I’ve avoided writing about how the news media is navigating the era of Trump. But the answer is: poorly. The new President is systematically trying to undercut any institution that poses a challenge to his power—the judiciary, the Senate, intelligence agencies, etc.—and the news media, with its power to synthesize, interpret, and amplify all these challenges, ranks at the top of this list.
He attaches adjectives like “dishonest,” “corrupt,” and “disgusting” before every mention of “media,” and refuses to distinguish between outlets still attempting to be fair and those that have dropped all pretense. He has twisted the all-too-real phenomena of “fake news” into an attack on journalists struggling to discern truth. And his daily insistence on inventing “alternative facts” seems designed to bait the press, forcing them to challenge him so he can prove his accusations of bias.
And much of the press is taking the bait. I say “much of” because any talk of “the media” in today’s world involves gross generalizations. We live in an era where everyone has a megaphone, and can be heard if they shout loudly and sharply enough. There is no consistency of practice, standards or values. Much of the new news media—Buzzfeed, Vice, Vox, Breitbart—has abandoned allegiance to “old-fashioned” values of fairness and balance that were once espoused, even if imperfectly practiced, by the U.S. media. Those still trying to walk the line, like my old organization The Wall Street Journal, are coming under attack in their own newsrooms—where Trump supporters are all but nonexistent—for “caving” to the new President.
But from a business perspective, the most interesting media story is CNN. President Trump has made it his top target, rebranding it the “fake news network.” And CNN chief Jeff Zucker seems to have changed the rules of engagement, allowing his troops to return fire with abandon. This is good for ratings, but it is pushing CNN even further down the path paved by Fox, rallying half the nation while alienating the other.
What makes the CNN story particularly interesting is the pending AT&T-Time Warner merger. Trump opposed the deal during the campaign. But the legal basis for opposing it, given the two companies don’t currently compete against each other, is thin. There is a “net neutrality” argument that AT&T could favor Time Warner content with “zero rating” on its phones, but Trump’s team opposes net neutrality and so will find it difficult to grab that reed.
What needs to happen to get the deal done? It’s instructive that before the election, the merger was jointly defended by the CEO team of Stephenson and Bewkes. But since the election, Bewkes has disappeared. Stephenson met with the new President—and is carrying the case for the merger—alone.
Ask yourself this: Is there any doubt that Trump wants CNN to dial it back? And is there any reason to believe that Stevenson, a conservative Texan, won’t provide some assurance that he will do just that? Stay tuned.
Apologies for the longer-than-usual note. Back to normal next week. Enjoy the weekend.
• Appeals Court Frustrates Trump
President Donald Trump threatened to take his immigration ban on seven mainly Muslim countries to the Supreme Court if necessary, after a Federal Appeals Court ruled 3-0 against reinstating it. “SEE YOU IN COURT, THE SECURITY OF OUR NATION IS AT STAKE!” the President tweeted. The judges didn’t take a position on whether the ban discriminated against travelers on the basis of their religion, but rather focused on its violation of their rights to due process. White House spokesman Sean Spicer said the administration was considering its next steps. Fortune
• One Call, One China, One Unanswered Question
The tension level in U.S.-China relations dropped a few notches after President Trump changed tack and agreed to stick by traditional U.S. policy that grants diplomatic recognition to China, but not Taiwan. Trump had openly questioned the policy before taking office, angering Beijing. A White House statement said, “President Trump agreed, at the request of President Xi, to honor our ‘one China’ policy.” There was no mention in the statement of whether the two discussed the issue of China’s claims and growing military presence in the South China Sea. It emerged last week that Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon said last year that “there’s no doubt” the two countries would go to war over the issue within 10 years. Fortune
• Rolls-Royce’s ex-CEO Questioned in Corruption Probe
Rolls-Royce’s former CEO Sir John Rose has been questioned in connection with the corruption scandal that the company paid $850 million to settle last month. That was the largest ever fine imposed on a British company for criminal conduct. According to the Financial Times, Rose is “one of many” former executives to get the treatment. In 15 years under him, Rolls-Royce orders grew nearly eight-fold to over $75 billion. The company had been aware of bribery by executives in its civil aerospace division since 2010 but had not notified authorities. FT, metered access
• Conway ‘Counseled’ After Escalating Ivanka Row
White House adviser Kellyanne Conway was “counseled” after appearing to breach conflict-of-interest rules by plugging the fashion accessories business of Ivanka Trump in a Fox News interview. Federal ethics rules prohibit executive branch employees from using their positions to endorse products, or for the private gain of friends. The rule doesn’t apply to the President, who had attacked Nordstrom on Wednesday for dropping his daughter’s spring collection from its catalogue after disappointing sales. House Oversight Committee Rep. Jason Chaffetz said he had agreed to ask the Office of Government Ethics to review Conway’s comments and recommend disciplinary action against her if warranted. There was better news for the administration in the Senate, as Tom Price was confirmed as Health Secretary. Fortune
Around the Water Cooler
• Ker-ching at Kering
French group Kering, the owner of Gucci, Yves Saint Launrent, and Puma, underscored the revival of the luxury goods sector, beating analysts’ forecasts for 2016 revenue and profit, and raising its outlook for the coming year. That was due largely to a 21% rise in profit at Gucci, which delivers over half of group earnings, after a high-risk decision to end markdowns in its stores. A weak euro has helped to offset the slow grind on margins from depressed spending by wealthy Chinese. Reuters
• A Hack at Arby’s
The drumbeat of cyber-attacks continues. Hackers have stolen information from up to 350,000 payment cards of customers of Arby’s restaurants, according to cyber-security reporter Brian Krebs. The company said it had now eliminated the malware that affected its point-of-sales system, leading to the breach. Attacking PoS systems is a favorite tactic of hackers—Target, Home Depot and Wendy’s have all been victims in the last two years alone. This breach appears to have happened back in October. Fortune
• We’re Shocked – Shocked! – to Find Money-Laundering Going on Here
The two founders of the law firm Mossack Fonseca have been arrested by Panamanian police, according to the Sueddeutsche Zeitung. The SZ was one of the papers which exposed the firm’s role in helping questionable financial dealings by political elites around the world. The disclosures have had most impact in Latin America, featuring heavily in the Lava Jato (‘Car Wash’) scandal that led to the impeachment of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff last year. The negative publicity for Panama’s business model has been, to say the least, unwelcome to the country’s leaders (some of whom have themselves been linked closely to the firm and its founders). Sueddeutsche Zeitung
• Reckitt Seals Mead Johnson Deal
Reckitt Benckiser agreed to buy baby-food maker Mead Johnson for $16.6 billion ($17.9 billion, including debt), confirming its biggest-ever deal and strengthening its position in the U.S. market and in China. Reckitt, a smaller rival of Unilever and Procter & Gamble, had a weak 2016 and expects macro conditions to stay “challenging” this year. However, inserting infant formula into a product range spanning Durex condoms and Lysol cleaning fluid means that you can now progress from trying not to have children, to feeding them, and then cleaning up after them without having to buy a single other company’s products. If that isn’t a holistic marketing strategy, we don’t know what is. Fortune
Summaries by Geoffrey Smith Geoffrey.email@example.com;