For the journalists at CNN—everywhere, really, but especially at CNN—now is an appropriate time to become very afraid.
All of the U.S. media that is not right wing media has a problem on its hands by the name of Donald Trump. Specifically, the problem is that Trump is obsessed with his own press coverage, thin-skinned, vindictive, and (here is the new part) in charge of the United States government. This gives him a fun new array of tools with which to persecute the press, from the FCC to Congressional allies to the Supreme Court to the bully pulpit. A man who has spent decades sending individual reporters angry, scrawled notes about their stories is now in a position to directly or indirectly punish media outlets that displease him. Yes, we have a First Amendment. But all publications must ultimately bend to financial pressures, and most publications are owned by large companies concerned with the bottom line, and it takes little imagination to see the ways in which Donald Trump could use his shiny new levers of power to lean on media companies and make their lives very unpleasant. Every media outlet will tell you that they do not respond to such outside pressure, but their owners most certainly do.
Yesterday, Trump held an off-the-record meeting with a bunch of TV reporters and executives. Many of them hilariously believed the meeting would be a standard sort of “get to know you” affair to establish agreements for covering the new president; what it was instead, according to various reports, was an opportunity for Trump to harangue them all about how poorly they covered him in the primary. One source told The New Yorker, “He truly doesn’t seem to understand the First Amendment... He thinks we are supposed to say what he says and that’s it.”
Perhaps Trump understands the First Amendment just fine: He understands it is porous, and he can circumvent it by acting like a bully. Which is exactly what he will be doing.
Let’s look at the case of CNN. Trump loathes CNN. Politico reports that he “singled out” CNN in yesterday’s meeting, and labeled them “the worst.” There can be little doubt that Donald Trump, a man with the temperament of a child, a narcissist who neither knows nor cares about decorum or precedent, is rubbing his hands with glee at the prospect of making CNN pay for all of their imagined offenses against him over the years.
Last month, AT&T struck a deal to buy Time Warner for $85 billion. This would be one of the biggest media mergers of all time. It cannot happen without government approval. On the campaign trail, Donald Trump, wearing his populist hat, immediately came out against the merger, saying “Deals like this destroy democracy.” Since the election, though, Trump has hired advisers who would seem to be friendly to such a merger, and analysts now believe the deal could get approved after all, if Trump’s personal grudges are outweighed by pro-business advisers.
By making such a deal in the political environment at hand, executives from AT&T and Time Warner were making a calculated bet that they could get the deal approved under a Hillary Clinton administration. They now face the prospect of getting it done under Trump. These executives, and a galaxy of lawyers and bankers and consultants, stand to make a large sum of money if the deal is approved. The CEO of AT&T considers this merger vital for both the success of his business and his own legacy. Political concerns aside, the companies have made the calculation that they can gain regulatory approval for the deal. The election of Trump simply poses one more obstacle in their quest. Assuming the respective companies are confident they can structure the deal in a way that will pass muster with regulators and the courts, then—as incredible as this may seem—the single biggest barrier to the completion of this $85 billion media merger may be Donald Trump’s childish personal dislike of CNN’s news coverage of him. From a business perspective, the most rational course of action is to tone down that coverage to the satisfaction of Donald Trump so that the deal can proceed.
So if you are a CNN journalist, ask yourself: Do you believe that the CEOs of Time Warner and AT&T value your editorial integrity more than they value this $85 billion merger?
If the answer is “no,” you better get yourself a union.