Democrats who opposed the AT&T-Time Warner merger voted to block the acquisition on Thursday after a White House official told Bloomberg that the Justice Department, which filed suit to stop the deal in October, would only approve it if all of the company’s news shows were edited to exclude “suggestive political content.”
The DOJ argued the deal would hurt consumers and entrench AT&T’s dominance in the cable market, which might result in higher prices and tougher access to programming for others.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) said in a statement on Thursday that the DOJ had “pulled a page right out of Donald Trump’s ‘Deal or No Deal’ playbook, substituting hysteria over innocuous fictional political programming for fundamental regulatory analysis.”
Added Blumenthal: “For the first time in our country’s history, public interest and economic imperatives were used to block a great deal of American innovation. But they can be used to the fullest for America’s most promising young minds. That is the only policy outcome from this episode.”
The division “repeatedly and demonstrably relied on concerns that have no basis in actual law, no basis in fact, and have no meaningful or substantial connection to the merger,” the Justice Department’s complaint said.
The DOJ relied on concerns that AT&T would try to exclude any CNN programming from its new DirecTV Now streaming service.
“We are pleased that the court recognized that the deal was blocked for good reason,” said an AT&T spokesperson. “We look forward to getting the government’s case dismissed and continuing to offer our content to anyone who wants it.”
Bloomberg also said that AT&T had asked the White House to intervene in the case to prevent the suit from going forward, and that the request was denied. AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson told The New York Times that “any legal action was taken solely by the antitrust authorities.”
As far as potential political fallout goes, Jeff Bewkes, who has served as the head of the division overseeing Turner since 2014, signaled the deal could have been nixed had a Trump appointee taken office.
“It was upsetting that we were in the crosshairs and essentially be used as a political football during the campaign,” Bewkes said during an interview with Fortune.
Bewkes left the door open to finding a new home for the news division, either inside or outside the government, after the deal was blocked. “I would love to see us make more money with fewer people,” he said.