as part of the deal, or sell DirecTV, the satellite provider AT&T acquired in 2015.

To Stephenson, both choices were thoroughly unpalatable: ditch the company you’ve spent the past two years painstakingly integrating into your business, or ditch the portfolio of premium broadcast brands—which in addition to CNN includes TBS, TNT, N.B.A. and March Madness games, and other prominent television assets—that accounts for more than half of the profits of the company you’ve spent the past year gearing up to own. Stephenson’s response, according to the people briefed on the interaction with Delrahim, was more or less: We’ll see you in court. (The Financial Times first reported on Wednesday, citing three unnamed sources with knowledge of the negotiations, that “AT&T has been told by the U.S. Department of Justice that it needs to sell CNN to get its $84.5bn acquisition of the media company approved.”)

Few people I spoke to at AT&T or Time Warner believe that anti-trust concerns are driving this hard bargain. Rather, they believe it’s about politics, and CNN in particular. CNN is media-enemy No. 1 for President Donald Trump, who had expressed his distaste for the AT&T-Time Warner merger early on. He even threatened to kill it, and had reportedly toyed with the idea of using CNN as a bargaining chip. The Justice Department’s late-stage requirements for the merger seemed to confirm people’s fears.

Ethics boffins on Twitter are going ballistic.

In response to an account that was circulating on Wednesday, apparently from the Department of Justice, that AT&T had offered to divest itself of CNN to let the deal go through, Stephenson, through a spokesperson, was unequivocal. “Until now, we’ve never commented on our discussions with the D.O.J. But given D.O.J.’s statement this afternoon, it’s important to set the record straight,” he told Vanity Fair.“Throughout this process, I have never offered to sell CNN and have no intention of doing so.”

I’m not a fan of media mergers or tech mergers or media&tech mergers – but I’m even less of a fan of strongarming by Donald Trump and his goons.

Inside CNN, the mood was as charged as you’d expect it to be. “This is political, this is unprecedented, and the only explanation is political pressure from the White House,” a CNN employee told me. “There’s a contingent here that felt like, you have a litigious, vindictive commander in chief with the opportunity to take a poke at a network he believes covers him unfairly. How did we think this is gonna end? It’s outrageous.” Another insider told me that people throughout the Turner portfolio are “freaking out.” They’d finally gotten their heads around the idea that they would soon be owned by AT&T, a Dallas-based operation with no media or entertainment experience. Today’s news “caught 99 percent of the people at the company by surprise,” the source said. “Everybody’s like, what the fuck?

3 Responses to “Illegitimate retaliation against the press”