The Slatest

Trump Administration Reportedly Using Antitrust Case as Pretext to Attack CNN

Donald Trump at a CNN-hosted debate in Miami on March 10, 2016.

Rhona Wise/AFP/Getty Images

It’s well-known that Donald Trump doesn’t like CNN because it reports information unflattering to his administration; he calls it a “fake news” network and once posted a cartoon depicting a CNN reporter getting run over by a train on Twitter. More substantively, the Financial Times reports, his administration is demanding that AT&T and Time Warner sell CNN in order to gain federal approval of their merger:

AT&T has been told by the US Department of Justice that it needs to sell CNN, Time Warner’s cable news channel, to get its $84.5bn acquisition of the media company approved, according to three people with direct knowledge of the negotiations. … “It’s all about CNN,” said one person with direct knowledge of the talks between the company and the DOJ, adding that the regulator made it clear to AT&T that if it sold CNN the deal would go through.

The New York Times has a more hedged version of the same story:

The Justice Department has called on AT&T and Time Warner to sell Turner Broadcasting, the group of cable channels that includes CNN, as a potential requirement for approving the companies’ pending $85.4 billion deal, people briefed on the matter said on Wednesday.

The other potential way the merger could win approval would be for AT&T to sell its DirecTV division, two of these people added.

From a business standpoint, this wouldn’t appear to be much of a choice: AT&T acquired DirecTV in 2015 for nearly $50 billion while CNN’s worth is estimated at $10 billion—and, generally, companies that consumers need to deliver content into their homes/devices are a more going concern these days than the dinosaurs whose business models are based on actually making the content.

There’s not much of a legal case, meanwhile, that CNN should be sold because of monopoly concerns—AT&T doesn’t own its own competing cable news network. The only point of such a demand would seemingly be to punish CNN in a way that reduces its worth (assets have less value when every potential buyer knows you have no choice but to sell) and intimidates other media companies by letting them know that outlets that report aggressively on the Trump administration are going to create business headaches for their owners.

As both Times-es note, AT&T and Time Warner will likely challenge the DOJ in court if it doesn’t relent on its alleged demand—which, in addition to being seemingly unjustifiable under existing merger law, would constitute a low moment in American history as far as free speech and encroaching authoritarianism and whatnot. (It sure seems like this is the kind of moment when Trump’s principled Republican critics in the Senate could pipe up and launch oversight hearings, doesn’t it?)

For what it’s worth, administration sources just told Fox News (hmm) that no, this is all backward, they’re actually insisting that AT&T keep CNN!

(Update, 4 p.m.: AT&T says Fox’s report is completely untrue.)