Sessions Won't Confirm DOJ Seeking Turner Spin-Off

The proposed AT&T-Time Warner merger was raised multiple times in the House Judiciary Committee hearing with Attorney General Jeff Sessions Tuesday (Nov. 14), but he declined to indicate where Justice stands on the review.

Sessions would not confirm or deny that his department’s antitrust division was seriously considering not approving the deal unless CNN parent Turner Broadcasting—or DirecTV, which some suggest is a false choice--was spun off, as has been widely reported and indicated by AT&T itself.

Related: FCC's Pai: DOJ Will Do Right Thing By AT&T-TW

"It is well known that your boss, President Trump, has great disdain for CNN, which he calls fake news" said Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) of the reports of the divestiture condition. Johnson asked whether anyone on behalf of the administration or the Trump campaign, excluding the FCC or DOJ, had contacted him or his office regarding the merger.

Sessions said he "could not accept the accuracy of the news report."

Johnson pressed him, asking whether he was saying DOJ had not asked the company to shed Turner Broadcasting.

Sessions repeated that he could not accept those news reports as accurate, though it was not clear at that point whether he was saying it was not accurate or that he was not going to comment on news reports on an ongoing merger review. It appeared to be the latter after a follow-up question later in the hearing.

Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.), chairman of the regulatory reform and antitrust subcommittee, pressed sessions on the issue of divestment in general.

He said he understood that DOJ's position on the merger would require some divestment of assets and asked whether such a structural condition on a vertical merger was a DOJ policy.

Sessions, a former member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he was no expert and did not choose to be a part of that subcommittee when in the senate. He deferred to his experienced team and said he was not able to announce "any new policy at this time."

Sessions said he could not comment on an part of an "ongoing matter."

DOJ may have to weigh in soon. AT&T has likely given notice that it will plans to close the deal, which would force DOJ’s hand. AT&T has already said it is willing to fight any spin-off requirement in court, saying its lawyers have found no justification for that condition.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.