Why Trump's Attack on the Time Warner Merger Is Dangerous for the Press

It doesn’t always take violence to destroy media freedom. Vladimir Putin, for one, has figured out a better way: economics.

Eric Thayer / Reuters

There are several reasons the Trump administration move to block a proposed merger between AT&T and Time Warner raised eyebrows. It was without recent precedent, and was contradicted, within just a day, by the cancellation of so-called net-neutrality regulations, undermining the administration’s argument about protecting the little guy.

The relatives merits of allowing the merger—and of blocking it—have been argued extensively by better-versed minds. What worries me is the possibility, aired by AT&T’s chief executive among others, that the Time Warner cable channel CNN is a sticking point in the dispute. CNN, of course, is President Trump’s favorite punching bag—sometimes nearly literally, as in Trump’s retweet this summer of a video featuring a Trump look-alike throttling a CNN stand-in. The Justice Department has denied political interference from Trump, but it’s also hard to overlook Trump’s public comments that the proposed AT&T/Time Warner deal was “not good for the country,” or to ignore his repeated attacks on CNN as “fake news.”

This has gotten some worried attention, but not nearly enough. This should be a wake-up call for American journalists.

I have seen this play out so many times before—in Russia, that scary place portrayed as one with no press freedom and dead journalists stacked like cords of wood. I have spent most of my professional life writing about Russia, and whenever I have lived there or travel there, Americans ask me, “Aren’t you afraid to report there?” Whenever my Russian journalist friends meet Americans, they get asked the same thing, “Aren’t you afraid for your life?”

It’s not a completely silly question, given the recent attack on journalist Tatyana Felgengauer, who was stabbed in the neck in her radio station’s office, and the infamous death toll of journalists working in Russia. But it reflects an ignorance of the greatest danger facing journalists in Russia today: It is not a violent death, but a quiet starvation. After years of outcry and bad press for the Kremlin every time a Russian journalist met a grisly end, Putin figured out a better way to keep the press in line: economics.

Take, for example, TVRain, the only national independent TV channel in Russia. It existed outside the rules that governed television, which Putin ruthlessly nationalized as one of his first orders of business when he became president in 2000. In the winter that spanned 2011 and early 2012, TVRain extensively covered the pro-democracy—and anti-Putin—protests in Moscow, giving voice to their organizers and participants. (State TV barely showed the protests, and minimized them when they did.) This did not please the Kremlin, and so, as pro-European protests seized Kiev in the fall of 2013 and terrified Putin, the Kremlin cracked down on TVRain, which also reported on Ukraine’s EuroMaidan protests extensively.

The Kremlin didn’t kill anyone who worked for TVRain, it didn’t even beat anyone up or arrest anyone. Instead, it applied financial pressure. First, seemingly independent loyalist activists raised a public outcry that TVRain ran a segment that offended World War II survivors. Behind the scenes, government officials called advertisers and intimated that it wouldn’t be such a good idea to advertise with TVRain anymore. They called the national satellite and cable providers and hinted that it might be a good idea to cut TVRain out of their cable packages. These companies, for whom TVRain represented just a fraction of their business, immediately got the hint and dropped TVRain. In a matter of days, TVRain went from one of the most watched channels across the country to a marginal channel you could only watch online for a subscription fee.

No one died, no one was arrested, but the channel, suddenly strapped for cash, had to fire half its staff. Those that remained had their salaries cut in half. Many of them had families to support, so they left voluntarily, looking for more remunerative work. Some left journalism altogether. The Kremlin, meanwhile, had a ready excuse: What happened had nothing to do with politics. If advertisers and satellite operators didn’t want to do business with TVRain, what did the Kremlin have to do with it?

Or take the example of RBC, Russia’s rough equivalent of Bloomberg. It is owned by Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who also owns part of the Brooklyn Nets. In 2015, a team of investigative journalists not only found the name of Putin’s younger daughter but discovered that she oversaw a slush fund of nearly $2 billion, allegedly funded by her father’s friends, meant to expand Moscow State University. They also uncovered a whole lot of things that Putin didn’t want them to uncover, like his private oyster farm. Soon, the FSB appeared at Prokhorov’s holding company, which held billions’ worth of assets of which the media company was a tiny part, with a search and the threat of a criminal case. Prokhorov got the message, and the entire investigative reporting team, including the editor in chief, was pushed out in less than a month. The new editor in chief made the rules very clear to the new team, and RBC now avoids stories about Putin’s family and personal wealth.

There are too many other examples to enumerate, but the death of independent Russian media—and it is in its death throes—did not come about through mass murder. It was achieved by applying subtle political pressure on large businesses whose media properties, or the advertisements they placed in the media, were just a small, dispensable part—much like CNN is a small, dispensable part of Time Warner. And though Time Warner and AT&T are going to contest the Trump administration’s decision in court, who knows if the next media owner will decide it’s too expensive—and exposes the rest of his assets to too much risk? If Trump really goes after The Washington Post, as he threatened to do, how hard will its owner Jeff Bezos fight in the face of possible threats to his other properties— Amazon, Whole Foods, or the Blue Origin rocket venture?

These aren’t hypotheticals. Remember how quickly advertisers fled Shakespeare in the Park’s production of Julius Caesar that featured a Trump-like Caesar? Or Hulk Hogan’s well-financed legal attack—backed by Trump supporter Peter Thiel—on Gawker? The Gawker case, in particular, shows how powerful individuals can shut down an entire media organization just through legal action. Donald Trump is openly hostile to the media and now has more tools at his disposal than the mere wealth he wielded as a private businessman: He ultimately controls the Justice Department. He’s got a chilling precedent to follow and the resources of the federal government with which to follow it, if the Justice Department and the courts let him.

Russian journalists are watching us right now, and they’re mystified. After Trump shut down CNN’s Jim Acosta at his first press conference as president, the Russian journalist Alexey Kovalev offered Putin’s press conferences as a warning. “Don’t expect any solidarity or support” from peers in the media, he wrote. “If your question is stonewalled/mocked down/ignored, don’t expect a rival publication to pick up the banner and follow up on your behalf.” I recently saw a former TVRain reporter, and he said he wondered why we give press freedom awards to foreign journalists for their bravery, and then introduce strict social media guidelines that seem to him motivated by fear of antagonizing the Trump White House. He didn’t understand why, in his view, we’ve given up so much of our journalistic freedom before we’ve even been asked to.

What they don’t understand is that we feel we have a lot to lose—like the good jobs that most of them have already lost—and that some Americans are looking for signs of danger to press freedom in the wrong place. If we’re waiting for the bodies of journalists to start showing up, we’re missing all the other warning signs in the meantime.