Should the Disney-Fox deal go through?

Trump's activist antitrust division may well hold things up

Disney boss Bob Iger was suitably L.A. CEO informal — tie-less with striped shirt and blue blazer ensemble — and very much a hot commodity after buying a giant chunk of 21st Century Fox. He detailed his de facto courtship of Rupert Murdoch — "I didn't see this coming six months ago," he told Bloomberg TV — as well as the consumer benefits and, unavoidably, the regulatory challenges.

"We will get a lot of scrutiny from regulators worldwide," he told Bloomberg, arguing that if government bodies focused "just on the consumer," he thinks he'll be in the clear.

Well, it will surely take time, especially given Donald Trump's surprisingly activist Justice Department antitrust division, which even blocked a small potatoes purchase of the money-losing Chicago Sun-Times by the parent of its healthier rival, the Chicago Tribune. Far more telling, it's causing problems for the AT&T purchase of Time Warner due to concerns about programming consolidation.

If you want the instant line on antitrust and political elements, check James B. Stewart's column cum round-up of antirust observers in The New York Times, Their drift is that if the logic of going after AT&T-Time Warner holds, you have to go after this deal. Yes, Trump contacted Murdoch, who was once no fan of the then-presidential candidate in the early going (remember how Murdoch preferred Jeb Bush even as Fox News was giving Trump more coverage than anybody), at least until their bromance ensued and included a Trump call to Murdoch to apparently herald the Disney deal.

Since Iger talked much about the international aspects of the deal, especially getting Sky TV and gaining access to huge numbers of views in India and elsewhere, it was fitting to check the analysis of Ben Thompson, a Wisconsin Badger who writes a fine tech blog, Stratechery, from Taipei, Taiwan.

Until all this he'd been arguing that Netflix was positioned to dominate entertainment and fretted that Disney and others were clueless about returning fire. Now, he says, "What has been so impressive over the last few months is the extent and speed with which Disney has seemingly figured it out — and acted accordingly."

He loves competition, and hails Netflix's emergency. So isn't it good for all if Disney, for one, "were fully empowered to compete with Netflix?"

"What is preferable? A dominant streaming company and a collection of content companies trying to escape the commoditization trap, or two dominant streaming companies that can at least try to hold each other accountable?"

Perhaps, though he concedes that it's not the most desirable choice. Maybe Amazon Prime Video is a possible competitor. "Other tech companies are making noises in the area, but more tech company dominance hardly seems like an answer!"

Then comes his appealing candor and admission of ambiguity, which won't play into the divergent interpretations of diehard free marketers or those wary of media concentration.

"Frankly, I’m not sure of the answer: I am both innately suspicious of these huge mergers and also sympathetic because I see so clearly the centralizing power of the Internet. The big are combining because the giants are coming: if anything, they are already here."

And, maybe, writes Joe Nocera, the former New York Times stalwart now at Bloomberg, this deal actually proves a disaster, despite the by and large essentially sympathetic early conventional wisdom. He, for one, sees it as tied to cable TV. "And cable TV will die."

FCC's net neutrality decision may not be the final word

"Opponents of new Federal Communications Commission rules governing how internet service providers treat traffic on their networks are readying their legal arguments for what are expected to be immediate court challenges," informs The Wall Street Journal.

Facebook spoiler alert! Or maybe hypocrisy alert

"For years, Facebook executives have said they don’t want to run 'pre-roll' ads — ads that run before you get to watch the video you want to play — because users don’t like them," notes Recode's Peter Kafka.

"Now, Facebook is going to start running pre-roll ads."

"Important: That doesn’t mean your News Feed is going to be full of video ads you didn’t ask to see. The pre-rolls, which will run for up to six seconds, will only appear on videos in Facebook’s 'Watch' hub, where it is hoping you will go and hang out because you want to watch Facebook videos."

Alleged sexual harassment in the media (Part 123, it seems)

The Boston Globe portrays ESPN as quite the mess as it "details sexual harassment and gender discrimination at ESPN, including a former SportsCenter anchor feeling forced to stay on air while she was having a miscarriage so as not to jeopardize her job and another sending shirtless pictures of himself to a younger female colleague," as Deadspin summarized. News anchor John Buccigross and analyst Matthew Berry come off especially poor.

In response to the Globe, the sports giant said, “We work hard to maintain a respectful and inclusive culture at ESPN. It is always a work in progress, but we’re proud of the significant progress we’ve made in developing and placing women in key roles at the company in the board room, in leadership positions throughout ESPN and on air.”

This week the network has suspended several former NFL players while it investigates allegations of inappropriate behavior. Oh, there's no mention of any of this in its hometown paper, the Bristol, Connecticut Press. Top story? "Bristol Eastern girls basketball falls in season opener after being unable to slow down Plainville's Barker."

A last man standing

Arthur Sulzberger Jr., 66, will retire as New York Times publisher on Dec. 31 and be succeeded by his 37-year-old son, A.G. Sulzberger. The father, who took over from his dad, has held the post since 1992 and is very much a last man standing.

The Times is the last major paper with a family member at the helm. It's amazing how many of the long-supreme newspaper families are gone. Graham, Bancroft, Ridder, Cowles, Bingham, Bonfires, Morris, Chandler, etc., etc. There are smaller papers still in the hands of heirs of founders — about 80 daily papers have been in the same family hands for more than 100 years, says one study. But, by and large, families have sold at a rapid pace, not sticking around, with 90 percent of the industry chain-owned (the crossover happened about 50 years ago).

And it's worth remembering where The Times was in the not too distant past. Just download "Page One," a 2011 documentary produced when the industry was a total mess and The Times prospects looked very ambiguous. Then see where it's at today after an array of key decisions, including a dramatic (somewhat belated) turn to digital publishing. Father and son were both key players, as were other members of a family that's remained remarkably cohesive in betting on the family business and, especially, on quality.

A bit like his own father, Arthur Sulzberger Jr. was at times doubted and not deemed up to the task by some. He proved to be, very much like the father, who faced business, editorial and legal decisions that were critical to the institution (including publishing the Pentagon Papers). They proved their naysayers wrong.

Says Bill Keller, former executive editor of the paper and now leader of the  terrific Marshall Project nonprofit on criminal justice reporting:

"I credit Arthur with a lot of things — holding together the most supportive family in journalism, standing up for the newsroom when we spoke truth to power, whether the power was Dick Cheney or Harvey Weinstein — but probably most important was his early recognition that the future was digital. It took a lot of inventive people and a lot of investment to turn the ship, but it started with Arthur."

The new Pulitzer chief

Dana Canedy, a former New York Times senior editor, has a trickier task than one might assume in taking over a great institution reflexively linked to quality. Seriously, how many other American institutions are held in such esteem (even by people who might not quite know what the prizes are)?

But she is going down a path of change that goes beyond freshening up its offices at Columbia University, as he makes clear in a Poynter interview. There are changes in categories and in other areas. Things are going well so far. But one might wonder about what might happen if the institution itself becomes a target of, say, President Trump's free-wheeling attacks on "fake news"? Should it ever take a more active role in defending the values it embodies?

Does what happens in Alabama just stay in Alabama?

Nate Cohn of The Times writes, "At this time last year, the Democratic path to Senate control seemed impossible: Hold all of the Democratic seats, flip Arizona and Nevada, then hope for a miracle."

"The Democrats got the political version of a miracle on Tuesday. Doug Jones’ victory in Alabama means Democrats have accomplished the most difficult item on their checklist in pursuit of the Senate. A Democratic path is now obvious, and the race for control is basically a tossup,  perhaps with a Republican advantage."

Chinese meddling with a magazine?

"When a Chinese company buys a major American magazine, does the publication censor its coverage of China? There is only one example so far, and the results are discouraging," writes Isaac Stone Fish, a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations, in The Washington Post.

"In 2014, a Hong Kong-based investment group called Integrated Whale Media purchased a majority stake in Forbes Media, one of the United States’ best-known media companies. It’s hard to demonstrate causality in such cases. But since that purchase, there have been several instances of editorial meddling on stories involving China that raise questions about Forbes magazine’s commitment to editorial independence."

Race in Boston

Part Six in the Boston Globe: "Despite Boston’s reputation as a liberal bastion, the city’s power base remains largely white men. Blacks’ political achievements are more occasional than institutional. There are no black faces in Massachusetts’ congressional delegation, nor among statewide officeholders, and the only black to win election to statewide office since 1972 is former Gov. Deval Patrick. Such infrequent electoral victories are different from an ongoing voice in all the affairs of a city."

Florida surprise

TechDirt informs, "Some surprising news out of Florida: actual public officials being held accountable for public records law violations. We're used to hearing about officials finding new and creative ways to dodge public records requests. We're also used to hearing about officials using tried-and-true methods to avoid turning over records, like demanding astronomical fees or abusing exemptions."

"In this case, several years of blowing off requests for emails has ended in indictments for two Florida officials. In a move that should send a chill down the spines of thousands of elected officials in Florida, former Martin County Commissioner Anne Scott, a retired judge originally from Chicago, and current Commissioner Ed Fielding were booked Tuesday night into the county jail after being indicted in a public records scandal that already cost taxpayers upward of $25 million."

The Morning Babel

"Editing the Evidence" was the anti-Hillary Clinton theme on "Trump & Friends," citing Republican Sen. Ron Johnson's claims that FBI Director James Comey softened comments on his then-Clinton email investigation. This was repeating an AP story that  disclosed, "Some of the edits proposed to the May 2016 draft, obtained by The Associated Press, appear to soften the gravity of the bureau’s findings." Elsewhere, Fox analyst Guy Benson offered his take on a New York Times chart comparing Trump and Barack Obama lies, which claims Trump has fibbed at a rate six times greater in his first 10 months. Benson conceded "Trump makes stuff up a lot" but then disparaged the paper's Obama analysis, juxtaposing it with higher numbers on Obama from PolitiFact (which he called "a well-known left-leaning organization, infamous for fact-checking Republicans more often.") [Disclosure: PolitiFact is a division of the Tampa Bay Times newspaper, which Poynter owns.]

CNN's "New Day" was rather more concerned with Republican votes on the tax bill, with the consensus that, Sen. Marco Rubio rumblings aside, it will happen. On MSNBC, it was mostly taxes, too, with the drift the continued redistribution to wealthier citizens. Said longtime, never shy ad executive Donnie Deutsch, "I could cut 20 commercials today saying 'the Republican have screwed you,'" be it on health or taxes. And Fortune senior editor-at-large Leigh Gallagher noted CEOs' own displeasure with the tax bill in raising debt at the same time that corporate tax revenues' share of overall tax revenue is small and getting smaller, i.e. it's the little guy who pays the most.

Peggy Noonan's apparently early New Year's wish

She writes, "In 2018, we have to do better, all of us. We need to improve. In the area of politics this means, in part: sober up, think about the long term, be aware of the impression you’re making, of what people will infer from your statements and actions. So much hinges on the coming year — who is in Congress and what they think they were sent there to do, the results of the Mueller investigation. If the latter finds crimes and the former goes Democratic there will be moves for impeachment in 2019. There will be international crises as always, but 2018 may produce one of unprecedented historical gravity in nuked-up North Korea."

* * *

That's it for the week and year. We'll be taking a break for the next two weeks. Four kids' basketball games and two soccer games this weekend, perhaps a trek to the great lights show at the Lincoln Park Zoo. As for remaining shopping, Amazon (not entirely) here we come. Happy holidays.

  • Profile picture for user jwarren

    James Warren

    New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S. News & World Report. Former managing editor and Washington Bureau Chief, Chicago Tribune.

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