It’s quite possible that Donald Trump would never have become president were it not for CNN. The network nurtured the reality star’s campaign in its infancy, broadcasting entire stump speeches, uninterrupted by correction or commentary. And it is likely that the president would be little more than a cultural artifact — a walking reminder of 1980s nihilism — were it not for the network’s president Jeffrey Zucker, who reintroduced Trump to the American public as a no-nonsense businessman in NBC’s The Apprentice.
But CNN is a journalistic enterprise. Or, at least, it plays one on TV. And so when a politician spews vicious, obvious lies on a near-daily basis — and directs a good portion of that venom at the free press itself — CNN’s anchors and reporters feel compelled to correct and condemn such mendacity. And that makes the president feel “betrayed.”
So, now, his administration is openly threatening to punish the network by sending the Justice Department after its parent company. As the New York Times reports:
Mr. Trump’s allies argue that it is CNN’s conduct that is unbecoming. Starting on last year’s campaign trail, the president and his aides have accused the network of bias and arrogance, an offensive that heated up again in January after CNN reported on the existence of a secret dossier detailing a series of lurid accusations against Mr. Trump. The network’s reporters now routinely joust with Mr. Trump’s press aides, and Jim Acosta, a White House correspondent, recently denounced the administration’s use of off-camera briefings as an affront to American values.
White House advisers have discussed a potential point of leverage over their adversary, a senior administration official said: a pending merger between CNN’s parent company, Time Warner, and AT&T. Mr. Trump’s Justice Department will decide whether to approve the merger, and while analysts say there is little to stop the deal from moving forward, the president’s animus toward CNN remains a wild card. [my emphasis]
This detail is buried 12 paragraphs into a feature on CNN’s combative relationship with Trump. Which is bizarre, given that it’s an open confession of corruption by a senior White House official. It hardly matters whether the administration follows through on its threat: The White House is extorting a news network in the pages of the New York Times. The fact that this didn’t strike the paper as headline material is a testament to how thoroughly Trump has already succeeded in eroding our expectations for good governance.
Shortly after the mogul’s election, Vox’s Matt Yglesias posited politically motivated interference in the Time Warner–AT&T merger as a frightening hypothetical — a development that would signal America’s descent into kleptocracy.
Trump is not going to crush the free media in one fell swoop. But big corporate media does face enough regulatory matters that even a single exemplary case would suffice to induce large-scale self-censorship. AT&T, for example, is currently seeking permission from antitrust authorities to buy Time Warner — permission that Time Warner executives might plausibly fear is contingent on Trump believing that CNN has covered him “fairly.”
It’s worth noting that CNN has already allowed the desire to appease Trump (and his voters) to undermine its journalistic integrity. The network literally pays Trump associates Corey Lewandowski and Jeffrey Lord to lie to its audience on the president’s behalf — even as it cut ties with Reza Aslan for profanely criticizing the president on social media.
While this is the first time the administration has publicly declared its interest in using the Justice Department as a tool for stifling dissent, Trump has been encouraging Time Warner to discipline its news network for months now. In February, the Wall Street Journal reported that senior White House adviser (and Trump son-in-law) Jared Kushner “complained to Gary Ginsberg, executive vice-president of corporate marketing and communications at CNN’s parent Time Warner, about what Mr. Kushner feels is unfair coverage slanted against the president.”
On the campaign trail, Trump vowed to block Time Warner’s desired merger “because it’s too much concentration of power in the hands of too few.”
If that sentiment were genuine, it would be worth applauding. There’s considerable evidence that corporate consolidation in general — and media concentration, in particular — has been bad for our economy and our democracy. But the Trump administration has signaled an appreciation for the virtues of monopolies, appointing a former lobbyist with an affinity for big business as the Justice Department’s head of antitrust enforcement.
And the White House is perfectly comfortable with media consolidation — when such mergers increase the bandwidth of pro-Trump outlets. Earlier this year, the FCC relaxed rules on how many local stations a single owner can control. Shortly thereafter, Sinclair Broadcast Group purchased Tribune Media — thereby gaining ownership of enough local television stations to reach 70 percent of American households. Sinclair is run by a big-dollar GOP donor, and forced its local affiliates to skew their coverage in Trump’s favor throughout the 2016 campaign.
If the White House blocks the Time Warner–AT&T deal, it will not be out of a desire to enhance competition, but to limit free speech.
To be sure, there’s reason to doubt that Trump will make good on that threat — this White House’s bark tends to be louder than its bite. In an interview with the Times, Zucker claims that the merger is not something he thinks about and that Time Warner CEO Jeffrey Bewkes has never brought that subject to his attention.
But when a president with an ardent, white-nationalist following barks, it’s reasonable to fear that someone else might use their teeth. While Zucker isn’t worried about antitrust enforcement, he told the Times that he is worried for his staff’s personal safety:
The level of threats against CNN employees, he said, has spiked this year. Mr. Trump, he said, “has caused us to have to take steps that you wouldn’t think would be necessary because of the actions of the president of the United States.”
Over the weekend, Trump tweeted a GIF that portrayed him battering a wrestling figure with the CNN logo for a head. The creator of that clip turned out to be a neo-Nazi Reddit user who had posted a list of all the Jews that work at CNN. The network’s Andrew Kaczynski tracked down that user and extracted an apology. Kaczynski declined to reveal the figure’s identity, but suggested that he retained the right to do so, if the shit-poster resumed his “ugly behavior on social media.”
That threat did not sit well with the alt-right, who saw it as an attempt to restrict free speech through intimidation. Thus, some Trumpists decided to express their principled opposition to such intimidation, by threatening to kill Kaczynski and his family. As BuzzFeed reports:
For now, according to a source with knowledge of the situation, Kaczynski and his family are the subject of an ongoing harassment campaign that includes the publication of personal information and death threats. And earlier today, the pro-Trump social media personality Michael Cernovich announced a protest outside Kaczynski’s New York home.
The White House is openly threatening to punish a (barely) adversarial outlet through selective regulatory enforcement. White nationalist Trump supporters are threatening to kill investigative reporters and assembling outside their homes.
Donald Trump has been president for less than six months.