Trump and Murdoch: Who’s using whom?

Rupert Murdoch. Photo (cc) 2015 by the Hudson Institute.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The stench of corruption emanating from the White House is so noxious that it can be hard to focus on outrages that truly matter. This matters: As long rumored, but not confirmed until this week, President Trump personally intervened in the merger of media giants AT&T and Time Warner in order to punish CNN, high on the list of “fake news” outlets with which he is perpetually enraged.

The revelation is contained within Jane Mayer’s 11,500-word examination of Fox News, which appears in the current issue of The New Yorker. As Mayer describes it (and as even the most casual viewer will attest), over the past few years Fox has metamorphosed from a right-wing news operation with a shaky grasp of the truth into something much more dangerous: a propaganda outlet for Trump that serves up steaming piles of misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories to its angry, fearful audience.

Not coincidentally, Fox News’ founder and guiding light, the international media magnate Rupert Murdoch, has emerged as one of Trump’s closest confidants. And Murdoch did not want to see two of his rivals merge, especially given that he had tried and failed to buy Time Warner himself just a few years earlier. Luckily for him, his business interests dovetailed with Trump’s hatred of CNN, one of Time Warner’s crown jewels.

As Mayer describes it, in the summer of 2017 Trump told his chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, that the Justice Department should fight the merger. Citing “a well-informed source,” Mayer reports that Trump demanded action during a meeting with Cohn and his then-new chief of staff, John Kelly. “I’ve been telling Cohn to get this lawsuit filed and nothing’s happened!” she quotes Trump as saying. “I’ve mentioned it 50 times. And nothing’s happened. I want to make sure it’s filed. I want that deal blocked!” As the meeting was coming to a close, Mayer writes, Cohn told Kelly, “Don’t you f—ing dare call the Justice Department. We are not going to do business that way.”

But the Justice Department did indeed fight the merger, all the while denying any political motivations. Trump’s opposition to the merger, though, has long been thought to be driven by his hatred for CNN. Cohn himself believed it, according to Mayer. And as I argued a year and a half ago, blocking the merger could have resulted in Time Warner’s falling into Murdoch’s hands, thus fulfilling Rupe’s ambitions and giving him an opportunity to Foxify CNN. (Not that CNN isn’t in serious need of fixing, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Adding to suspicions that Trump was acting on his wish for retribution rather than by genuine concerns about the social consequences of such massive mergers was that there really didn’t seem to be much of a legal case against it. The AT&T-Time Warner deal is something we all ought to be wary of. But under current theories of antitrust law, there was little reason to block it. In fact, the Justice Department’s efforts to stop it were shot down by the courts at every step along the way, and it recently got the final go-ahead.

As Jordan Crook and Danny Crichton explain at TechCrunch, the two companies are complementary businesses rather than competitors. Time Warner is mainly a content company; AT&T is a distributor. Their combination is regarded by many economists as a “vertical merger” that could actually benefit consumers, Crook and Crichton write, by giving them “access to a more comprehensive set of services, at a lower price, while still generating profits.” Besides, in a world in which the entire media landscape is now dominated by Google and Facebook, it may be that the only way to provide competition is by supercharging other media companies.

Now I’ll grant you that in my perfect media world, I would not only have ruled against the merger of AT&T and Time Warner but I’d break up Google and Facebook as well. But it’s the world of the corporate titans, and we’re just living in it. Given that, there is every reason to oppose governmental intervention motivated by presidential pique rather than by genuine regulatory concerns.

Mayer’s report appears destined to become part of the bill of particulars that the Democratic House is assembling as it investigates Trump’s corruption and possible crimes. U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, said that he has “long feared Trump would use the instruments of state power to carry out his vendetta against the press he has attacked as the ‘enemy of the people.’”

Meanwhile, another media company seeking favors from the White House is playing it safe. According to David Fahrenthold and Jonathan O’Connell of The Washington Post, the cell-phone company T-Mobile, which is seeking to merge with its rival Sprint, has spent $195,000 at Trump’s Washington hotel since announcing the proposed deal nearly a year ago — far in excess of what the company had ever spent there previously.

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Approving the AT&T-Time Warner deal would save CNN, enrage Trump and leave Murdoch out in the cold

CNN’s Jim Acosta. Photo (cc) 2016 by Gage Skidmore.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Thanks to the U.S. Department of Justice, AT&T’s monopolistic dreams may not come true after all. According to media reports, the government may block AT&T’s proposed $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner. Even if the deal is approved, AT&T may be required to sell off CNN, one of Time Warner’s crown jewels.

Under normal circumstances, such action would be welcome news for those who have long opposed media concentration and its accompanying ills: fewer choices, higher prices, and more power for corporate executives to control what we watch, listen to, and read. But nothing is normal in the Age of Trump. And in this case, it appears that opposition to the deal may be driven less by antitrust law and more by the president’s ongoing fury at CNN.

Who, after all, can forget Trump’s outburst after CNN revealed the existence (though not the contents) of the infamous dossier of raw Russian intelligence, which claimed the president-elect had engaged in financial shenanigans and embarrassing personal behavior? “Your organization is terrible,” Trump told CNN’s Jim Acosta at a news conference last January, adding: “You are fake news.” The relationship has not improved since then.

Thus anti-monopolists find themselves in the awkward position of supporting Trump’s Justice Department on the AT&T-Time Warner merger while feeling obliged to point out that federal regulators may well be doing the right thing for all the wrong reasons. Timothy Karr of Free Press, a prominent media-reform organization that opposes the merger, nevertheless writes that “Trump would be dead wrong, however, to pull the levers of government to force more favorable coverage from CNN.” Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik, who also argues that the merger should be rejected, worries that Trump’s loose lips and tawdry tweets may end up working to AT&T’s advantage: “Trump’s rhetoric about the deal, which dates back to his presidential campaign, has muddled the issues — and may even have increased the chances that the deal will go through with all its negative aspects intact.”

I’ve been writing about the threats posed by media concentration since the 1990s. Given the circumstances, though, I think the AT&T-Time Warner deal ought to be approved — and not because (or not just because) it would infuriate Trump. Much as I agree with Karr and Hiltzik in the abstract, I can think of three very good reasons why we might be better off if AT&T winds up as CNN’s corporate overlord.

• Rupert Murdoch — yes, that Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Fox News Channel and friend of Trump — has reportedly indicated an eagerness to add CNN to his empire should it become available. According to Jessica Toonkel of Reuters, Murdoch called AT&T chief executive Randall Stephenson twice during the past six months to discuss a possible deal should AT&T be forced to sell off CNN.

• A deal that would allow Sinclair Broadcast Group to acquire Tribune Media’s television stations appears to be on track, giving the company control of more than 200 stations around the country. And Sinclair is notorious for using its power in local markets to advance a right-wing, pro-Trump agenda. Over the weekend, for instance, David Zurawik of The Baltimore Sun detailed how a Sinclair-owned station in Alabama ran a deceptive report in its local newscast to try to discredit The Washington Post’s coverage of women who say they were sexually assaulted by Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s.

• Bigger is not better — far from it. But given the enormous power over content and distribution amassed by the platform giants Facebook and Google, it may be that traditional concerns about media concentration are obsolete. Perhaps the best way to fight the new media giants is by empowering the old. As Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo notes, AT&T’s Stephenson made exactly that point recently. “Essentially,” Marshall wrote, “he argued that only by combining a company with a dominant position in distribution (AT&T) with a content company (Time Warner) could anyone hope to compete with the platform monopolies Google and Facebook in the advertising business.”

Earlier this week, Bloomberg’s David McLaughlin, Scott Moritz, and Sara Forden reported that AT&T will ask a judge to provide the company with communications between the White House and the Justice Department if the government sues to stop the merger. That could make for some very interesting reading.

Murdoch lurking in the wings. A super-empowered Sinclair wreaking havoc in television markets around the country. Traditional media being hamstrung by old laws while Facebook and Google continue to reign unchecked. Those would be reasons enough to approve the AT&T-Time Warner merger. But the specter that President Trump is attempting to orchestrate this as a way to punish a journalistic enemy looms over all of this.

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AT&T, Time Warner, and the rise of a new media monopoly

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From time to time, some expert will predict that television is about to go the way of newspapers and music: disrupted by technology and broken into its constituent parts, with the dollars that used to flow like a mighty stream magically reduced to little droplets of digital dimes and pennies.

And yes, it may happen someday. But the news that AT&T will seek to buy Time Warner for $85 billion shows that it’s not going to be soon. The executives who run the major telecom and television companies are proving to be tough, wily, and ready for a long battle. Compared to the genteel folks in the news and music industries, these guys are like the Medellín cartel.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org. And talk about this post on Facebook.

Net neutrality and the future of journalism

This article was originally published by the media-reform organization Free Press and is posted here by permission. Josh Stearns is the journalism and public media campaign director for Free Press. You can follow him on Twitter at @jcstearns.

Josh portraitBy Josh Stearns

Tuesday’s court decision, which struck down the FCC’s open Internet order and threatened the future of net neutrality, has huge implications for the future of journalism and press freedom.

According to the Pew Research Center, half of all Americans now cite the Internet as their “main source for national and international news.” For young people the number is 71 percent. While we are nowhere near stopping the presses or tearing down the broadcast towers, the Internet is increasing how we distribute and consume the news today.

The future of journalism is bound up in the future of the Internet.

That is why net neutrality is so important and why the court decision this week should worry digital journalists and publishers. For newsrooms the decision means that a company like AT&T or Verizon could decide where their users can go for news and what stories get buried or blocked online. Verizon could strike a deal with CNN and hamper their users’ ability to access alternative news sources. Comcast could slow access to Al Jazeera, because it wants to promote its NBC news offerings.*

That’s why, in 2010, U.S. Sen. Al Franken argued that “net neutrality is the First Amendment issue of our time.”

No journalist or publisher should be held hostage by the commercial or political whims of an Internet service provider. In the end, however, the biggest media companies aren’t likely worried about this court decision. As Stacey Higginbotham wrote:

In many ways this will be a win for the large content companies such as Disney or Viacom. Yes, they might have to pay for prioritization on the broadband networks, but they have deep pockets and such a move would help them ensure their content continues to reach consumer eyeballs as the television industry fragments online. It’s possible we could see the emergence of a pay TV bundle of content that is either exempt from caps or just delivered with pristine quality while YouTube videos sputter.

But it is not just sputtering YouTube videos we need to worry about. It is people’s ability to access the independent journalism and diverse voices, which have thrived on the Web.

In 2009 a coalition of nearly 50 online journalism innovators sent a letter to the FCC, calling on the commissioners to protect the open Internet. “Net Neutrality ensures that innovative local news websites and national nonprofit reporting projects can be accessed just as easily as legacy media sites,” they wrote. “Net Neutrality encourages journalists to pioneer new tools and modes of reporting and lowers the bar for citizens to participate.”

Net neutrality is about creating a level playing field for all voices.

In an ironic twist, when it argued against net neutrality at the federal appeals court, Verizon claimed it actually had a First Amendment right to block and censor Internet users. And while the court largely ignored Verizon’s First Amendment claims, its ultimate decision essentially gave Verizon the green light begin “editing” the Internet.

As more and more news and information moves online, we need to ensure that the flow of online information is free and unencumbered. Traditional battles over press freedom are critical, as the recent Committee to Protect Journalists report so clearly showed, but today we also have to understand that keeping the Internet free goes hand in hand with keeping the press free.

The court decision this week is bad news for the Internet and for independent media, but it is not the last word in this debate.

The Federal Communications Commission can reclassify broadband as what it is: the fundamental communications infrastructure of our time. That simple action would re-establish its legal authority and ensure that its can protect consumers and journalists from online discrimination. Protecting freedom of the press can’t stop online.

* Because of the conditions placed on their deal to buy NBC in 2011, Comcast has to abide by net neutrality principles until 2018 regardless of this court case.

George McGovern, 1922-2012

George McGovern was the only presidential candidate I ever worked for. In the fall of 1972 I was a 16-year-old junior at Middleborough (Mass.) High School and a McGovern volunteer. Mainly I made calls to supposedly undecided voters, and was informed by more than one that I was working for a “communist.”

McGovern was one of the most decent people ever to seek the presidency, and I was sorry to learn of his passing this morning. I don’t know what kind of a president he would have been — I suspect he would have made Jimmy Carter look like a decisive executive by comparison. But he had a war hero’s aversion to war, and his generous spirit would have been welcome qualities in any of the presidents elected since his failed 1972 campaign. Needless to say, he would have been vastly superior to Richard Nixon, who defeated him in that historic landslide.

In April 1978, when I was a Northeastern co-op student working at the Woonsocket (R.I.) Call, I covered a speech McGovern gave in Boston, and took the photo you see here. It would probably take me half a day to find the clip, and it wouldn’t be of much account anyway. But I had just read Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72,” and I remember asking McGovern if Thompson’s description of McGovern’s reasoning for dropping Thomas Eagleton from the ticket was accurate.

McGovern paused a moment, and then confirmed Thompson’s account. I thought it was a remarkable admission. Thompson had written that McGovern believed Eagleton’s mental illness was so severe that he had concluded he couldn’t run the risk of his becoming vice president — or, possibly, president. In 2005, McGovern told the New York Times: “I didn’t know a damn thing about mental illness, and neither did anyone around me.”

The last time I saw McGovern was in 1984, four years after he had been defeated for re-election to the Senate. He was running for president again and was taking part in a debate among the Democratic candidates. It might have been at Harvard, but I’m not entirely sure. It seemed that time had passed him by, and indeed he wasn’t a factor in what turned out to be a two-man race between Walter Mondale and Gary Hart.

During the debate, McGovern sharply criticized the federal government’s decision to break up the AT&T monopoly two years earlier. Even then, it seemed like an old man’s lament. With the passage of time, it became clear that the break-up unleashed technological innovation that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible. McGovern’s era was over, as even liberal Democrats had moved on.

After that, McGovern faded from view. It is to Bill Clinton’s credit that he gave the former senator useful work, and awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Still, his declining years could not have been happy ones, as he lost two of his adult children following long struggles with alcohol abuse.

George McGovern was one of the great public figures of the second half of the 20th century. Simply put, he showed us all a better way. It was not his fault that we chose not to take it. And now his voice has been stilled.

Update: You’re going to see a lot of fine tributes to McGovern in the days ahead. This one, by Joe Kahn of the Boston Globe, is well worth your time.

The talented and defensive Jarrett Barrios

Jarrett Barrios

The Boston Globe today reports on Jarrett Barrios’ resignation as president of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation after the organization endorsed the merger of AT&T and T-Mobile without revealing that AT&T is a major funder.

As the Globe story notes, Politico has been all over this.

If you’re interested in some background on Barrios, Kristen Lombardi wrote a terrific profile of him for the Boston Phoenix in December 2001, when Barrios was a young, up-and-coming state representative getting ready to run for the Massachusetts Senate.

According to Lombardi’s reporting, Barrios was enormously talented but too eager to curry favor with then-House Speaker Tom Finneran, and as a result had alienated some folks in the progressive and gay-and-lesbian communities. And he was defensive. An excerpt:

When asked to respond to criticisms about his seeming willingness to compromise his principles, Barrios gets defensive even as he explains his positions. Leaning forward, and visibly angry, he says: “I’m going to let lie unattributed attacks and say I learned long ago I am far from perfect. But even we imperfects can make a difference.” He adds, “I try to adhere to my principles and be effective. I am most proud that I’ve managed to survive the House with my principles intact.”

It will be interesting to see what Barrios’ next step will be. If he plans to return to Massachusetts politics, he’ll have some explaining to do with regard to his anti-consumer endorsement of the AT&T deal.

Photo (cc) by Greg Hernandez and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.