Agency independence, freedom of the press, and the public’s ability to access accurate information are three keys to maintaining a healthy democracy. The Trump Administration’s continued interference with media company mergers to help the President’s media friends and harm his critics poses a threat to all three.
Late last week, President Trump and his staff gave their blessing to a planned merger between the Walt Disney Company and 21st Century Fox, the parent company of the unabashedly pro-Trump Fox News. Prior to any independent merger review by the Department of Justice, the Federal Trade Commission, or the Federal Communications Commission, the Administration sent a clear signal that the deal should be approved. Indeed, there were multiple media reports that the President congratulated Fox Chairman Rupert Murdoch on the deal, and receives assurances that Murdoch would remain in charge of Fox News. These actions are in stark contrast to how the Administration has treated the merger of AT&T and Time Warner, the parent company of CNN, a network the President has repeatedly described as “fake news” and “garbage.” In November, the DOJ’s Antitrust Division filed a lawsuit to block that merger, following months of threats by the President to do just that.
We are already investigating the Trump Administration’s use of the machinery of government to reward and punish the media based on whether its coverage favors the Administration. We filed a lawsuit and FOIA requests in November to force the Administration to produce documents related to the DOJ’s treatment of CNN. We will be amending our complaint this week based on the Administration’s lack of response to our latest request. In the meantime, we are troubled that the Trump Administration’s preemptive blessing to the Fox merger is yet more evidence of the President’s willingness to disregard the First Amendment and the important democratic norm requiring the Executive to ensure that government power is used to protect the public interest, not the President’s own interests. To that end, today we filed a new FOIA request for information on how our government is handling the 21st Century Fox merger review and will amend our lawsuit when the request is ripe. Until then, we’ll stay vigilant against any effort by the Administration to undermine the institutions that are designed to protect our free and independent press.