The only encouraging ideological trend in the United States over the past two years has been the nation’s steady awakening to the political problems posed by monopoly power.
Corporate mega-mergers, once viewed as an inevitability carrying, at most, modest implications for consumer prices, are coming to be understood as a threat to the foundations of democracy. Companies that control access to information ― Facebook, Google, telecom giants and media conglomerates ― are suddenly receiving a level of scrutiny from politicians and the general public they have not experienced in decades.
The proposed $85.4 billion merger between AT&T and Time Warner should be intolerable. AT&T already controls a huge swath of the broadband market. It also owns DirecTV, a television distribution network that carries hundreds of channels. The Time Warner deal would add the Warner Bros. film studio, the Warner Bros. Television empire and DC Entertainment (a vehicle for Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and other superheroes), along with HBO, Cinemax and the array of Turner Broadcasting properties: TNT, TBS, TruTV, Turner Classic Movies, Adult Swim, Cartoon Network, HLN and CNN. No single entity should have that much power.
Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Al Franken (D-Minn.) and several other Senate Democrats have raised serious objections to the deal. Anti-monopoly experts have been attacking it ever since it was announced. “This merger would give one bad company way too much power,” wrote Candace Clement, free press campaign director for the advocacy group Free Press.
The federal government has been greenlighting mergers like this for years. In 2011, the Obama administration approved Comcast’s acquisition of NBCUniversal, allowing allowing the cable provider to swallow CNBC and MSNBC. Nevertheless, there are established legal theories that indicate these deals should not go through. AT&T would have an incentive to create problems for competitors of TNT, TBS, TruTV and CNN either over its DirecTV television network or through its broadband and wireless services.
On Wednesday afternoon, The New York Times, Politico and The Financial Times published reports declaring that the Department of Justice was holding up the deal. The stories, all posted within minutes of each other, indicated that the DOJ was considering forcing AT&T to sell off CNN as a condition for approval. CNBC and The New York Times indicated that the Justice Department had told AT&T it would have to sell off either DirecTV or the entire Turner broadcasting suite. But anonymous quotes to FT and Politico were more ominous: “The only reason you would divest CNN would be to kowtow to the president because he doesn’t like the coverage,” one source told Politico. “It would send a chilling message to every news organization in the country.”
The Justice Department told CNN’s Brian Stelter that AT&T “privately offered to sell CNN” during talks, an allegation AT&T Chief Executive Officer Randall Stephenson denied. DOJ insisted to HuffPost that it “does not comment on any pending investigation” and that it is “committed to carrying out its duties in accordance with the laws and the facts.”
It’s no secret that President Donald Trump loathes CNN. He has assailed the network all year as “fake news,” ridiculed its reporters at press briefings and even posted video online of himself body-slamming a man with a CNN logo superimposed over his face. Trump’s consistent attack on the press has had obvious authoritarian overtones, and interfering in the business operations of a network he doesn’t like is not a healthy sign.
But neither is the prospect of a duopoly governed by AT&T-CNN and Comcast-MSNBC, even if Trump-friendly Fox News might end up getting the short end of the stick.
“We have four decades with nonpolitical scientific merger control, and look at the economy we’re living in,” noted Columbia University law professor Tim Wu at an antitrust event in Washington on Wednesday. “We really need to get serious about this problem.”
The anti-monopoly movement in the United States is ascendent. Silicon Valley behemoths are targeting groups like the Open Markets Institute for a reason. But the fact that Trump has explicitly assailed just about every major media enterprise except Fox News and Breitbart makes him a uniquely terrible messenger for a gospel concerned with free speech.
The AT&T-Time Warner deal should die. Not, however, without some skepticism about the motivations behind its execution.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misidentified Randall Stephenson as the chief financial officer of AT&T. He is the chief executive officer.