An authoritarian crackdown, or good populist antitrust enforcement.

News broke Wednesday afternoon, first in the Financial Times and then later in the New York Times, that the federal government is seeking to block AT&T’s proposed purchase of Time Warner.

The two versions of the story are, however, fairly different. In the FT’s account, the government’s objections are fairly narrowly focused on CNN and seem closely linked to Donald Trump’s feud with the network. In the Times’ account, the government’s objections are broader. They want the merged entity to either divest itself of the entire Turner Broadcasting suite of channels, or else of AT&T’s satellite television broadcasting unit, Direct TV. That would have the impact of forcing the merged entity to divest of CNN, which is a part of Turner Broadcast, but the implications would be both broader and more policy focused.

The two different factual narratives also feed into two different analytic narratives. On the one hand, there’s a story about a dangerously authoritarian administration finally using its powers of office to retaliate against a news outlet it doesn’t like. On the other hand, there’s a story about an administration that promised “populist” governance finally stepping up to the plate on antitrust enforcement.

A former high-ranking federal antitrust official I spoke to said he found it surprising that a Republican administration would raise these objections but also that the objections themselves were not necessarily unreasonable.

The larger backdrop to the confusion, of course, is that Trump’s larger pattern of conduct makes a conspiratorial read of its actions feel plausible in a way it wouldn’t have under previous administrations.

The chilling scenario

One version of the story, laid out by Peter Kafka at Recode, is that this is a form of creeping authoritarianism. Donald Trump doesn’t like CNN’s journalism, Read More Here