Time Warner CEO Weighs In On Free Speech Threat Under Trump

Jeff Bewkes, the CEO of CNN parent Time Warner, claims that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects freedom of speech and freedom of the press from government interference, is or was more in more danger from the Democrats than aggressive media critic/President-elect Donald Trump.

Trump, the GOP standard-bearer who won an electoral college landslide that shocked the pollsters and the media pundits, has repeatedly bashed CNN (among other mainstream news outlets) for what he considers unfair, dishonest reporting, which the network vigorously disputes.

Trump supporters have similarly accused what they have derisively nicknamed the “Clinton News Network” of liberal bias in the way it covered the presidential campaign and the post-election transition.

Against this backdrop, when asked at the Business Insider-sponsored annual Ignition conference today in New York City whether he had concerns about the new president trying to impose regulatory constraints on CNN or by extension other media outlets through such efforts like expanded libel laws, Bewkes replied as follows, according to Recode.

“I don’t think that’s a serious thing…remember the Democratic Party had a campaign plank to change the First Amendment. And they were doing it in the guise of campaign finance reform. And that was worrying me more. Because the press tends to miss that. Because they tend to lean that way, and therefore they were supporting what they were viewing, I think overly charitably, as something as cleaning up money in politics, when in fact what it would do is restrain multiple voices. And so I thought the threat to the First Amendment came from the Democratic side, more… I think there’s not going to be a serious effort on the Republican side.”

According to a Time Warner spokesperson, Bewkes was specifically referring to the Democrats’ stated objective to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case by constitutional amendment or perhaps through legislative or judicial action.

“A 5-4 decision by the high court in 2010, Citizens United v. FEC struck down as unconstitutional a provision in federal law banning corporations and unions from ‘independent expenditures’ to weigh in on political campaigns,” the Washington Times noted.

“Jeff was in fact referencing Citizens United, which has come to mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people,” the Time Warner rep explained later.

“…To be clear, he was actually talking about the court’s more narrow holding that all corporations, whether for profit or not-for-profit, have a First Amendment-protected right to produce and distribute programming of political importance during a presidential election. And that upholding the First Amendment rights of everyone to participate in a free, open and robust public debate during elections is more important to democracy than ever before.”


With Trump having at least one appointment to the court to fill the vacancy left by the late Justice Antonin Scalia, and with the GOP in control of Congress, it is unlikely that there will any changes to the Citizens United framework in the near term, however.

Recode points out that Jeff Bewkes needs some help from the Trump administration insofar as approving the pending Time Warner acquisition by AT&T, in which the telecommunications giant plans to write a large check.

“Bewkes has traditionally donated to Democrats, and his company is in many ways a flag-bearer for the ‘coastal elite’ Trump supporters supposedly despise: Its assets include HBO, CNN and Warner Bros. But Bewkes is more of a Big Media guy than he is a capital D Democrat: He’s also been opposed, for instance, to net neutrality rules Barack Obama’s administration has supported. Bewkes is going to be asking the Trump administration to sign off on a deal to sell his company to AT&T for about $86 billion. That doesn’t mean his comments aren’t sincere…But if you need Washington’s help, it doesn’t hurt if you can tell the ruling party that you’re on its side.”

Although Trump originally opposed the Time Warner-AT&T mega deal, Bewkes claimed at the conference forum that “As it becomes clear what we’re doing, it will be seen to be pro competitive, pro consumer,” Digiday noted.

[Featured Image by Lionel Cironneau/AP Images]

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