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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Georgia on their mind: Three long hours with cable news

The first results were coming in from Georgia’s special congressional election. And Tucker Carlson of the Fox News Channel had a theory to explain why Jon Ossoff, the Democrat, wasn’t heading toward a huge victory over his Republican opponent, Karen Handel: Ossoff was (gasp) a liberal elitist.

“Ossoff ought to be running away with it, but he’s not,” Carlson said. He sneered at Ossoff’s prodigious fundraising, saying that “all that money has come from angry liberals who live out of state.” As for whether Ossoff was capable of relating to voters in Georgia’s Sixth District, Carlson smirked, “He’s super-fit and way smarter than you are.”

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

An echo from the Boston bombings: Stay strong, Manchester

Photo (cc) 2013 by mgstanton.

As someone who has not been personally affected by a terrorist attack, I would not presume to give advice to the people of Manchester on this terrible day after.

But as a resident of the Boston area — and one among the thousands who rallied to the side of our city in the wake of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings — I have some thoughts about how a community can come together after a tragedy like this.

Read the rest at CNN.com. And talk about this post on Facebook.

Obama’s farewell address runs afoul of the first rule of Trump

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Carl Bernstein on CNN Tuesday.

The first rule of Trump: It’s always about Trump.

Thus it was that even on the night of President Barack Obama’s farewell address, the big story was CNN’s report — co-bylined by Watergate legend Carl Bernstein, no less — about compromising (and unverified) personal and financial information gathered by the Russians that could be used to blackmail the president-elect.

On our screens, a popular, largely successful, and thoroughly reassuring president was preparing to leave the White House. Behind the scenes, all was trouble and turmoil.

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

Why CNN shouldn’t have hired Corey Lewandowski

Corey Lewandowski. Photo via CNN.
Corey Lewandowski. Photo via CNN.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

I don’t care that Corey Lewandowski is a partisan hack. And though it bothers me that he was Donald Trump’s thuggish enforcer, I don’t think it disqualifies him from sitting in front of a TV camera and extolling Trump’s alleged virtues.

But it does bother me—a lot—that CNN would give a platform to Lewandowski even though he may not be legally free to voice his honest opinion. That’s the least the network should get for the $500,000 it is reportedly paying him.

To recap briefly: Trump fired Lewandowski as his campaign manager a week ago Monday. Just two days later Lewandowski signed on with CNN to provide pro-Trump commentary. The hiring has been greeted with a considerable amount of outrage because of Lewandowski’s role in herding reporters into pens, banning certain journalists as well as entire news organizations from Trump events, and grabbing the arm of a female reporter hard enough that he was charged with assault. (The charge was later dropped.)

The real mind-bender, though, is that Lewandowski—who remains a true believer in Trump despite the firing—signed a non-disclosure agreement when he left the campaign. Even worse, he may also have signed a non-disparagement agreement. On the face of it, that would seem to mean there exists a legal document somewhere that says Lewandowski cannot criticize Trump. Now, maybe Lewandowski wouldn’t anyway. But there is an enormous difference between won’tand can’t. (We talked about the Lewandowski matter last week on WGBH-TV’s Beat the Press.)

Several of CNN’s on-air journalists have come up huge in holding their network to account. Last week Erin Burnett asked Lewandowski directly whether he had signed a non-disparagement agreement. Lewandowski did not answer the question. “Let me tell you who I am,” he said. “I am a guy who calls balls and strikes, I am going to tell it like it is.”

CNN media reporter Brian Stelter wrote about the situation last week and devoted a nine-minute-plus segment to it Sunday on Reliable Sources. Stelter, like Burnett, deserves credit for focusing on what exactly Lewandowski may have signed when he left the Trump campaign.

Should CNN run a disclosure every time Lewandowski opens his mouth? Yes, replied one of Stelter’s guests, Baltimore Sun media critic David Zurawick. But Zurawick added that CNN and other outlets should stay away from partisan commentators altogether. If they want to learn what’s going on inside the Trump campaign, he said, “let’s find out the old-fashioned way by reporting it, not paying weasels to tell you about it.”

Before Lewandowski’s hiring, CNN already had a pro-Trump commentator in its stable—Jeffrey Lord. And he told Stelter that he saw no difference between Lewandowski signing on with CNN, former George W. Bush consigliore Karl Rove going to work for Fox News, or former Bill Clinton apologist George Stephanopoulos being hired by ABC News.

Lord is right—or at least he would be right if it weren’t for the matter of what Lewandowski is legally free to say about his former boss. And you can roll any number of other hired guns into Lord’s critique. What do Democratic operatives Donna Brazile and Paul Begala add to our understanding when they appear on CNN? But such is the nature of political commentary on cable news, whose main imperative is to fill hour after hour as cheaply as possible. Yes, talking heads are cheap, even when they’re well-paid.

The sorry truth may be that CNN doesn’t want Lewandowski to criticize Trump even if he’s so inclined. During the 1990s Jeff Cohen, a left-wing media critic, got a tryout to fill the liberal seat on the late, unlamented Crossfire. Cohen didn’t get the job—and one of the reasons, he wrote in his 2006 book Cable News Confidential, was that he was unwilling to go along with a requirement that he defend Clinton come hell or high water.

No doubt Lewandowski will settle into his role without all that much additional controversy. Paul Fahri reported in the Washington Post on Monday that rumors of a revolt among CNN staffers had been greatly exaggerated. But something important has been lost, because CNN has gone beyond commentary, beyond partisanship, beyond the mindless recitation of talking points. With Lewandowski, we have no way of knowing whether he’s telling us what he really thinks or if he’s protecting the settlement he signed on his way out of Trump Tower.

That may not seem like much in a media environment in which we seem to hit a new low every week. But it’s one more reason why public distrust of the media is so widespread—and why it deserves to be.

Lewandowski can’t tell CNN viewers what he really thinks

Corey Lewandowski says hello to reporter Michelle Fields earlier this year.
Corey Lewandowski gives an affectionate shove to reporter Michelle Fields earlier this year.

If CNN wants to hire Donald Trump’s thuggish ex-goon, Corey Lewandowski, as a commentator, well, let’s just say that I would expect nothing less. But I’m genuinely appalled that CNN would bring him aboard knowing that Lewandowski is legally bound not to say what he’s really thinking.

CNN media reporter Brian Stelter, who’s doing a great job covering his employer’s ethical lapse, writes:

There are also swirling questions about whether Lewandowski is still bound to Trump somehow.

Like other Trump employees, he signed a non-disclosure agreement that ensures he will not share confidential information.

The agreement likely included a “non-disparagement clause,” impeding his ability to criticize Trump publicly.

I could almost live with the non-disclosure agreement. That’s not much different from a reporter’s protecting a confidential source. But a “non-disparagement clause”? Seriously? If Stelter has that right, then it means Lewandowski can’t offer his honest opinion on anything to do with Trump. When the next Trump outrage takes place and Lewandowski says it’s just peachy, we won’t have any idea whether he means it or not.

CNN should walk away from this colossal blunder, but of course it won’t.

The debate’s big losers: CNN and new media platforms

Photo by xx
Photo (cc) by Gregor Smith

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

My view of the winners and losers in Tuesday night’s Democratic debate is pretty much the same as what I’ve seen from other observers. Hillary Clinton won with a strong, polished performance (and was likable enough). Bernie Sanders was uneven but had his moments. And Martin O’Malley emerged as the only real alternative to the two front-runners, as Jim Webb fizzled and Lincoln Chafee popped.

So let me turn instead to the biggest loser of the debate: CNN, which for whatever reason just can’t seem to get its act together. Moderator Anderson Cooper is a smart, authoritative presence, but during the debate he was both too authoritative and too present. He interrupted constantly. Every candidate’s answer, it seemed, played out against a backdrop of Cooper trying to get him or her to stop. Sometimes a strong hand is needed. But politics ain’t beanbag, as Mr. Dooley instructed us. Let them mix it up.

Far worse was CNN’s weirdly tone-deaf wallowing in racial and gender stereotypes. It was well into the debate before we heard from a black journalist, Don Lemon. So naturally he drew the assignment of asking about the Black Lives Matter movement. As “Beat the Press” contributor Justin Ellis of the Nieman Journalism Lab tweeted:

Later on, the first question about immigration came from — yes — Juan Carlos Lopez of CNN en Español. After that, someone on Twitter wondered sardonically if Dana Bash had been designated to ask about abortion rights. Not quite. But Bash did ask Clinton about family leave, which prompted an exchange on the challenges faced by working mothers. Hey, CNN: minority and female journalists are capable of asking about gun control and campaign-finance reform, too.

It was not a great night for new media, whether you’re talking about new new media (Snapchat), old new media (Twitter) or ancient new media (Facebook). Facebook actually co-sponsored the debate, but I couldn’t find anything especially compelling. I did run across one amusing video on CNN’s Facebook page (flagged by local social-media guy Steve Garfield) on a behind-the-scenes look at debate preparations. As it ended, the host, Chris Moody, turned toward the camera and said, “It’s been real. Thanks, Snapchat.” Realizing his mistake, he turned to others and repeated his mistake. “I said Snapchat.” A pause. “Bye, Facebook. Sorry, Facebook.” To quote a famous debate moment: “Oops.

Twitter is still the go-to place for real-time conversation during a news event. But I kept checking a running story on the debate that was posted in Twitter’s brand-new Moments section, and what I found was pretty weak. It was too mainstream; tweets were posted in chronological rather than reverse chronological order; and there was little of the sense of unexpected discovery that draws me to Twitter. As described by Mathew Ingram of Fortune, Moments is supposed to be a curated news experience aimed at users who find “real” Twitter too confusing and time-consuming. Maybe it will catch on, but I just didn’t see much value in it.

As for Snapchat, well, better luck next time? At a recent appearance at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, Snapchat’s chief journalist, Peter Hamby, waxed enthusiastic about the Live Stories the mobile-only service posted after the two Republican debates. Maybe we’ll have to wait until Wednesday, but as I write this — around midnight on Tuesday — there’s nothing. And CNN’s Snapchat channel is still devoted entirely to a preview of the debate.

Again, we’ll have to wait for Wednesday. But I could sneak back downstairs and watch post-debate reaction on my old-fashioned TV. Isn’t online media supposed to offer a sense of immediacy that legacy platforms lack?