In an appalling development for the future of media, telecommunications, and America, Judge Richard Leon approved the $85.4 billion merger between AT&T and Time Warner in full, without conditions, completely rebuking the Justice Department’s effort to overturn it. In a stark display of judicial activism, Judge Leon even told DoJ not to appeal the case, thus allowing the deal to close by a self-imposed June 21 deadline, which otherwise would trigger a $500 million “break-up” fee. I guess the judge wouldn’t want any executives to lose money.
It’s hard to over-emphasize the impact of this ruling. First, the deal itself brings together one of America’s largest telecom and cable companies with a suite of valuable programming to distribute on those networks. HBO, TNT, CNN, Cartoon Network, Warner Brothers Studios, a stake in Hulu and much more will now be held by the owners of DirecTV, U-verse, AT&T mobile and broadband, Cricket wireless, and more. AT&T has already started bundling HBO for free for wireless users; the entire idea is to leverage things people want to watch by forcing them to watch it on AT&T services.
The Justice Department argued this would allow AT&T to raise the cost of Time Warner programming, whether for rival cable companies, online pay-TV services, or consumers. The trial mostly didn’t address other concerns, like narrowing the channels for artists to get their work out, concentrating the power to distribute news and information in too few self-interested hands, or stunting innovation by creating a barrier to competition. That’s because modern antitrust jurisprudence operates under the consumer welfare standard, a constrained method that only looks at costs to consumers to determine whether a merger should be granted.
In other words, the Justice Department needed to make its case while bound in a straitjacket. Derived during the Reagan administration and now infecting virtually the entire judiciary, the consumer welfare standard puts antitrust law in the province of economists and models and dueling sets of numbers, when common sense clearly demonstrates the dangers of concentration. UC Berkeley economics professor and Obama administration veteran Carl Shapiro put together a model for the government to prove consumer harm; it ended up showing less than a dollar a month for the average customer, and AT&T’s attorneys poked numerous holes in it (predictably so, as it was an inherently complex rendering of an uncertain future).
But we know that monopoly is the entire point of this merger. During the trial, the Justice Department revealed an internal document where an executive from Turner Broadcasting, now part of AT&T, stated outright that “Time Warner would be a weapon for AT&T because AT&T’s competitors need Time Warner programming.” But instead of recognizing that this desire to screw rivals obviously may “substantially lessen competition,” as the antitrust statute states, judges require economists to act as wizards and predict precise percentages of the market and markups in price.