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2 ways of reading Trump’s objections to the AT&T/Time Warner merger

An authoritarian crackdown, or good populist antitrust enforcement.

Republican Presidential Candidates Debate In Miami Area Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

News broke Wednesday afternoon, first in the Financial Times and then later in the New York Times, that the federal government is seeking to block AT&T’s proposed purchase of Time Warner.

The two versions of the story are, however, fairly different. In the FT’s account, the government’s objections are fairly narrowly focused on CNN and seem closely linked to President Trump’s feud with the network. In the Times’s account, the government’s objections are broader. They want the merged entity to divest itself of either the entire Turner Broadcasting suite of channels or AT&T’s satellite television broadcasting unit, DirecTV. That would have the impact of forcing the merged entity to divest of CNN, which is a part of Turner Broadcast, but the implications would be both broader and more policy-focused.

The two different factual narratives also feed into two different analytic narratives. On the one hand, there’s a story about a dangerously authoritarian administration finally using its powers of office to retaliate against a news outlet it doesn’t like. On the other hand, there’s a story about an administration that promised “populist” governance finally stepping up to the plate on antitrust enforcement.

A former high-ranking federal antitrust official I spoke to said he found it surprising that a Republican administration would raise these objections but also that the objections themselves were not necessarily unreasonable.

The larger backdrop to the confusion, of course, is that Trump’s pattern of conduct makes a conspiratorial read of its actions feel plausible in a way it wouldn’t have under previous administrations.

The chilling scenario

One version of the story, laid out by Peter Kafka at Recode, is that this is a form of creeping authoritarianism. Donald Trump doesn’t like CNN’s journalism, CNN is owned by Time Warner, AT&T’s proposed takeover of Time Warner is good news for Time Warner’s shareholders, so Trump is trying to scuttle the deal to retaliate against CNN.

A key piece of evidence for this is that Makan Delrahim, who now heads the antitrust division of the Department of Justice, said last year that the deal shouldn’t be a problem. Yet now suddenly there’s a problem.

And according to the FT, “it’s all about CNN.”

This would, if true, obviously be a huge abuse of power with a potentially chilling effect across journalism.

The encouraging scenario

On the other hand, it’s not as if skepticism about the merits of a mega-merger between two titans of the media industry is an idiosyncratic Trump phenomenon. When the deal was first announced, for example, Bernie Sanders criticized it immediately.

Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), who are the top members of their respective parties on the Senate’s antitrust subcommittee, immediately announced their intentions to hold hearings. Since that time, the Democratic Party has only strengthened its political commitment to more stringent antitrust enforcement.

More broadly, the key precedent for letting the deal go through is that Comcast was allowed to merge with NBCUniversal (which is one of several major investors in Vox Media, Vox’s parent company) some years back and the AT&T/Time Warner deal is structurally similar to that one. But many analysts look back on the Comcast deal and conclude that it was a mistake. Part of the deal was that Comcast promised not to use its cable infrastructure to give favorable treatment to NBCUniversal content.

This has proven, in practice, difficult to enforce. Bloomberg TV, for example, has repeatedly complained about discriminatory treatment in which its business news channel will be exiled to a distant and illogical corner of the channel guide while Comcast’s own CNBC property is nestled in with other news networks. Asking regulators to constantly police this sort of conduct is difficult. One possible interpretation of what’s happening is simply that the DOJ has decided the critics are right and this type of merger needs structural remedies rather than conduct remedies.

It would be nice to have a trustworthy president

This is the kind of situation where it would be nice, as a citizen, to have broad confidence in the integrity of the president of the United States and his White House team.

If we were talking about a president who generally comported himself in a manner consistent with the values of liberal democracy, who demonstrated respect for the rule of the law and the integrity of the policymaking process and an at least average level of personal honesty, then the story here would be clear — the government is taking a surprisingly aggressive enforcement posture for a GOP administration, but that may be a good thing.

But we don’t have a president like that. We have a president who lies constantly, who disregards the norms of American government, who’s openly disdainful of the social function of a free press, and who’s set up his administration in a way that seems to generally sideline expertise while opening the door to massive financial conflicts of interest. Under those circumstances, any actions he takes naturally fall under a pall of suspicion, and it’s easy for companies who are adversely impacted by his administration’s regulatory decisions to raise questions about them.