AT&T’s case against the Justice Department takes a hit
The judge overseeing the Justice Department’s lawsuit to block the $85.4 billion takeover of Time Warner denied AT&T’s request to see government communications about the case. He ruled that AT&T had not “made a credible showing” that the White House had singled it out for retribution.
The decision puts a crimp in AT&T’s defense for its $85 billion proposed merger with Time Warner. And it is a big win for the Justice Department, which would like to avoid attention on the role of politics in its decision to stop the deal.
AT&T had already agreed to take the Justice Department’s antitrust chief, Makan Delrahim, off the witness list — but could call him during the trial if needed.
The trial begins March 19.
Retail’s Amazon problem
Symptom A: Albertsons buying Rite Aid to gain scale and enter the pharmacy business
Symptom B: Walmart’s online sales growing just 23 percent in the fourth quarter, after it splashed out on Jet.com, Bonobos and more
“It’s the battle of the old generation versus the new generation,” said Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, a retail consulting firm. “And right now the companies that are gaining share is the new generation.”
• Of Walmart, Jennifer Saba of Breakingviews writes, “Longer term, failure online is an existential risk.” But Elizabeth Winkler of Heard on the Street says, “Given its huge size, investors need to temper their growth expectations.”
• Of the Rite Aid deal, Max Nisen and Tara Lachapelle of Gadfly write, “There aren’t a lot of appealing options out there, and Albertsons had largely exhausted them.”
Elsewhere in Amazon news
• Why would Amazon employees working on the HQ2 search be interested in an article about Arlington, Va.? Hmm. (ARL Now)
• Amazon now sells its own line of over-the-counter drugs. (CNBC)
• A closer look at Jeff Bezos’s 10,000-year clock. (CNBC)
• Start-ups that take money from the Alexa Fund should still fear Amazon’s competition. (The Information)
The policy flyaround
• Mr. Trump ordered the Justice Department to regulate bump stocks. But the Florida legislature rejected a bill that would have banned many semiautomatic weapons and large-capacity magazines. And a Florida teachers’ pension plan had held a stake in the maker of the rifle used in the Parkland school shooting.
• A clampdown by John Kelly on interim security clearances has upset Jared Kushner, who has one. (NYT)
• The advocacy group Common Cause filed complaints with the Justice Department and the Federal Election Commission over reports of $150,000 being paid to a former Playboy Playmate who said she had an affair with Mr. Trump. (WSJ)
• The Trump administration wants to sell nuclear reactors to Saudi Arabia, even though the kingdom won’t accept nonproliferation restrictions. (WSJ)
• The U.S. sold $179 billion worth of debt yesterday, now that the debt ceiling is no longer an immediate issue. (Bloomberg)
More light is being shed on pay gaps in corporate America
From Peter Eavis:
For the first time — and after much protest — public companies must report their employees’ median pay and compare it with that of their C.E.O.s. (It’s thanks to Dodd-Frank.)
• Apollo Global Management’s was 1:1 (if you exclude, as Apollo did, Leon Black’s $91 million in dividends from his stock holdings)
Steve Cohen loses a round in court
From Matthew Goldstein:
A Manhattan federal judge rejected a motion by his Point72 Asset Management to temporarily seal the complaint in a sexual discrimination lawsuit against the firm by Lauren Bonner, an employee who described the firm as a testosterone-fueled “boys’ club.”
The judge said the request was “not narrowly tailored” and ran counter to the “presumption of public access” to court records.
Point72 is trying to push the case into arbitration, and said the complaint revealed details of other employees’ compensation.
Elsewhere in sexual misconduct: Sports Illustrated published an investigation into a corrosive culture inside the Dallas Mavericks N.B.A. franchise.
The Broadcom-Qualcomm fight may come down to March 6
If Broadcom doesn’t walk away now that Qualcomm has raised its bid for NXP Semiconductors to $127.50 a share — and it may not, despite previous threats — then it may take its chances at Qualcomm’s annual shareholder meeting.
Broadcom wants six seats on Qualcomm’s board. That campaign gained momentum when the proxy advisers I.S.S. and Glass Lewis recommended that Qualcomm shareholders back most of Broadcom’s slate.
We believe Qualcomm shareholders should be concerned that the board of directors may be using the issue of regulatory risks as a defensive tactic to dismiss a potentially favorably transaction with Broadcom.
The deals flyaround
• Carl Icahn and Darwin Deason pressed Xerox to pursue alternatives to its complicated deal with Fujifilm. (Reuters)
• HNA has borrowed from the private equity firm Pacific Alliance Group, a sign that it may be struggling to raise capital from more traditional sources. (FT)
The tech flyaround
• How the founders of a price comparison site ended up as antitrust crusaders taking on Google. (NYT)
• Facebook and Twitter fall short in enforcing rules against impersonation. (NYT)
• A.I. is getting cheaper to make — and to manipulate. (NYT)
• Spotify’s co-founders plan to keep control through super-voting shares, unnamed sources say. (Bloomberg)
• Google has revamped its payments service to better compete against Apple Pay Cash. (CNBC)
Venezuela gets in on initial coin offerings
The embattled country is pushing ahead with the presale of the “petro,” backed by its oil reserves, hoping to pay down debt and increase imports. President Nicolás Maduro called it a “cryptocurrency to take on Superman.” But few people give it much hope.
• Jeff Hildebrand, the billionaire oil mogul, has stepped down as the C.E.O. of Hilcorp, though he’ll remain executive chairman. (Bloomberg)
• The C.E.O. of Gap’s namesake brand, Jeff Kirwan, has stepped down as the label continues to struggle. (WSJ)
• The C.E.O. of the Mayo Clinic, John Noseworthy, plans to step down by year end. (Axios)
The Speed Read
• A Republican plan to let people pay for time off with a new baby by collecting social security benefits early has raised concerns about putting women into more precarious positions in retirement. (NYT)
• If the U.S. had to face a recession, it would have few stabilizing tools at its disposal. (NYT)
• The Weinstein Company has formally responded to one of the class-action lawsuits it faces, saying Harvey Weinstein acted alone and that the statute of limitations had run out on some of the claims. (Deadline)
• The slide in the dollar has less to do with U.S. policies and fundamentals and more to do with investors preferring turnaround stories in Europe and Japan, says Goldman Sachs. (Bloomberg)
• Outstanding Hospitality Management, which operates airport restaurant spaces, sued the Kushner Companies over a planned food hall at the former NYT Building in Manhattan. (Bloomberg)
• Li Yonghong, owner of the soccer club A.C. Milan, denied reports in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that he was selling assets to settle debts. (BBC)
• Ray Dalio’s $22 billion bet is against large European companies, but ones with far more economic exposure to the rest of the world than to Europe. (FT)
• Glencore is grappling with how to pay Dan Gertler, a former partner who has been placed under sanctions by the U.S. government. It will owe him as much as $200 million in royalties over two years. (WSJ)
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Households lost spending power last year because of a jump in inflation, caused by the fall in the pound after the British vote to exit the European Union.
But the Bank of England expects pay to pick up soon, a big reason it says interest rates are likely to rise faster and to a greater extent than it thought until recently.
“With wage growth stuck in neutral, policymakers will need to think very carefully about a rate hike in May,” said Maike Currie, an investment director at Fidelity International.
The number of Britons in work grew less than expected, rising by 88,000, about half the consensus forecast in a Reuters poll of economists.
The O.N.S. attributed the rise in unemployment to fewer economically inactive people — those neither working nor looking for a job — entering unemployment, rather than employed people losing their jobs.
Workers’ total earnings, including bonuses, rose by an annual 2.5 percent in the three months to December, as expected and unchanged from the three months to November.
Officials from the Bank of England may take encouragement from pay increasing 2.8 percent on the year in December alone. But that was still weaker than the 3 percent reading of British consumer price inflation for December.
Excluding bonuses, earnings rose by 2.5 percent year on year against expectations for a 2.4 percent rise.
The O.N.S. said the number of European Union nationals working in Britain rose by an annual 4.5 percent over the fourth quarter, the smallest increase since the third quarter of 2013. The number of Eastern European workers fell.
Overall migration data have shown a drop in net migration from the bloc into the Britain since the “Brexit” vote.
The O.N.S. also published its first estimate for productivity in the fourth quarter.
Output per hour — the main measure of productivity — rose 0.8 percent in the three months to December from the previous three months, slightly slower than the third quarter’s 0.9 percent rise. That marked the strongest two quarters for productivity since the 2008-9 recession, the O.N.S. said.
Separate figures showed that Britain’s government recorded a January budget surplus of 10 billion pounds (about $14 billion), slightly bigger than forecast, helped by a surge of income tax receipts that typically comes at the start of the calendar year.
With two months left in the 2017-18 financial year, cumulative borrowing now stands at 37.7 billion pounds (about $52 billion), down 16 percent on the same point a year ago.
In November, the official budget watchdog had forecast borrowing of 49.9 billion pounds (about $69 billion) for the full year.
The finance ministry said Wednesday’s figures were considered strong.
Several other recent polls either limited their questions to workplace harassment or assault, or sampled a smaller segment of the population, Professor Raj said.
This latest survey asked 1,000 women and 1,000 men about verbal harassment, sexual touching, cyber sexual harassment, being followed on the street, genital flashing and sexual assault.
Among its findings:
Seventy-seven percent of women and 34 percent of men said they had encountered verbal sexual harassment. Fifty-one percent of women and 17 percent of men reported unwelcome sexual touching. Forty-one percent of women and 22 percent of men said they were sexually harassed online. A third of women and one in 10 men reported being physically followed, while 30 percent of women and 12 percent of men experienced genital flashing. Twenty-seven percent of women and 7 percent of men reported sexual assaults.
The survey deliberately included street harassment as well as other forms of abuse, Ms. Kearl said. “Sexual harassment is a human rights violation — whether it takes place on the sidewalk of a street or in an executive board room — because it can cause emotional harm and limit and change harassed persons’ lives,” she said.
The survey’s authors and sponsors say the results suggest that sexual harassment is more pervasive than people realize. “Existing data hasn’t been able to speak to the broad prevalence of many forms of sexual harassment and abuse,” said Laura Palumbo of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
But the majority of women and men who experience sexual harassment and assault do not confront the harasser — fewer than 2 percent, the survey found. Instead, they choose avoidance: 23 percent of women said they altered their routes or daily routines to avoid harassment. One in 10 women and one in 20 men said they tried to change their job assignments or quit their jobs to avoid harassment. Only one in 10 women and one in 20 men filed an official complaint to an authority figure or the police about harassment.
Most women and men who experienced sexual harassment and assault reported encountering it in more than one place — most reported four or five locations. About two-thirds of the women surveyed said they experienced harassment in a public space; about a third reported harassment in the workplace.
Many encounter sexual harassment from a young age. More than half of the women and just under half the men surveyed said they had experienced some form of harassment or assault by the age of 17.
Quid pro quo sexual harassment — being pressed by someone to offer sex in return for something — was reported by 13 percent of the women and 5 percent of the men in the survey. This is one of two key legal prerequisites for being able to sue for sexual harassment, the other being a hostile work environment. Such quid pro quo behavior has figured prominently in the reports of sexual harassment and assault over the past several months.
The survey’s authors were not certain why this figure was somewhat low compared with other behaviors reported by the respondents. Ms. Kearl speculated that employers are aware of this legal liability and try to train employees to avoid it, even though the recent surge of complaints about such harassment shows that many men flouted these constraints.
The survey also broke down sexual harassment along demographic lines, income levels, sexual orientation and people with disabilities. While there were few differences by race and ethnicity for women who reported harassment, Hispanic men reported the most sexual harassment and assault in every category the survey recorded.
People who reported having a disability were much more likely to experience sexual harassment and assault, the survey found. Men earning less than $25,000 a year were more likely to report sexual assault. The survey also suggested that lesbians, bisexuals and gay men were more likely to experience sexual assault than straight women and men.
As many accounts have shown, the most common reaction to sexual harassment and assault is anxiety or depression; 31 percent of women and 20 percent of men reported these effects after incidents.
Raliance, a group of organizations trying to end sexual violence, also sponsored the study. The survey was nationally representative and conducted online, including cellphone-only households. Those without access to the internet were lent laptops to complete the survey.
Two of the most important facts about the global economy over the last decade are these: A giant financial crisis led to mass unemployment in many countries and years of disappointing growth. And despite a seeming barrage of technological innovation, productivity growth has been the weakest in decades.
Maybe it’s not a coincidence.
That is the provocative conclusion of new research from the McKinsey Global Institute, the in-house think tank of the consulting giant, that suggests we should change how we think about the advancements that make society richer over time. It implies that as the economy returns to full employment, an outburst of faster growth in productivity — and hence economic growth — is a real possibility.
This idea should excite both conservatives and liberals.
It suggests that the Trump administration’s ambitions for faster growth driven by rising productivity aren’t as outlandish as warier forecasters have argued. And it tends to back arguments by liberal-leaning commentators that the Federal Reserve ought to move cautiously in raising interest rates, in hope that the economy will more fully repair itself from damage caused by the 2008 recession and its aftermath.
For years, McKinsey researchers have tried to understand what drives productivity growth from the ground up. They’ve studied how innovations that enable a company to make more goods and services per hour of labor spread across the economy.
The latest wrinkle is that the researchers now believe that productivity growth depends not just on the supply side of the economy — what companies produce and what technologies they use to do it — but also significantly on the demand side. That is to say, productivity advancements don’t happen in a vacuum just because technology is available. They also happen because companies need to increase production to match demand for their goods, and a shortage, either of workers or of materials,forces them to think creatively about how to do so.
“We have always looked at this from the supply side to a large extent,” said James Manyika, a partner at the firm and a co-author of the study. “You look at companies and the introduction of technology and business processes, the adoption of best practices. We’ve always kind of assumed away the demand side of the equation.”
From the mid-1980s through 2008, that seemed like a reasonable approach. Recessions in that period, sometimes called the Great Moderation, tended to be short and mild. But the deeper and more prolonged downturn that affected the United States and Europe since has made at least some economists rethink their assumptions.
Productivity growth in the United States was 3.8 percentage points lower in the period from 2010 to 2014 compared with the 2000-2004 period. Part of that, McKinsey found, was a result of the information technology boom of the 1990s — which paid continuing productivity dividends into the first years of the 21st century — having run its course. But 1.1 percentage points of the drop was due, in its analysis, to aftereffects of the financial crisis. Those effects sapped even more productivity growth, 1.3 percentage points, from the British economy.
Take the auto industry. Automobile production in the United States fell 50 percent from 2007 to 2009, meaning the sector had tremendous excess production capacity in the ensuing years even as the sector recovered. “Companies could fulfill a lot higher demand without having to make any new investments,” said Jaana Remes, a McKinsey partner and a co-author. “Typically the newest technology is implemented in the latest factories. People don’t upgrade a factory that can fulfill demand perfectly well.”
Or consider how this dynamic might apply in the restaurant industry (or retail, or tourism).
The basic technology for self-serve kiosks has been around for years. But when the unemployment rate was at its post-crisis highs, employers could have their pick of good workers at relatively low prices. Now, with the jobless rate at 4.1 percent, good workers are harder to find. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, companies have been more open to installing technology that may have a significant upfront cost and require reworking how a restaurant is organized, but allow more sales without hiring more workers.
“A consequence of a really tight labor market is a higher turnover rate,” said Liah Luther, marketing manager at Nextep Systems, a Michigan company that sells self-ordering kiosks to restaurants, casinos and corporate facilities. “Once you eliminate the need for extensive training on a point of sale system, you can focus on soft skills like customer service, and reduce the cost of turnover.”
The optimistic case for both productivity and overall economic growth goes like this: For the last several years, a lack of demand and plenty of spare capacity of both workers and equipment made businesses complacent and unwilling to invest in new equipment, software or new ways of doing things that might allow more output per hour of labor.
Now, with companies having a harder time finding qualified workers and with demand for their products rising, they’ll have no choice but to re-engineer how they work to try to increase productivity. Higher productivity will in turn make it easier to justify higher wages, creating a self-reinforcing cycle of higher economic growth.
There are some risks to that rosy forecast, which Ms. Remes and Mr. Manyika warn about.
They see a great deal of potential from digitization of businesses that have been slow to embrace the lessons of the cutting-edge companies in their industry. But this might be slow to generate the kinds of big productivity gains that are possible.
Even as more retailers adapt to an age of digital commerce and learn from Amazon, for example, they may in the near term end up simply doubling up traditional retail and e-commerce-focused workers, making such companies less productive rather than more.
And if automation leads to more income going to owners of capital, who already tend be wealthy,that could hollow out middle-class jobs and fuel higher inequality.
“Unless displaced labor can find new highly productive and high-wage occupations, workers may end up in low-wage jobs that create a drag on productivity growth,” the McKinsey researchers wrote.
So it’s not worth pulling out Champagne bottles for productivity yet. First we have to see if the theory holds up — that a tighter economy will feed into higher capital investment and experimentation by businesses about finding new efficiencies. Then we have to see whether that feeds into a virtuous cycle in which more productivity creates more growth and vice versa. And then we have to hope that it turns into wage gains for workers who haven’t seen many of them in the last decade — or else it just may not last.
Neil Irwin is a senior economics correspondent for The Upshot. He previously wrote for The Washington Post and is the author of “The Alchemists: Three Central Bankers and a World on Fire.” @Neil_IrwinFacebook
Something bigger is afoot. Alexa has the best shot of becoming the third great consumer computing platform of this decade — next to iOS and Android, a computing service so ubiquitous that it sets a foundation for much of the rest of what happens in tech.
It is not a sure path. Amazon could screw this up, and rivals like Google have many cards to play to curb Alexa’s rise. Amazon’s strategy — something like a mix between Google’s plan for Android and Apple’s for the iPhone — is also unusual. And there are lingering social concerns about voice assistants and, as I discovered, their sometimes creepy possibilities. How many people, really, are willing to let an always-on device in their house?
Despite this, Alexa’s ubiquity is a plausible enough future that it is worth seriously pondering. In an effort to do so, I recently dived headlong into Alexa’s world. I tried just about every Alexa gadget I could get my hands on, including many not made by Amazon, such as an Alexa-enabled pickup truck, to see what life with her will be like once she’s everywhere.
What I found was a mess — many non-Amazon Alexa devices aren’t ready for prime time — but an inviting one. Late-night shrieks notwithstanding, one day very soon, Alexa or something like it will be everywhere — and computing will be better for it.
“We had a spectacular holiday,” Dave Limp, Amazon’s senior vice president of devices and services, said when I called last month to chat about the assistant’s future.
Amazon is famously cagey about sales numbers, but Mr. Limp braved a slight disclosure: “We’ve said we’ve sold tens of millions of Alexa-enabled devices, but I can assure you that last year we also sold tens of millions of just Echo devices. At that scale, it’s safe to now call this a category.”
Mr. Limp’s distinction is confusing but important. At Amazon, Alexa lives in two places. She is part of a device category, the Echo smart speaker, which now comes in a variety of permutations, from the $49 Echo Dot to the screen-bearing Echo Show, which sells for $229. (These prices are merely guidelines; in its bid for ubiquity, Amazon often offers steep discounts, with the Dot selling for $29 during last year’s holidays.)
But like Google’s Android operating system, Alexa is also a piece of software that Amazon makes available for free for other device makers to put into their products.
At least 50 devices are now powered by Alexa, and more keep coming. They include dozens of Echo-like smart speakers, home thermostats, light fixtures, dashboard cameras, smartphones, headphones, a smoke alarm and a very strange robot.
Alexa is spreading so quickly that even Amazon can’t keep track of it. Mr. Limp said that as he wandered the floor at the CES electronics trade show in Las Vegas this year, even he was surprised by the number of different Alexa devices.
“To me, that says the strategy is working,” he said.
There are some costs to this strategy, which prizes speed over polish. The universe of Alexa-enabled products is shaggy. Many third-party devices get low reviews on Amazon. Many don’t include some of Alexa’s key functions — I tested devices that don’t let you set reminders, one of the main reasons to use Alexa. Technical limitations also prevent non-Amazon devices from taking advantage of some of Alexa’s best new features, like the ability to call phones or other Alexas (creating a kind of home intercom system).
Mr. Limp said Amazon was aiming to fix these limitations, but conceded that its strategy necessarily led to some low-end devices. “You’re right, sometimes the ramifications of this will be that some devices will be out there that aren’t perfect,” he said.
But there are also advantages to Alexa’s model for ubiquity. Imagine if you could gain access to your smartphone on just about any screen you encountered. Move from your phone to your TV to your laptop to your car, and wherever you went, you’d find all your apps, contacts and data just there, accessible through the same interface.
That model isn’t really possible for phones. But because Alexa runs in the cloud, it allows for a wondrously device-agnostic experience. Alexa on my Echo is the same as Alexa on my TV is the same as Alexa on my Sonos speaker.
And it’s the same even on devices not in your home. Ford — the first of several carmakers to offer Alexa integration in its vehicles — lent me an F-150 pickup outfitted with Alexa. The experience was joyously boring: I called up Alexa while barreling down the highway, and although she was slower to respond than at home, she worked just the same. She knew my musical tastes, my shopping list, the apps and smart-home services I had installed, and just about everything else.
It was the best showcase of the possibilities of always-on voice computing. In the future, wherever you go, you can expect to talk to a computer that knows you, one that can get stuff done for you without any hassle.
There’s a lot of money in the voice game. For Amazon, Alexa’s rise could lead to billions of dollars in additional sales to its store, Mark Mahaney, an analyst at RBC Capital Markets, predicted recently. Amazon is thus not the only company chasing the dream of everywhere voice computing.
Google, which is alive to the worry that Alexa will outpace it in the assistant game, is also offering its Google Assistant to other device makers. Though Amazon remains the leader in the business, there’s some evidence that Google’s devices gained market share over the holidays. (Apple, which just released a $349 smart speaker, HomePod, does not seem to be aiming for voice ubiquity.)
The emerging platform war between Amazon and Google could lead to fallout for users. But their platforms can also play together. Amazon’s and Google’s relationships with third-party companies are nonexclusive, which means that hardware makers are free to add both Alexa and Google Assistant to their products. Sonos, for instance, now integrates with Alexa, and is planning to add Google Assistant soon.
This is not the best outcome for the future; it would be better for all of us if the next computing platform didn’t come from one of the current tech giants, and if start-ups didn’t have to rely on Amazon or Google for this key piece of tech.
But that seems unlikely. If Alexa is headed for ubiquity, it’s good that Google may be, too.
The Players’ Tribune originally gave athletes newsroom titles: David Ortiz, the jolly Red Sox slugger, was editor at large; Matt Harvey, the Mets hurler, was New York City bureau chief. On Twitter, jokes about Kobe Bryant — the editorial director! — flourished. Just imagine him screaming in the face of a middle reliever about a missing nut graf. For sports media, it was a way to grin in the face of the prickly existential fear they’d lived with ever since social media forever changed their industry. Twitter and Instagram had already conditioned athletes to communicate with the public directly. Might they, the middlemen and middlewomen, one day be cut out altogether? Wouldn’t athletes simply tell the same tales of humdrum perseverance that they do in Gatorade commercials? Didn’t good writing still require good writers?
Three years on, The Players’ Tribune has become a regular source of breaking news: Kevin Durant announced his league-upheaving move to Golden State in July 2016 with an essayistic memo, which then become a recurring format. In November 2015, Kobe Bryant announced his retirement via 11 stanzas of spare, Japanese-style poetry, which, unfortunately, did not. And confessional pieces like Thomas’s, written by N.H.L. also-rans and Brazilian soccer stars alike, have regularly gone viral.
At its helm is Jeter, who spent 20 years in New York saying nothing to the press. He is an athlete famed, almost revered, for blankness. But the fact that he played in that Yankees spotlight for as long as he did and mostly avoided off-the-field notoriety suggests that Jeter might possess some hidden guile. After all, The Players’ Tribune represents the first truly new wrinkle in sportswriting in a decade. But what is it, exactly? It’s not fair to call it P.R. The access it provides is genuine. But you can’t really get around one tricky fact: When you give the subject the final cut, you can’t call it journalism either. Perhaps The Players’ Tribune can be best understood as an effort by athletes to seize that most precious contemporary commodity — the narrative.
As recently as the early 1980s, the walls between pro athletes and the sportswriters who covered them were permeable. Local newspaper reporters would travel with the team, dine with the team and sometimes have one too many cold domestics with the team. These people were, essentially, co-workers. By the ’90s, money, and the instincts for self-preservation that money engenders, had created a system of formalized control that holds to this day. Technically, there is access galore: before and after practice, before and after pregame warm-ups, before and after the game itself. But locker-room interviews are notoriously fruitless. Gary Hoenig, a 71-year-old ex-newspaperman and the founding editor of ESPN the Magazine, who now works for The Players’ Tribune as an editor, told me, “I don’t think showering and standing there half-naked with a mic in your face is a great way to relate what your actual life is like.” And yet beat reporters trudge dutifully on, Bics in hand, and regularly do great work in unpromising situations.
But as meaningful access withered alongside print media, a new generation of sportswriters decided they would just stay in their living rooms and take their shots from there. The columnist Bill Simmons and the blog Deadspin pushed back against the hidebound conventions of sportswriting, the former with a hyperpersonal style defined by homerism, looseness and joy, the latter by happily pointing out all the ways we were being lied to. (I worked for Simmons at ESPN’s Grantland for four years.) Take, for example, their coverage of Jeter. Simmons and the baseball writers at Grantland assailed this purportedly unassailable figure, running geeky statistical analysis to prove that, despite his five Gold Gloves, he was actually a miserable defensive player. Deadspin, originally a Gawker affiliate, delighted in unearthing Jeter’s foibles. Once, it published a post suggesting he liked to watch his own highlights, in the nude, while shouting, over and over, “Yeah Jeets!” That this was based on an unverified rumor sourced from Reddit didn’t really matter. Deadspin was unconvinced that anyone, let alone a baseball player, should be uncomplicatedly revered. For millions of young fans, that mentality — that mainstream sports media presents a facile master narrative that is to be warred with at all times — became a defining principle.
And then there’s ESPN, which hovers above the whole system, Death Star-like, doing everything from dry game recaps to experiential multimedia packages to breaking-news pieces to talk shows that have come to define the way we shout about sports to websites like Grantland, which existed, to some extent, to question all of this. During his time at the network, the commentator Skip Bayless was well known for insisting that LeBron James was not, in fact, very good at basketball but was, rather, somewhat bad at basketball. And he never broke character. For the thinking sports fan, this was ESPN’s great tragedy: The network wanted it all, every last nook, and so it coupled its ambitious, unparalleled coverage with shameless, soul-crushing shouting.
For years, no one has dared to imagine a way to win back access. But The Players’ Tribune did, by completely redefining it. The site gives its subjects final approval of their own coverage. Normally, this would be a journalistic sin, were it not for an elegant and cynical workaround: giving the subject the byline. The model has precedent in the form of the ghostwritten as-told-to sports memoir, which has bred some stone-cold classics: “I Am Zlatan,” the Swedish soccer star Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s prickly and strange 2011 autobiography, is one of the best things I’ve ever read. (As a boy, Ibrahimovic celebrates personal milestones by stealing bicycles.) But being a bona fide literary achievement doesn’t mean it’s not brand management.
Last fall, on the West Side of Manhattan, I visited the consummately start-up-like offices of The Players’ Tribune, with its open-floor plan and glass-walled conference rooms, its espresso bar and its espresso bar’s adjoining patio and its adjoining patio’s stunning Hudson River views. Jeff Levick, The Players’ Tribune chief executive, greeted me in his large, airy and spare office. Slim, small and slightly mod, Levick speaks quickly and while speaking quickly says things like “global” and “aspirations” and “massive” and “disruption.” He had come onboard just a few weeks earlier as the company’s first C.E.O., and he was promising to turn a catchy idea with millions in financing from venture capitalists and athletes into a moneymaker. He was previously the chief revenue officer at Spotify, and, he explained, he saw the two companies as fundamentally alike. Both are “platforms,” he told me: one for music, the other for what he calls “A.G.C.” — “athlete-generated content.”
Levick was happy to tell me, in the classic manner of the disrupter, about how his company was about to upend an angry, worn-out industry. Sitting bolt upright, eyes locked onto mine, gesticulating with purpose, he pointed to the large flat-screen TV behind us: therein lay the enemy. “I have ESPN on all day long, and I get where these athletes are coming from,” he said. “These guys are the best in the world at what they do, and they can’t catch a break! They’re getting beaten up all day. Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t get beaten up like that.” His point was this: All that unnecessary negativity that ESPN’s TV shows churn out is ultimately a boon to the bottom line of The Players’ Tribune because that negativity is persuading athletes to share their proprietary, much-desired content with The Players’ Tribune.
I suggested to Levick that there were still certain unique advantages that only traditional reporting can offer. “Well, then, I guess the story of how the Isaiah Thomas trade went down would have happened somewhere else,” he politely scoffed. “That, to me, was a piece of journalism that would never have been told through a sports reporter. They weren’t going to get access to that story. And it’s an amazing story.”
Sean Conboy is an intense, handsome, wide-eyed true believer who wears all black. At 31, he is the executive editor of The Players’ Tribune, which means he’s the chief ghostwriter, responsible for many of the articles that have gone viral. He has a desk somewhere, I assume, but whenever I caught him at the office, he and his laptop were itinerant. The first time I saw him, he was on a couch near a Pop-A-Shot basketball hoop, plotting a coming business trip to Madrid. The next time we sat entombed together in a fishbowl meeting room that at least felt, and may indeed have been, soundproof.
Conboy had previously worked at Wired and Sports Illustrated and was brought in before The Players’ Tribune concept had been publicly revealed, while athletes were still being recruited as investors. He remembers thinking, as it was explained to him in his first sit-down, that it could be interesting. “Or,” he recalled thinking, “it could be terrible!” Now he oversees a team of 10 out of an overall staff of nearly 80. They’ve developed a few routine practices to attempt, as best as possible, to simulate an editor-writer relationship with the athlete. They push to get direct cell numbers and emails. They warn of the commitment to come. “We say off the bat, this is not a dashed off thing,” he said. “This isn’t a transcript of an interview. You’re signing up for a partnership. We wanna make a movie.”
Sometimes, the athletes “come in hot” with a draft or even just a long text message; other times, the athletes first want to talk through a difficult experience. When the former N.H.L. goalie Corey Hirsch wrote about the undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder that nearly pushed him to drive his car off a cliff, he spoke with Conboy five or six times. (Hockey has been the source of a number of The Players’ Tribune’s best stories, churning out compelling characters at a rate incommensurate with its place in the culture at large: The former Bruins enforcer Shawn Thornton once provided an anecdote about his Parkinson’s-afflicted grandmother trying to talk him into letting her slug some booze out of the Stanley Cup.) Hirsch first revealed his story without being sure he would actually go through with publishing it. He was nervous about how his family would perceive it; and he nearly pulled it. That risk is part of the process at The Players’ Tribune: Whether it’s video or print, athletes have final cut and can kill a whole project. But Hirsch went through with it, and his article has been read more than a million times.
Like Hirsch, the Miami Heat shooting guard Dion Waiters is not a player familiar to casual fans. But his April 2017 essay is perhaps the best thing the site has published. Waiters is a famously overconfident shooter — a chucker. In the article, through tales of violence, doubt, heartbreak and nausea, he doesn’t bother defending himself. Instead, he doubles down. “I see what people say about me,” he writes. “I see the GIFs and all that. They say, ‘He never seen a shot he don’t like.’ ‘He’s got irrational confidence.’ ‘He thinks he’s the best player in the N.B.A.’ Hell yeah I do.” The essay was published during the N.B.A. playoffs, but the Heat’s season was already over. The title of the piece: “The N.B.A. Is Lucky I’m Home Doing Damn Articles.”
After Conboy finishes his ghostwriting, a lot of athletes can get judicious, carefully pruning or deleting moments of oversharing. “We want athletes that go in the Google Doc and just go to town,” he told me. “That’s the best version of this.” He recalled Isaiah Thomas’s writing his first piece for the site. “It was 1 a.m. East Coast time, and he’s texting about line edits,” Conboy said. “ ‘Move this around. What if this was said this way.’ ” Some players even act just like prima donna magazine writers and fight with their editors over every word. “Kobe writes his own drafts,” Conboy said, smiling. “Literally, he writes his own drafts.”
But most don’t. In fact, the process, as Conboy described it to me, was oddly familiar. For the Waiters story, Conboy and his subject went out for cheese steaks in Philly, then later did a two-hour interview. “Profile writing, it’s not easy,” he said, picking his words carefully. “You’re not getting two hours anymore hardly anywhere.” But Conboy could. Effectively, The Players’ Tribune has found a way to simulate the access of olden times by putting control in the hands of the wealthy and attractive subjects. In a way, Conboy did profile Waiters. He just didn’t receive the byline.
The Players’ Tribune has an annual tradition called the “athlete board meeting.” It’s open to just about anyone in the biz; a big room full of obscure Olympians and megastars, retired and active, male and female alike. They hold it in Los Angeles every July, the week of ESPN’s awards show, the ESPYs. This past year’s meeting was led by Bryant, one of the company’s more enthusiastic investors. (A member of the editorial staff told me about an early meeting in Los Angeles, purportedly just a low-key hang to kick around story ideas; Bryant showed up via helicopter with a small black notebook that he quickly filled as he proceeded to ask an intense stream of highly informed digital-media-strategy questions.) At one point, Levick recalls, Bryant threw out a question to the room: “ ‘What keeps you up at night?’ ” One of the athletes responded, “ ‘The thing that keeps me up at night is that my legacy will only be what people see on the field. That they won’t know me for all the other things that are interesting to me.’ And all these hands went up. ‘Totally.’ ‘Totally.’ ‘That worries me so much.’ ”
Can this really be a going concern? That our obsessive sports media is missing heretofore untold, profound personal truths about our heroes? For all its peaks, on any given day reading The Players’ Tribune, you might just run into a variation of “Hey [Insert City] — we’re gonna give it our all this year.” Neither the site itself nor its social media has become a real destination. According to comScore, the site gets a respectable 3.4 million unique views a month; its Twitter account has just over half a million followers. A lot of its content is, frankly, repetitive and predictable. The pieces that succeed effectively float away from The Players’ Tribune and into the national conversation.
In 2015 Katie Nolan, then the host of the scrappy, low-budget Fox Sports show “Garbage Time,” lodged a critique of The Players’ Tribune model. “It isn’t for us fans,” she said in a segment on the show, which had a certain outsider credibility. (It has since been canceled.) “It’s for the players who want to appear like an open book without the risk of getting themselves in trouble for being an open book. And maybe I’m being cynical, but that sucks.”
I brought this up to Hoenig, the Players’ Tribune editor. Hoenig has had a long, lucrative career. You get the sense that he’s quite pleased to be at The Players’ Tribune and that he’s not all that worried about what happens next. Now, though, he let himself get worked up. “Is it P.R. to say I’m putting a face on somebody that you feel completely free to attack willy-nilly without knowing who they are?” he said. “Yes, it’s good strategy for an athlete to control his own — I don’t even call it image — his own narrative. That’d be a good strategy for you and me too.”
The first time I saw Jeter at The Players’ Tribune, he appeared, fists pounding on the door, at a corner office where I had been chatting with Jon Sakoda, an early-stage investor. Laid on a low piece of cabinetry was a massive, glitzy championship belt given to the Players’ Tribune president, Jaymee Messler, by her pal Stephanie McMahon, daughter of the W.W.E. chief executive Vince McMahon. Jeter and Sakoda spent a few minutes admiring it. “You’re getting one next!” Jeter promised Sakoda. Then he briefly ambled off to find help in figuring out why Uber wasn’t working on his new phone. It was another sunny day in the well-lit Manhattan offices of a celebrity-backed, moneyed start-up with ambitions far beyond its page views.
Jeter spends most of his time in Miami, where he’s the chief executive of the Marlins, and doesn’t have his own full-time office here. We met later in a vacant office, under a wall of perfectly arrayed framed memories: photos from charity parties, past Jeter press coverage, Bryant’s poem. In person, Jeter looked good — in his bluejeans and dark gray henley, the picture of casual bro chic. But there were moments that remind you that he has been around awhile. He rolled out a rotator cuff, slowly; he smashed a fist into a spike of pain on his lower thigh. His rookie season was 1996. He dated Mariah Carey! For the better part of the first half of his career, the worst-case scenario was a Page Six write-up on what Meatpacking District club he was at last night.
I theorized that The Players’ Tribune had been born as a retaliation to the gossip columnists who had poked and prodded him for so long. He shrugged it off. “You know how many phone calls I’ve gotten from my mom through the years when I was younger asking me questions?” he said. “Eventually you just try not to pay attention to it.” He added: “You remember the Motorola two-way? When they came out? That was as good as it came. Then the color one came out. And all of a sudden. …” He trailed off. “Everything you do is public knowledge.”
I asked him about Alex Rodriguez, his former teammate and frenemy, and a player famously, calamitously inept during his playing career at controlling his public image. (Just search for “A-Rod kisses himself.”) Did Jeter ever try to help him? “I spoke with everyone,” he said. “I would stress accountability to anyone that came to our organization.”
I asked whether, had today’s athlete protests spread to the Yankees while Jeter was playing, would he have taken a knee. “I’m not in the clubhouse now,” he said. “I’ll say: Everyone has a right to peaceful protest.”
What did I know about Derek Jeter? Not much and certainly nothing new after this brief encounter. I left the interview feeling as though, intentionally or not, he’d made a good case for access journalism’s uselessness. We already live among the distorting effects of Twitter and Instagram, the uncanny and calculated sense of intimacy that social-media platforms provide. Now we have a model that simulates objective journalism, supposedly written by the people who were once subject to that journalism’s scrutiny.
Projecting The Players’ Tribune model forward, we can imagine a world in which athletes simply don’t need to talk to reporters, in an echo of what feels like the unstoppable atomization of all news and information. Politicians, TV showrunners, labor-union leaders: theoretically The Players’ Tribune platform is replicable for any public professional. In the future, perhaps, every last person will get to broadcast his or her own particular worldview, free of objectivity, on a bespoke, partisan media organ, with slick photography and design. And it will be up to us to decide what version of the truth we want to believe.
In written posts and YouTube videos — one of which had more than 100,000 views as of Tuesday night — Gateway Pundit has argued that Mr. Hogg had been coached on what to say during his interviews. The notion that Mr. Hogg is merely protecting his father dovetails with a broader right-wing trope, that liberal forces in the F.B.I. are trying to undermine President Trump and his pro-Second Amendment supporters.
Others offered more sweeping condemnations. Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist behind the site Infowars, suggested that the mass shooting was a “false flag” orchestrated by anti-gun groups. Mr. Limbaugh, on his radio program, said of the student activists on Monday: “Everything they’re doing is right out of the Democrat Party’s various playbooks. It has the same enemies: the N.R.A. and guns.”
By Tuesday, that argument had migrated to CNN. In an on-air appearance, Jack Kingston, a former United States representative from Georgia and a regular CNN commentator, asked, “Do we really think — and I say this sincerely — do we really think 17-year-olds on their own are going to plan a nationwide rally?” (He was quickly rebuked by the anchor Alyson Camerota.)
Conspiracies, wild and raw online, are often pasteurized on their way into the mainstream. A subtler version of the theory appeared Tuesday on the website of Bill O’Reilly, the ousted Fox News host. Mr. O’Reilly stopped short of saying the students had been planted by anti-Trump forces. But, he wrote: “The national press believes it is their job to destroy the Trump administration by any means necessary. So if the media has to use kids to do that, they’ll use kids.”
Some of those who have been spreading the conspiracies are facing consequences.
Benjamin Kelly, an aide to a Florida state representative, Shawn Harrison, emailed a Tampa Bay Times reporter on Tuesday accusing Mr. Hogg and a classmate, Emma Gonzalez, of being actors that travel to the sites of crises.
Mr. Kelly was soon fired.
“I made a mistake whereas I tried to inform a reporter of information relating to his story regarding a school shooting,” Mr. Kelly tweeted. “I meant no disrespect to the students or parents of Parkland.” His boss, Mr. Harrison, said on Twitter that he was “appalled” by Mr. Kelly’s remarks.
But by Tuesday evening, a new conspiracy was dominating Gateway Pundit’s home page. “Soros-Linked Organizers of ‘Women’s March’ Selected Anti-Trump Kids to Be Face of Parkland Tragedy,” read the headline. Within an hour, it had been shared on Facebook more than 150 times.
“For big problems, big solutions,” Mr. Maduro said Tuesday night at a ceremony in Caracas. “We Venezuelans are indomitable.”
He called it a “cryptocurrency to take on Superman.”
But many analysts and critics of the government did not give the digital currency much hope of success.
“I just think it’s a desperate move by a regime that is increasingly isolated and has an economy that has spiraled out of its control,” said Cynthia J. Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
The Venezuelan government has said the value of the petro will be tied in some way to the value of a barrel of Venezuelan oil. But the Maduro administration has not given many details on how this pricing would work, and many investors have said they would not trust the government to faithfully maintain the link between the petro and the price of oil.
“The petro will most likely suffer all of the same ills as Venezuelan debt,” predicted David Smilde, a sociology professor at Tulane University who has researched Venezuela for more than two decades.
A spokesman for the United States Treasury Department warned American investors last month that the petro might still run afoul of the sanctions, telling Reuters that the currency “would appear to be an extension of credit to the Venezuelan government” and could “expose U.S. persons to legal risk.”
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a Republican, and Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, a Democratic, wrote to the Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, in January, asking him to monitor the situation closely.
“We have serious doubts about whether Venezuela has the capacity to launch a cryptocurrency,” the letter said. “But regardless, it is imperative that the U.S. Treasury Department is equipped with tools and enforcement mechanisms to combat the use of cryptocurrency to evade U.S. sanctions in general, and in this case in particular.”
Critics of the Maduro administration, including many in the international community, attribute the nation’s economic problems to government mismanagement. Mr. Maduro blames a conspiracy involving the political opposition working in concert with foreign governments, especially the United States.
On Monday, Mr. Maduro made an overture to President Trump, inviting him for bilateral talks through a Twitter post.
“@RealDonaldTrump campaigned promoting noninterference in other countries’ domestic affairs, “ he said. “The time has come to fulfill it and change your agenda of aggression for one of dialogue.”
Mr. Maduro added: “Dialogue in Caracas or in Washington, D.C.?”
The Trump administration has sought to justify its sanctions against Venezuelan officials by accusing them of political repression and public corruption.
Last month, while adding four more names to the growing list of Venezuelan officials placed in the sanctions list, the Treasury Department criticized the nation’s all-powerful Constituent Assembly for prohibiting three major opposition parties from participating in the presidential election.
Mr. Maduro will be running for re-election in the April race, and with his government in control of the electoral machinery and the highest court, he is expected to win. But the United States, Colombia and other countries have already declared that they will not recognize the results.
Ms. Arnson said the introduction of the currency could provide a political lift to Mr. Maduro’s re-election ambitions.
“Looking like you’re doing something to save the economy, that goes beyond paying off your foreign creditors, is an important part of the electoral strategy,” she said. “But I think this is fantasy-land in terms of being an economic life jacket.”
The Venezuelan government’s petro initiative is one of the wildest outgrowths of an explosion in activity around virtual currencies over the last year. Inspired by the skyrocketing price of Bitcoin in 2017, many entrepreneurs raised money by creating and selling their own virtual currencies in so-called initial coin offerings.
Many governments around the world have also been examining whether it would make sense to issue their own electronic currencies on something similar to the network that Bitcoin runs on, with the Bank of England and the People’s Bank of China announcing experiments.
Russian government officials have also discussed issuing some sort of crypto-ruble, to evade American sanctions.
But no government has moved ahead more swiftly, and with more abandon, than Venezuela.
The documents that have been put out by the Venezuelan government suggest that the petro’s release will be similar to the offerings done by private companies.
The petro white paper said the process would begin with a presale of digital tokens, to gauge demand, and then be followed by an “Initial Coin Offer,” with 82 million petros released to the public. The petros are then supposed to be tradable on virtual currency exchanges around the world, the white paper says.
A petro website says the Venezuelan government will accept the petro for tax payments and fees.
Coin offerings have been attractive to entrepreneurs because investors can send their money using Bitcoin or other existing virtual currencies, which do not go through banks or other institutions that could decline the transactions.
The movement of money outside of the traditional banking system has allowed coin offerings to go ahead even though American regulators have said that most of them are probably violating the law.
The same structure could be beneficial to Venezuela, given that it is facing American sanctions that have made it hard to raise money through established channels.
For investors, though, the petro may be a hard sell, given that the system will be designed and controlled by the Venezuelan government, which has not been the most reliable financial player.
The Venezuelan government has said the value of the petro will be tied in some way to the value of a barrel of Venezuelan oil. But the Maduro administration has not given many details on how this pricing would work, and many investors have said they would not trust the government to faithfully maintain the link between the petro and the price of oil.
The design of the petro, while clearly inspired by Bitcoin, would, in some ways, be the opposite of most virtual currencies like Bitcoin, which are designed to operate without any central government or authority in charge.
Bitcoin has largely won over investors because there is no central authority that could suddenly change the number of Bitcoins to be released, or the rules of the network.
With the petro, on the other hand, the confidence of investors is likely to be only as strong as their confidence in the Maduro government.
In time, putting these pieces together — researchers call them dual-use technologies — will become increasingly easy and inexpensive. How hard would it be to make a similar but dangerous device?
“This stuff is getting more available in every sense,” said one of Skydio’s founders, Adam Bry. These same technologies are bringing a new level of autonomy to cars, warehouse robots, security cameras and a wide range of internet services.
But at times, new A.I. systems also exhibit strange and unexpected behavior because the way they learn from large amounts of data is not entirely understood. That makes them vulnerable to manipulation; today’s computer vision algorithms, for example, can be fooled into seeing things that are not there.
“This becomes a problem as these systems are widely deployed,” said Miles Brundage, a research fellow at the University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute and one of the report’s primary authors. “It is something the community needs to get ahead of.”
The report warns against the misuse of drones and other autonomous robots. But there may be bigger concerns in less obvious places, said Paul Scharre, another author of the report, who had helped set policy involving autonomous systems and emerging weapons technologies at the Defense Department and is now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
“Drones have really captured the imagination,” he said. “But what is harder to anticipate — and wrap our heads around — is all the less tangible ways that A.I. is being integrated into our lives.”
The rapid evolution of A.I. is creating new security holes. If a computer-vision system can be fooled into seeing things that are not there, for example, miscreants can circumvent security cameras or compromise a driverless car.
Automated techniques will make it easier to carry out attacks that now require extensive human labor, including “spear phishing,” which involves gathering and exploiting personal data of victims. In the years to come, the report said, machines will be more adept at collecting and deploying this data on their own.
A.I. systems are increasingly adept at generating believable audio and video on their own. This will accelerate the progress of virtual reality, online games and movie animation. It will also make it easier for bad actors to spread misinformation online, the report said.
This is already beginning to happen through a technology called “Deepfakes,” which provides a simple way of grafting anyone’s head onto a pornographic video — or put words into the mouth of the president.
Some believe concerns over the progress of A.I. are overblown. Alex Dalyac, chief executive and co-founder of a computer vision start-up called Tractable, acknowledged that machine learning will soon produce fake audio and video that humans cannot distinguish from the real thing. But he believes other systems will also get better at identifying misinformation. Ultimately, he said, these systems will win the day.
To others, that sounds like an endless cat-and-mouse game between A.I. systems trying to create the fake content and those trying to identify it.
“We need to assume that there will be advances on both sides,” Mr. Scharre said.
In a statement, the Justice Department said, “We are pleased with and respect today’s decision, which will permit the parties and court to focus on the case at hand.”
AT&T has argued that the Justice Department has unfairly singled out its proposed merger with Time Warner partly to stay in favor with the White House. President Trump has been a vocal critic of Time Warner’s news network, CNN, and said before the election that the deal should be stopped.
AT&T’s lawyers have requested emails and phone and other communications logs between Justice Department officials and the White House, to see if the White House influenced the agency’s decision. The company also put Makan Delrahim, the head of antitrust for the Justice Department, on its witness list.
Last week, the Justice Department asked Judge Leon to block the company’s demands for communications with the White House, saying they were a “sideshow” to the antitrust concerns the government held about the merger. The Justice Department has argued that consumers would be harmed by the deal, saying it would stifle competition and lead to higher prices for consumers.
In a hearing on Friday, AT&T agreed to remove Mr. Delrahim from its witness list on the condition the company could call him to testify during the trial if evidence emerged to support its arguments of political interference.
The blockbuster trial will begin March 19. It is expected to help set the course for mergers and acquisitions in coming years.
The Justice Department’s suit to block AT&T’s merger with Time Warner was unexpected, because the government has a history of allowing mergers between companies that don’t directly compete. Those deals, including Comcast’s merger with NBCUniversal in 2011, contained several conditions to resolve competition concerns. Mr. Delrahim has argued that conditions that restrain a company’s business practices cannot effectively resolve antitrust issues.
In the opinion on Tuesday, Judge Leon said that AT&T was able to point only to the Justice Department’s approval of Comcast’s merger as proof of discrimination toward AT&T and Time Warner.
“The defendants have mustered only one specific transaction,” Judge Leon said.
The focus on political interference is highly unusual. AT&T told Judge Leon last week it was reluctant to raise the topic. The Justice Department countered that the company was trying to use the argument as a “get-out-of-jail card.”
“Everything about this case has been unusual from the beginning,” said Larry Downes, a project director at Georgetown University’s Center for Business and Public Policy.
The result of the trial could set the nation on a new, stricter direction on antitrust policy.
“There has not been this kind of a challenge to a vertical merger of companies that don’t compete in decades and this is hugely significant in that it suggests the Justice Department may be going in a radically new direction on antitrust,” Mr. Downes said.
AT&T could still focus on its argument of so-called selective enforcement that singles out its proposed merger with Time Warner. But the judge may not be swayed.
In his opinion, Judge Leon said the Justice Department’s lawyer explained at length that there was a history of the government’s blocking somewhat similar deals.
“So while it may, indeed, be a rare breed of horse, it is not exactly a unicorn,” Judge Leon said.