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.
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.
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.
This broke at Bloomberg and is now being confirmed: In the face of opposition from the Justice Department and the FCC, Comcast is giving up on its proposed $45.2 billion merger with Time Warner Cable.
This is a great victory for everyone who fought against Comcast’s bid to tighten its stranglehold on the telecommunications infrastructure on which all of us are so dependent. Kudos to Free Press and other public interest groups that worked so hard on this issue.
One thing you can be sure of is that this and similar issues will be back, especially since the next administration is either likely (i.e., Hillary Clinton becomes president) or certain (a Republican is elected) to be more sympathetic to such deals than the Obama White House has been. Continued vigilance will be needed.
Could Rupert Murdoch turn out to be the savior of CNN?
Not directly, of course. After all, his Fox News Channel is a blight upon the civic landscape — a right-wing propaganda machine whose elderly viewers are, according to a 2012 Fairleigh Dickinson study, even less well-informed than people who watch no news at all.
Nevertheless, I felt my pulse quickening last week when I learned that Murdoch is trying to add Time Warner to his international media empire. Among Time Warner’s holdings is CNN. And according to The New York Times, Murdoch would sell the once-great news organization in order to appease federal antitrust regulators.
(Murdoch’s acquisition would not affect Time magazine, a diminished but still valuable news outlet: Time Warner recently set Time adrift after stripping it of most of its assets.Time’s future is far from secure, but at least Rupe won’t have a chance to put Fox News chief Roger Ailes in charge of it.)
As you no doubt already know, CNN in recent years has fallen into the abyss. When I Googled up its increasingly ironic slogan, “The Most Trusted Name in News,” I was taken to a page at CNN.com dating back to 2003, complete with photos of former CNN hosts such as Aaron Brown, Judy Woodruff and Larry King, the seldom-seen Christiane Amanpour and others who evoke a better, more substantive era.
These days, unfortunately, CNN is known mainly for its endless coverage of the missing Malaysian jetliner and for a series of embarrassing screw-ups, such as its misreporting of the Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act in 2012 and its false report that a suspect had been arrested in the Boston Marathon bombing (to be fair, CNN was not alone on either mistake).
Then, too, there have been a series of mystifyingly bad hires, such as the talentless yipping Brit Piers Morgan to replace Larry King and the creepy Eliot Spitzer to cohost a talk show. Even solid choices like Jake Tapper seem to disappear once brought into the CNN fold. Of course, it’s hard not to disappear when your ratings are lower than those of Fox and MSNBC.
Is CNN worth saving? Absolutely. Its journalistic resources remain formidable. It’s still must-see TV when real news breaks, which certainly has been the case during the past week. Folks who are able to watch CNN International (I’m not among them) tell me it remains a good and serious news source. Anderson Cooper is among the more compelling figures in television news.
But domestically, and especially in prime time, CNN has utterly lost its way — starting at the top, with its self-congratulatory president, Jeff Zucker, who wants us to believe that everything is proceeding according to plan.
The time for a complete overhaul is long overdue. If Rupert Murdoch can help usher CNN into the hands of a new owner that might actually know what to do with it, then bring it on.
Photo (cc) by the World Economic Forum and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.
Toward the end of The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen’s influential 1997 book about why good companies sometimes fail, he writes, “I have found that many of life’s most useful insights are often quite simple.”
Indeed, the fundamental ideas at the heart of his book are so blindingly self-evident that, in retrospect, it is hard to imagine it took a Harvard Business School professor to describe them for the first time. And that poses a problem for Jill Lepore, a Harvard historian who recently wrote a scathingly critical essay about Christensen’s theories for the New Yorker titled “The Disruption Machine.” Call it the Skeptic’s Dilemma.
Christensen offers reams of data and graphs to support his claims, but his argument is easy to understand. Companies generally succeed by improving their products, upgrading their technology, and listening to their customers — processes that are at the heart of what Christensen calls “sustaining innovations.” What destroys some of those companies are “disruptive innovations” — crude, cheap at first, attacking from below, and gradually (or not) moving up the food chain. The “innovator’s dilemma” is that companies sometimes fail not in spite of doing everything right, but because they did everything right.
Some examples of this phenomenon make it easy to understand. Kodak, focusing its efforts on improving photographic film and paper, paid no attention to digital technology (invented by one of its own engineers), which at first could not compete on quality but which later swallowed the entire industry. Manufacturers of mainframe computers like IBM could not be bothered with the minicomputer market developed by companies like Digital Equipment Corporation; and DEC, in turn, failed to adapt to the personal computer revolution led by the likes of Apple and, yes, IBM. (Christensen shows how the success of the IBM PC actually validates his ideas: the company set up a separate, autonomous division, far from the mothership, to develop its once-ubiquitous personal computer.)
Christensen has applied his theories to journalism as well. In 2012 he wrote a long essay for Nieman Reports in collaboration with David Skok, a Canadian journalist who was then a Nieman Fellow and is now the digital adviser to Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory, and James Allworth, a regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review. In the essay, titled “Breaking News,” they describe how Time magazine began in the 1920s as a cheaply produced aggregator, full of “rip-and-read copy from the day’s major publications,” and gradually moved up the journalistic chain by hiring reporters and producing original reportage. Today, they note, websites like the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed, which began as little more than aggregators, have begun “their march up the value network” in much the same way as Time some 90 years ago.
And though Christensen, Skok, and Allworth don’t say it explicitly, Time magazine, once a disruptive innovator and long since ensconced as a crown jewel of the quality press, is now on the ropes — cast out of the Time Warner empire, as David Carr describes it in the New York Times, with little hope of long-term survival.
Lepore pursues two approaches in her attempted takedown of Christensen. The first is to look at The Innovator’s Dilemma as a cultural critic would, arguing that Christensen popularized a concept — “disruption” — that resonates in an era when we are all fearful of our place in an uncertain, rapidly changing economy. In the face of that uncertainty, notions such as disruption offer a possible way out, provided you can find a way to be the disruptor. She writes:
The idea of innovation is the idea of progress stripped of the aspirations of the Enlightenment, scrubbed clean of the horrors of the twentieth century, and relieved of its critics. Disruptive innovation goes further, holding out the hope of salvation against the very damnation it describes: disrupt, and you will be saved.
The second approach Lepore pursues is more daring, as she takes the fight from her turf — history and culture — to Christensen’s. According to Lepore, Christensen made some key mistakes. The disk-drive companies that were supposedly done in by disruptive innovators eating away at their businesses from below actually did quite well, she writes. And she claims that his analysis of the steel industry is flawed by his failure to take into account the effects of labor strife. “Christensen’s sources are often dubious and his logic questionable,” Lepore argues.
But Lepore saves her real venom for the dubious effects she says the cult of disruption has had on society, from financial services (“it led to a global financial crisis”) to higher education (she partly blames a book Christensen co-authored, The Innovative University, for the rise of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, of which she takes a dim view) to journalism (one of several fields, she writes, with “obligations that lie outside the realm of earnings”).
Christensen has not yet written a response; perhaps he will, perhaps he won’t. But in an interview with Drake Bennett of Bloomberg Businessweek, he asserts that it was hardly his fault if the term “disruption” has become overused and misunderstood:
I was delighted that somebody with her standing would join me in trying to bring discipline and understanding around a very useful theory. I’ve been trying to do it for 20 years. And then in a stunning reversal, she starts instead to try to discredit Clay Christensen, in a really mean way. And mean is fine, but in order to discredit me, Jill had to break all of the rules of scholarship that she accused me of breaking — in just egregious ways, truly egregious ways.
As for the “egregious” behavior of which he accuses Lepore, Christensen is especially worked up that she read The Innovator’s Dilemma, published 17 years ago, yet seems not to have read any of his subsequent books — books in which he says he continued to develop and refine his theories about disruptive innovation. He defends his data. And he explains his prediction that Apple’s iPhone would fail (a prediction mocked by Lepore) by saying that he initially thought it was a sustaining innovation that built on less expensive smartphones. Only later, he says, did he realize that it was a disruptive innovation aimed at laptops — less capable than laptops, but also cheaper and easier to carry.
“I just missed that,” he tells Bennett. “And it really helped me with the theory, because I had to figure out: Who are you disrupting?”
Christensen also refers to Lepore as “Jill” so many times that Bennett finally asks him if he knows her. His response: “I’ve never met her in my life.”
CHRISTENSEN’S DESCRIPTION of how his understanding of the iPhone evolved demonstrates a weakness of disruption theory: It’s far easier to explain the rise and fall of companies in terms of sustaining and disruptive innovations after the fact, when you can pick them apart and make them the subject of case studies.
My theory as to why Arianna Huffington would sell her successful website to a troubled company like AOL is that her investors wanted to cash in and weren’t particularly interested about the future of the Huffington Post.
Writing for the Guardian, Graeme Wearden says the beneficiaries of Huffington’s $315 million deal will be three venture-capital firms and a few private investors. Wearden adds that “some shareholders must be sitting on very large returns, as the company has received just $37m of funding over the last six years.”
HuffPo’s business model has three prongs: paid, original journalism by the likes of Howard Fineman and Sam Stein; extreme aggregation that summarizes off-site content so thoroughly there’s really not much reason to click through; and free content from numerous bloggers.
I’m guessing that the latter two prongs will be endangered by the acquisition, as media companies take a new look at HuffPo’s aggregation practices and bloggers who were willing to write for free for a site that they saw as somehow theirs balk at doing it for a corporation like AOL.
Perhaps skeptics like me will be proven wrong, but I don’t see what AOL brings to the table. Yes, it has acquired content sites like TechCrunch and Engadget, and its hyperlocal Patch sites are springing up everywhere. But I don’t understand how adding HuffPo creates the “synergies” AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong is talking about.
Indeed, “synergy” has become a punchline from years past, with the ill-fated merger of AOL and Time Warner being a prime example.
Ken Auletta recently wrote a terrific story on AOL for the New Yorker, which, unfortunately, is not freely available online. Auletta portrayed AOL as a company that may be on the brink of financial collapse, and Armstrong as a smart, energetic leader whose content-heavy strategy may nevertheless prove to be flawed and outdated.
By far my favorite part of the story was the revelation that AOL still gets 80 percent of its profits from subscribers, and that perhaps 75 percent of them are older people who don’t realize they don’t need the $25-per-month service now that they have broadband. Not exactly a recipe for success.
With few exceptions, media sensations like the Huffington Post have their moments and then fade away. Arianna may prove she can defy gravity. But she has just made her job harder, not easier.