Judge Rejects DOJ Arguments, Approves AT&T-Time Warner Merger

Jun 13, 2018
Originally published on June 13, 2018 10:01 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here's a promise President Trump made on the campaign trail in 2016.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: AT&T is buying Time Warner and, thus, CNN, a deal we will not approve in my administration because it's too much concentration of power in the hands of too few.

(APPLAUSE)

INSKEEP: OK, note the mention of CNN, which is just one of many, many Time Warner media properties but is a news network the president does not like. Trump's administration kept his promise, suing to block Time Warner's merger with AT&T. Yesterday, though, a judge threw out the lawsuit, advising the administration that its case was so bad they should not even appeal in the judge's opinion.

So what really drove the administration to make a case that did so poorly? NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik has been covering this story. He's on the line. Hey there, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. So how exactly did President Trump's very vocal opposition to this merger color the case?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, it certainly hung over it. It hung over it for observers. It hung over it for Time Warner and even AT&T. An executive with Time Warner yesterday said from the outset, this case was clearly politically motivated. And he was glad to see the judge affirm AT&T and Time Warner's arguments. But there's very little way to totally interpret this in the absence of Trump's animus toward CNN given the fact that it had been basically more than four decades since this kind of merger - that is, merger of complimentary rather than actually competing firms - had been challenged on antitrust grounds in quite this way.

INSKEEP: Oh, that's an interesting point. So these are not necessarily firms that were offering the same service to the public and suddenly they were going to get together and offer the public less choice. They were firms that did different things together and now are trying to get together.

This was a merger, though, that a lot of people opposed across the political spectrum. Bernie Sanders didn't think it was a good idea, just to give one example. Is there any proof, any solid evidence that President Trump's motives and the motives of his administration were purely political, that this was just a way to hit back at CNN?

FOLKENFLIK: There isn't proof. And in fact, the antitrust chief, Makan Delrahim, at the Justice Department is widely well-regarded by people on both sides of this case and by people who take very disparate views on it. He's a very highly respected figure. And people said, look, there is a case to be made that these, what are called vertical integration - that is these guys at different points in the supply chain of content and how it gets to you - should be looked at and that this is an enormous wrap-up of major companies with different roles but influential roles in the entertainment business and that they should be looked at very closely and that it does have repercussions to the consumer that stretch beyond how much your immediate monthly bill may change if you receive services from AT&T.

INSKEEP: David, I think I'm hearing you saying that there is a legitimate issue that bears discussing here but that it was massively muddied because the president of the United States - first as a presidential candidate, then as president - talked about it so much and in such an obvious way that his motives, anyway, were very clear.

FOLKENFLIK: I think that the president's statements about this did tend to raise great questions. In fact, there was a lawsuit trying to - seeking to dislodge information from the government about ways in which political influence may have come to bear on that. Some documents were released just in the last couple of days on that. They were fairly mundane recapitulation of testimony. And a lot of pages were withheld that may have shown whether or not actually influence was brought to bear. This case didn't stand up in the eyes of the judge. He said the evidence wasn't there to support the claims the government made.

INSKEEP: OK. David, thanks very much.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

INSKEEP: That's NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.