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Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes: Democrats, not Donald Trump, are the real ‘threat to the First Amendment’

Someone tell John Oliver.

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Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

Don’t worry about Donald Trump and the First Amendment, says Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes: He won’t harm it, despite a campaign promise to “open up” libel laws, and a tweet proposing to strip flag-burners of their citizenship.

But Bewkes, who runs one of the world’s biggest media companies, says you should be worried about the Democratic Party, because its 2016 campaign posed a “threat to the First Amendment.”

Speaking at Business Insider’s Ignition conference, Bewkes said Democrats “had a campaign plank to change the First Amendment ... in the guise of campaign finance reform.”

That would “restrain multiple voices,” Bewkes told interviewer Henry Blodget. “And so I thought the threat to the First Amendment came from the Democratic side.”

Bewkes was responding to a question from Blodget, who said Trump was “threatening to effectively change the First Amendment.” A Time Warner rep confirmed that Bewkes was referring to a line in the Democrats’ 2016 platform that called for “a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United.”

Citizens United is the 2010 Supreme Court ruling that removed some limits on political giving for corporations, citing the First Amendment.

Here’s a transcript of Blodget’s question and Bewkes’s response:

Henry Blodget: But [Trump is] threatening to effectively change the First Amendment. He’s obviously got CNN in his sights. Are you worried about that at all?

Jeff Bewkes: Nah, nah. I don’t think that’s a serious thing. We should all worry ... if anybody’s going to change the First Amendment — and remember the Democratic Party had a campaign plank to change the First Amendment. And they were doing it in the guise of campaign finance reform. And that was worrying me more. Because the press tends to miss that. Because they tend to lean that way, and therefore they were supporting what they were viewing, I think overly charitably, as something as cleaning up money in politics, when in fact what it would do is restrain multiple voices. And so I thought the threat to the First Amendment came from the Democratic side, more ... I think there’s not going to be a serious effort on the Republican side.

Update: Here’s an addendum to Bewkes’s comment, supplied by a Time Warner rep:

Jeff was in fact referencing Citizens United, which has come to mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. To the extent that people have interpreted the case to apply to campaign finance limits, the government has the ability to impose limits on political contributions, including those made by corporations. To be clear, he was actually talking about the court’s more narrow holding that all corporations, whether for profit or not-for-profit, have a First Amendment-protected right to produce and distribute programming of political importance during a presidential election. And that upholding the First Amendment rights of everyone to participate in a free, open and robust public debate during elections is more important to democracy than ever before.

Here’s the video of Bewkes’s interview. The passage in question starts about the 1:24:55 mark:

A few notes:

  • Bewkes has traditionally donated to Democrats, and his company is in many ways a flag-bearer for the “coastal elite” Trump supporters supposedly despise: Its assets include HBO, CNN and Warner Bros. But Bewkes is more of a Big Media guy than he is a capital D Democrat: He’s also been opposed, for instance, to net neutrality rules Barack Obama’s administration has supported.
  • Bewkes is going to be asking the Trump administration to sign off on a deal to sell his company to AT&T for about $86 billion. That doesn’t mean his comments aren’t sincere (see above). But if you need Washington’s help, it doesn’t hurt if you can tell the ruling party that you’re on its side.
  • Bewkes’s stance will put him at odds with many of his employees. Like some of those journalists at CNN, for instance. Also, current HBO employees Jon Stewart and John Oliver, who combined to make this “Daily Show” classic in 2010:

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