Antitrust enforcement, insofar as it is a matter of political and partisan concern these days rather than just a dry technical matter to be left to boring administrators, is generally identified with the center left. Those further left than that have no use for antitrust because they are more interested in nationalizing monopolies than in busting them up. Those on the right tend to define private sector monopolies away.
The center right is not averse to antitrust law as a whole, but it tends to focus on price fixing, that is on specific easily prohibitable practices, rather than on broad structural issues.
The current Assistant Attorney General of the United States in charge of the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department is Makan Delrahim. Delrahim, a former lobbyist with the law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP, in that capacity worked for some of the largest corporations in the United States, including Qualcomm, Comcast, and Anthem.
When Delrahim came on board at the Department of Justice, he inherited an inquiry into whether AT&T would be allowed to acquire Time Warner for $85.4 billion. Time Warner of course includes Turner Broadcasting and its jewel, CNN.
On Wednesday, November 8, a number of news sources reported, based on leaks, that the Antitrust Division had decided it would oppose the acquisition unless Time Warner sold the Turner properties or, in the alternative, sold its DirecTV division.
The business logic of the proposed combination is simple. AT&T brings the “pipes,” the infrastructure for selling a range of content. Time Warner brings the content, including everything from the right to broadcast NBA and MLB games to the film library of Warner Brothers. That is also the big reason enforcement authorities worry about the deal. Ownership of both pipes and content on such a scale could allow for a range of unfair anticompetitive practices.
From the Right
During the presidential campaign of 2016, Donald Trump repeatedly criticized CNN as a purveyor of fake news, and at one point promised to block the AT&T/Time Warner deal, apparently as a way of punishing the owners of the purveyors of said fakery.
Assistant AG Delrahim, though, doesn’t seem to have entered into his office with any objection to the deal, with or without a spin-off of such component. He said in an interview, “Just the sheer size of it, and the fact that it’s media, I think will get a lot of attention. However, I don’t see this as a major antitrust problem.”
In general, the “right” seems to dislike this deal because it will help enrich people and institutions they see as enemies, but it doesn’t like the idea of using the government to stop the deal either.
Holman Jenkins, a columnist with the Wall Street Journal, wrote in an essay that ran November 10 that “cord-cutting … is unravelling the traditional cable TV business model,” and that the “emerging competition of fixed and wireless” is “blowing up the separate sandboxes once enjoyed by the mobile and cable industries.” For such reasons, he does not believe the proposed deal presents a genuine competitive threat, and he favors “the right of two big companies to merge.”
From the Left
The left in the U.S. at present seems torn between its resistance-defining desire to defend anything that Trump has threatened, and its long-standing dislike of the consolidation of media. In Vox, Matthew Yglesias according writes about the Justice Department position in one-the-one hand, on-the-other hand style. One the one hand, he says, the Justice Department’s view helps tell the story of “a dangerously authoritarian administration … using its powers of office to retaliate against a news outlet it doesn’t like.” On the other hand, Yglesias says objections to the merger are reasonable, “this type of merger needs structural remedies.”
In The New Republic, Nicole Narea has portrayed this deal as a threat to what once was the great freeing promise of the internet. The internet “democratized information,” but corporate consolidation runs history in the other direction.