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Editorial: Best and Worst of Times

President Donald Trump is like that little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead. When he is good for communications companies he is very, very good, but when he is bad, he is horrid.

The good (in the sense of being pro-media business) is that the Federal Communications Commission chairman he picked is delivering on his promise of deregulating broadcast and broadband providers, the latter including cable operators who have staked their future on the ’net.

That has been much in evidence lately as the FCC finally got rid of the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rules supported by virtually no one outside the “big is bad” knee-jerkers.

Sure, big is sometimes problematic (Google leaps to mind). But letting TV stations and newspapers combine, or radio stations and newspapers, is hardly a threat to the diversity of voices and choices.

ISPs are fairly giddy at the prospect of fewer net regulations now that the FCC has voted to roll them back and let others — Justice, the Federal Trade Commission — be the primary enforcers of anti-competitive or anti-consumer conduct.

They won’t even complain too much if Congress steps in to establish new, bright-line rules against throttling or blocking web traffic, but probably only if they are allowed the freedom to experiment with paid prioritization, which means speeding things up, not slowing them down. It’s also generally imperceptible to the end user, according to network managers; it’s a case of fractionally delayed distribution, not degraded content.

The Republican tax plan, which looks like it will pass, is another Trump gift to corporations, media and otherwise. Like other Trump gifts, it is a mixed bag depending on who you are. Cutting corporate taxes from 35% to 20% is good for the broadcast and cable businesses, but will only be so for their employees if some of that money goes to investment in plant and people, rather than simply shareholders.

That’s the “good” part. Now to the horrid part, which begins with the president’s ability to poison the regulatory well and inject the kind of legal uncertainty media businesses are always decrying.

Is the Justice Department’s unusual decision to seek divestitures instead of behavioral conditions in a primarily vertical merger — AT&T-Time Warner — a new policy based on a distaste for regulating by condition? (It’s a distaste FCC chairman Ajit Pai shares and has made clear in other venues.) That is a defensible argument, but requires an asterisk since the deal involves the owner of CNN, the most adversarial network in the president’s mind.

Trump vowed to block the deal as a candidate, and has threatened news outlets, particularly CNN, which he brands “fake,” and as accomplices in a Democrat-led effort to delegitimize him.

Are Pai’s fresh attacks on edge providers such as Twitter — which he calls a bigger threat to internet openness — due to the size of those companies and their potential impact on speech, or is it a “what about them” response to historic attacks on ISPs?

Amazon, Google, Facebook and Twitter dwarf the ISPs in combined market cap and have incredible power over what we see and access online; that means Pai’s criticisms are consistent with his long-held view that the regulatory playing field is tilted toward the edge. But tying that criticism to the supposed suppression of conservative speakers makes it sound political, and suggests it is out of the Trump playbook of responding to “I’m rubber” criticisms, with “you’re glue” responses.

And then the truly horrid, at least in our world, is the president’s unrelenting attacks on the news media in an attempt to undercut that institution, as he has tried to do with the intelligence community, Congress and the courts. Politico was reporting last week that Trump’s fake news pronouncement was being echoed by despots in other countries to justify their own press attacks and human rights abuses.

The result is that his rabid base believes journalists are their enemies, and news outlets can play into that when they go beyond facts to fighting back with “attitude” or a rush to report the next negative story that only serves to reinforce the stereotype.

Fairly or not (and ABC News chief James Goldston seemed to think it was fair), ABC chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross has become a poster-person for ready, fire, aim. But given the pressure to be first online — and the spur of President Trump’s ad hominem and ludicrous attacks — the conditions are ripe for others to make mistakes, and are even bearing some sour fruit. In other words, to quote some of the best drama television has ever offered, let’s be careful out there.