Sen. Ed Markey is no political ally of President Donald Trump, especially when it comes to his career-defining advocacy on media issues.
For example, within the last week, Markey has blasted the Republican-led administration’s elimination of media ownership rules and called for “a firestorm of opposition to [its] assault on net neutrality.”
However, the Department of Justice’s lawsuit to block the merger between AT&T and Time Warner has strangely put the Trump administration in alignment with the Massachusetts Democrat in one of his career-defining battles — though perhaps not for the same reasons.
In a statement Tuesday to Boston.com, Markey — who has long advocated against media consolidation — said the proposed $85 billion merger between AT&T and Time Warner “raises significant antitrust and consumer protection issues.”
“In the telecommunications market, we need more competition, not more consolidation,” he said. “Less competition results in fewer choices and higher prices for consumers, and this deal should be assessed with consumers, competition and choice in mind. We must also ensure that those with the best ideas, not simply the best access, can share their content with the world.”
Since reports of the impending deal last October, Markey has consistently warned that the market power the two telecom conglomerates could wield combined may not be in the public interest. This past June, Markey and 11 other Senate Democrats wrote a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions urging him to “closely scrutinize” and potentially reject the merger.
Five months later, it seems they got their wish, though Markey and others are concerned if it’s for the right reasons.
The Sessions-led Justice Department filed a lawsuit in federal court Monday to block the AT&T-Time Warner merger, citing similar concerns consumer advocates raised over the vertical integration of the nation’s largest subscription-TV distributor with one of the country’s leading content producers. In addition to its telephone service empire, AT&T owns DirecTV, while Time-Warner owns an array of top TV networks, including TNT, TBS, CNN, and HBO.
In its suit, the DOJ said the merger could allow the newly created telecom giant to “use its control of Time Warner’s popular programming as a weapon to harm competition” by forcing rival cable distributors to pay more for its channels. The government also posed that the new company could use its increased power to slow the entertainment industry’s shift toward potentially better distribution models (i.e. streaming) and “would result in fewer innovative offerings and higher bills for American families.”
Those reasons sound all well and good by Markey’s standards.
However, multiple outlets reported earlier this month that the DOJ also pressured the two companies to either sell off either DirecTV or Turner Broadcasting (the parent company of its TV networks) if they wanted the deal to go forward, with the “real sticking point” being CNN. The reported ultimatum raised questions over if Trump was trying to stop the deal to get payback against CNN, which he has frequently bashed for its news coverage.
Markey said such a suggestion was “offensive to both the First Amendment and the rule of law.”
“The Department of Justice’s review process should be entirely void of politics,” he said, reiterating that the government must “thoroughly vet” the deal, but “only through the lens of whether the merger will result in substantial harms to competition and consumers.”
Markey isn’t alone in his cautious endorsement of the DOJ’s lawsuit. As CNN reported Monday, a number of open-media advocacy groups and Democratic politicians applauded the move, while simultaneously expressing concern over any political motives or influence.
“Blocking this merger is the right thing to do — and we hope the Justice Department is doing it for the right reasons,” Craig Aaron, the president and CEO of the media advocacy group Free Press, said in a statement. “This deal would give AT&T way too much power to undercut competitors and raise costs on TV viewers and internet users everywhere.”
Aaron said it was “refreshing” to see the Republican administration act to protect against the “very real” harms of vertical mergers.
“However, we remain very troubled by President Trump’s threats to punish outlets like CNN that have aired critical coverage of the administration. The Justice Department must demonstrate that Trump’s saber-rattling has nothing to do with this suit,” he said, adding that government officials could prove the purity of their motives by applying the same level of scrutiny to other large media mergers, like the proposed deal between Sinclair Broadcast Group and Tribune Media.
In fact, the FCC’s aforementioned moves to eliminate a number of media ownership rules last week virtually paved the way for the acquisition by Sinclair, which has provided much more friendly coverage to Trump. The FCC, along with the Justice Department, has denied being under any undue influence from the White House.