Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions, during questioning at a congressional hearing Tuesday, sidestepped a question about whether President Trump’s vitriol toward CNN was factoring into the Department of Justice’s review of a mammoth media merger.
AT&T is trying to buy Time Warner Inc. — which owns CNN, HBO, TNT, Cartoon Network and the Warner Bros. movie and television studio — for $85 billion. Justice Department antitrust division officials met last week with AT&T executives to discuss their concerns about the merger.
The division, now led by Makan Delrahim, has suggested that it might sue to block the merger. Sources familiar with the matter have told various news outlets, including the Los Angeles Times, that the Justice Department has suggested that AT&T sell either Turner Broadcasting, which includes CNN, or its El Segundo-based satellite TV unit, DirecTV, to win the government’s approval of the deal.
Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) wanted to know whether the Justice Department had ordered AT&T to sell CNN, noting that Trump’s ire toward the news network is well documented.
Johnson asked whether anyone at the White House had contacted Sessions or other Justice Department officials in an effort to influence their decision on the AT&T-Time Warner deal. Sessions did not directly answer the question.
“First, I would say that I don’t accept, and cannot accept, the accuracy of that news report,” Sessions said. “We have a professional team —”
Johnson interrupted to ask whether the Justice Department had ordered AT&T to shed CNN.
“Our work is professional. They do meet with the —” Sessions said before being interrupted a second time by Johnson, who asked about the validity of news reports.
“I would just tell you that I’m not able to accept as accurate news reports that have come out on that,” Sessions said.
Johnson then switched his attention to another topic.
AT&T Chairman and Chief Executive Randall Stephenson, during an appearance last week at the New York Times Dealbook conference, said he had not been directly ordered to sell CNN.
However, questions remain about whether Stephenson was asked to sell Turner Broadcasting, which includes CNN, or whether he would have to divest DirecTV, which the Dallas phone giant acquired in 2015.
Stephenson also said he would not sell CNN.
At the hearing Tuesday, Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.), asked Sessions whether the antitrust division’s position on mergers had changed. In the past, the Justice Department has found acceptable “vertical” mergers, which don’t eliminate any direct competitors. The more problematic mergers have been those defined as “horizontal,” because they consolidate similar businesses and thus reduce competition.
AT&T has classified its proposed takeover of Time Warner as a vertical merger because it wouldn’t wipe out any direct competitors. Some Republicans have expressed concern that the Justice Department might be taking a more restrictive view of mergers rather than allowing market conditions to prevail.
“Antitrust policy is important. I have never been an expert at it,” Sessions said. “We have an experienced team at the Department of Justice. We do try to handle each case professionally. I’m not able to announce any new policies at this time, Congressman.”