The AT&T/Time-Warner merger

The Department of Justice has imposed upon the proposed AT&T/Time-Warner merger an unexpected condition: Sell DirecTV or Turner Broadcasting, the parent of CNN — The Donald’s bete noire. If Turner Broadcasting is sold, CNN will almost certainly become a hot-potato orphan without the deep-pockets corporate parentage it needs to do the sort of serious-minded journalism that has so distinguished it during this execrable first year of Trump.

So the widespread suspicion is that’s deliberate, an attempt to cripple CNN by an administration whose head hates the network.

The latter news sparked concerns that President Trump, who has long berated CNN as “fake news,” was punishing the company for its critical coverage of his administration. Indeed, for any president to use the Department of Justice to punish enemies—either individuals or companies—would be the stuff of authoritarians.

There are two fishy details about the DOJ’s objections. First, Makan Delrahim, Trump’s handpicked head of antitrust at the Justice Department, had previously announced that this merger would be acceptable. The fact that he has changed his mind while working for this White House suggests to some that the administration may have inspired the policy change. Peter Kafka, a media reporter at Recode, called the possibility “chilling.” Second, it’s doubly startling for a Republican administration to suddenly reverse several decades of party leniency on just these sort of mergers, particularly with the president’s favorite target, CNN, hanging in the balance.

Well … who knows? Certainly, there are a lot of people in the Trump administration who would like for that particular nuisance to go away. What is more, DirecTV and Turner are different types of companies, and it’s difficult to understand the either/or point of the condition. On the other hand, there are plain problems with the broadcasting/publishing/creator media consolidations of the past decade, and there are sound reasons to question whether AT&T ought to own a journalism operation.

Back in the mid-90’s, I publicly hazarded a small prediction: Newspapers and local newscasters, I said, were going to lose control of both the collection and dissemination of news as the Internet grew. That won me a public rebuke from an editor from the Roanoke Times and, curiously, I got no more book review assignments from them. What do you know? It was clear more than a decade ago that I’d called that one rightly. Some newspapers with reportorial muscle — unlike, say, the Roanoke Times — have successfully migrated to a pay model for their content; the New York Times and Washington Post are conspicuous examples (I subscribe to both via the NOOK e-reader). There are reports that CNN will be going to a pay model for Web content by the middle of next year.

They should. If they do I’ll happily pay for their content, and everybody else should, too. Good journalism costs money and — as an authoritarian proto-fascist wears-down the opposition and frustrates our free press using the subterranean mechanisms of government — is more important than at any time in our history.

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