Top executives from AT&T and Time Warner pledged under oath to protect US First Amendment free press protections, under tough questioning during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday.
During a hearing about AT&T’s proposed $85 billion buyout of Time Warner, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut Democrat, grilled the top executives from both companies about their commitment to free speech.
The issue of free speech has become especially important for news organizations, given president-elect Trump’s open hostility to the press, especially CNN, which the reality TV star and real estate branding mogul repeatedly denounced during the election campaign.
“For a public official to use the blunt, heavy instrument of law enforcement to try to silence or change coverage by a news department of any company is for me absolutely abhorrent,” Sen. Blumenthal said.
Time Warner owns CNN, a leading global news organization. If the merger is approved, AT&T, a telecom company with no prior experience in the news business, would assume control of the Atlanta-based news organization.
“We intend to continue defending and being an independent journalistic voice.”
During Wednesday’s hearing, Sen. Blumenthal sought assurances from both AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, and Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes, that the combined company would maintain journalistic independence, and resist intimidation from Trump, or his minions.
“In terms of the independence of our journalism—and I hope all the other journalistic outlets—we have always vigorously defended that, for decades, whether when we had Time Inc. and when we have CNN,” Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes told Senate lawmakers. “And we intend to continue defending and being an independent journalistic voice.”
Sen. Blumenthal pressed forward: “What troubles me,” he said, “is that the President-elect has said that his Justice Department will enforce a different standard of law depending on what kind of coverage his administration receives. Will you commit that your news coverage will in no way be influenced or impacted by what the President of the United States says about this transaction?”
Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes responded: “Yes.”
Sen. Blumenthal then asked the same question of AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, who responded: ”Yes, sir, of course. Yeah.”
“Wouldn’t you agree with me that for anyone in the Department of Justice or any law enforcement agency to threaten or use more vigorous or aggressive law enforcement, in effect in retaliation for news coverage that doesn’t please that public official would be an abuse of power?” Blumenthal continued.
“I would, if you’re asking me,” Bewkes responded.
President-elect Donald Trump raised eyebrows during the election campaign by declaring at a political rally that he plans to “block” the AT&T-Time Warner merger, because it would result in “too much concentration of power in the hands of too few.” Many media analysts interpreted his comments as a not-too-veiled threat against CNN, which apparently displeased him for reporting on his false claims during the campaign.
“I find absolutely abhorrent the threat against a news organization based on its content of more vigorous or adverse enforcement against it simply because of a dislike of that coverage,” Sen. Blumenthal said, “and I welcome your commitment that his statements will have absolutely no impact on the content of CNN’s coverage.”
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