The RTDNA Voice of the First Amendment Task Force is expressing alarm about allegations that the Trump administration demanded AT&T sell CNN as a condition for approval of the company’s proposed merger with Time Warner.
If true, the demand would perhaps be the most serious threat to press freedom in the Trump era to date.
The Financial Times was the first to report Wednesday, November 8, that at a meeting two days earlier a top Department of Justice antitrust official – a Trump appointee – told AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson that in order to get federal approval for the $85.4 billion deal, he would have to agree to sell either Time Warner subsidiary Turner Broadcasting, which owns CNN and several other cable networks, or DirecTV, which AT&T purchased a couple of years ago.
The Justice Department denies any pressure from the White House and says it was Stephenson, not the DOJ’s regulator, who suggested selling CNN, a claim Stephenson quickly and adamantly denied. Both Turner and DirecTV are seen as essential to the success of AT&T’s post-merger business model.
This is being widely viewed as an outrageous use of federal government power to seek a form of retribution against a news media organization for which the president has had a longstanding dislike – make that disdain.
For example, FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel tweeted: "Wait, are we really going to make the @TheJusticeDept use antitrust law to force the sale of a cable channel because the President doesn't like its news coverage? You can dislike consolidation but still find this extremely disturbing if true."
Even some opponents of the merger view the alleged DOJ ultimatum as beyond the pale.
Craig Aaron, CEO of the nonpartisan group Free Press, issued a statement that read, in part, “While there are plenty of good reasons to oppose AT&T’s Time Warner takeover, punishing CNN for trying to hold this administration accountable isn’t one of them. No matter where you come down on this merger, everyone should agree that the government shouldn’t base antitrust decisions or FCC rulings on whether it likes a newsroom’s coverage.” He went on to call it “only the latest example of how Trump is all too willing to abuse his power to intimidate the press.”
The Voice of the First Amendment Task force agrees, but believes this case of intimidation, if borne out by the facts, represents more than “only the latest example” of the president’s war on a free press. It is far more serious than that.
“While neither RTDNA nor its task force take positions on whether any pending media mergers should be approved by the government, we must speak out when there’s even a whiff of a possible case of using presidential influence to punish a responsible news organization,” said Dan Shelley, RTDNA Executive Director. “If true, the president is using a tactic that authoritarian leaders in other countries have used to bludgeon journalists who dare to hold the powerful accountable. That is simply unacceptable in the United States of America,” he added.
During the 2016 election cycle, then-candidate Trump promised he’d stop the AT&T/Time Warner merger if elected. Now-President Trump has never missed an opportunity to be critical of CNN.
To complement his frequent verbal attacks on the network, this past summer the president tweeted a GIF in which he physically assaulted a man who had a CNN logo superimposed over his face. He also briefly retweeted a MEME showing a train running over a CNN reporter. He also tweeted this:
Nearly ten months into this administration, CNN is the only major national news organization that has yet to be granted a coveted one-on-one interview with the sitting President of the United States.
“Given the president’s clear loathing for CNN’s responsible reporting, and his previous statements about the AT&T/Time Warner deal, there is ample circumstantial evidence to suggest something bad for our republic is occurring,” Shelley said. “If there was a presidential directive to use CNN as a pawn in the antitrust regulatory process, this goes well beyond how his frequent use of the term ‘fake news’ had eroded public trust in the news media. It would be a bald-faced abuse of power.”
There’s new evidence, incidentally, that the use of the term “fake news” to deride responsible journalism with which the president and his supporters simply disagree, or find inconvenient to their agenda, is resonating with the public.
A just-released Edelman poll demonstrates that point:
It should be noted that the “flash poll” was conducted online and during a brief period of time, so the results should be viewed through that prism. Still, this snapshot of some Americans’ beliefs should concern every responsible journalist in the country. Why? Because it shows that even self-identifying political independents who participated in the poll believe the president’s assertion that “fake news” is “sloppy or biased reporting by news organizations” rather than what it actually is, an “insult to discredit unfavorable news stories.”
“Responsible journalists have an obligation to build trust with the public by being more transparent about the processes through which they go to gather and report the facts,” Shelley said. “We should also do a better job of explaining our use of confidential sources and the other ethical dilemmas we face – and how we resolve them – on a daily basis.”
A good place to start would be by applying to participate in the Trusting News project, which has developed comprehensive strategies and tactics proven to help local newsrooms build trust.
Even more foreboding than the effects of our “fake news” era – including increasing obstruction, threats, harassment, arrests and assaults on local, as well as national, news reporters and photojournalists – is the president’s apparent use of his immense power to demand the sale of CNN before his Justice Department approves the AT&T/Time Warner merger. (“It’s all about CNN,” one source told the Financial Times.)
Even if that effort doesn’t succeed, the task force is concerned about what other steps the president may take in the future to go after responsible journalism.
We hope that instead of going down any despicable dictatorial path he heeds the words of the late Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, who wrote, “The Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to bare the secrets of government and inform the people.” Or, perhaps more relevant, “Paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people.”
RTDNA formed the nonpartisan Voice of the First Amendment Task Force early this year to defend against threats to the First Amendment and news media access, and to help the public better understand why responsible journalism is essential to their daily lives. Reach out to the task force by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.