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AT&T carries massive debts and appears to be “financially unstable.” The company is considering selling CNN, the one-time news station that it acquired with Time Warner in 2018. But the network, which before Trump’s ascendancy had viewers the same way those ignored stacks of USA Today in hotel lobbies indicate readers, is expected to be relegated to blaring-to-empty-anteroom status again once its bete noir exits stage right.

Scott Shepard

This leaves AT&T with few good sales options. The frontrunner is Amazon CEO – and Washington Post owner – Jeff Bezos. Bezos is an outspoken leftwing activist. The Post has, during his ownership, dropped any but the most tissue-thin rhetorical pretense of objectivity. It vaingloriously declares on its masthead that “democracy dies in darkness” even as it spreads a deep pall of deception over the nation.

Consider its coverage of potential political corruption. It endlessly hyped (without credible evidence, to be sure) fatuous claims of foreign “collusion” against the Trump administration. But it refused to cover very real and serious evidence of immense Biden-family corruption that ran right up to … well, right up to Joe, anyway, who admittedly would be hard to imagine as a mastermind of anything, even before his geriatric deterioration. Its treatment of concerns about election interference and fraud have been equally – which is to say utterly – partisan. And don’t look for the “without evidence” sneer to be applied to any members of the probable incoming administration.

No sensible person would contest that CNN has become a simple adjunct of pretty hard leftism. Even AT&T head brass John Stankey and Randall Stevenson, themselves both piously and performatively woke, have grown concerned about the effect CNN’s descent into parody is having on AT&T’s wider reputation, and so are looking to dump the network not just to pay down the company’s significant debt, but to protect AT&T from its noxiousness.

AT&T may not fetch much for the network. CNN still talks a good game about its post-Trump prospects. Whistling past the graveyard, it dared recently to declare that “Donald Trump has left the world stage. Few will miss him.” It points to ongoing COVID concerns and other newsworthy developments that it predicts will keep viewers drawn to it.  But this is an empty claim. It amounts to an assertion that “there will always be enough big-news events to keep us going.” But that was demonstrably wrong even before Trump.

Once upon a time, everyone turned on CNN when big news broke. But those days are long past. There are many reasons for this, but the biggest one is bias. In the early days, we all knew that Bernie Shaw, the anchor, and Ted Turner (Mr. Jane Fonda), the owner, were lefties, and that the coverage leaned left – but it seemed there were at least broad efforts to apply some neutral standards. Even by the late ‘90s, that had largely evaporated, which explains why Fox News was such a success.

After four years of spitting, spiteful, vitriolic partisanship, CNN can hardly hope ever to regain its reputation as “sort-of-neutral arbiter of straight news,” even if it tried. (Trying would require cleaning house. For Don Lemon or the other Cuomo to pretend objectivity might shatter space-time. Which, at this point in 2020, would be fine.) It can therefore not look to big news to drive big traffic. None but leftwing partisans will voluntarily watch CNN for anything, regardless of what’s going on in the world. And it appears that it will have another competitor for those rabid audiences, as Fox News abandons the strategy that made it a powerhouse for a quarter-of-a-century.

There will thus likely to be few serious offers for CNN. There has been speculation about interest from Comcast (NBC) and ViacomCBS, but why would Comcast want to own two 24-hour partisan rantfests that would necessarily compete? Buying CNN to merge it with MSNBC, though, could create antitrust concerns unless there were no other plausible purchasers – which would indicate a very low purchase price.

CBS’s interest would not raise antitrust concerns, but still makes little sense. Network news divisions generally lose money. The purchase might be justified if CBS had a stable of immensely talented and watchable reporters who could use all the extra airtime to build prestige and cache for the one-time Tiffany Network. But it’s been a long time since Ed Murrow broadcast from London roofs during the Blitz. I’m fairly sure that even people who work in the news division at CBS can’t say with any assurance who works in the news division at CBS. Purchasing CNN would simply provide an opportunity to demonstrate that 0 x 0 = 0.

And then there’s Bezos. As his purchase of the Post suggests, along with its rejection of even pretextual objectivity since his purchase, Bezos seems fine with losing lots of money for the pleasure of debasing American civic discourse. He’d fit well as a purchaser of CNN – it’s already pre-debased.

But this being Thanksgiving week, I’d like to think that just maybe Bezos has benign ends in view. Both the Washington Post and CNN have agreed to pay untold, but likely very significant, amounts to Nick Sandmann to settle his libel suits against them. The Post settlement was already with Bezos money, and after a CNN acquisition, libel liability for it would ultimately be his too. And that liability looks to be high, as CNN’s on-air brain trust raced in the wake of the Post settlement to breach the CNN agreement by speculating about the size of the Post payout, and show no signs of learning – or being capable of learning – any lessons in civility or caution.

So maybe, in the end, Bezos’ secret plan is to scatter his vast personal fortune throughout the nation’s conservatives and libertarians by underwriting the libel machines that are the Washington Post and CNN.

It would be an unorthodox strategy, but we’ll take it.


Scott Shepard is a fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research and Deputy Director of its Free Enterprise Project. This was first published at Townhall Finance.

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Author: Scott Shepard