Time Warner CEO Jeffrey Bewkes Says Democrats Were Bigger First Amendment Threat Than Trump

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Jeffrey Bewkes

"The threat to the First Amendment came from the Democratic side more," he says, arguing that journalists viewed a Democratic plank "overly charitably" as campaign finance reform.

When it comes to politicians trampling free speech and free press, Time Warner CEO Jeffrey Bewkes said Tuesday that he doesn't fear President-elect Donald Trump as much as he does his rivals on the other side of the aisle.

"The threat to the First Amendment came from the Democratic side," Bewkes said during a conversation with Business Insider CEO Henry Blodget at a conference in New York in a session that was webcast.

Bewkes made the comment after Blodget noted that Trump had criticized CNN for allegedly unfair coverage, and even threatened some sort of regulation in retaliation against CNN, owned by Time Warner.

"I don't think that's a serious thing," Bewkes told Blodget at the Ignition: Future of Digital conference. "If anybody is going to change the First Amendment — 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." (The Democratic party platform includes support for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United granting corporations similar rights to those of individuals to fund political speech.)

The CEO, continuing his theme, even acknowledged that the news media does, indeed, lean left, as conservatives have long complained.

"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 in cleaning up money in politics when in fact what it would do is restrain multiple voices," Bewkes argued. "So, I thought the threat to the First Amendment came from the Democratic side more. I think there won't be a serious effort on the Republican side."

Bewkes wasn't specific, though Trump's Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton promised many times during her campaign to overturn the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that allowed the conservative group to promote its anti-Hillary movie

Bewkes also said Trump wasn't the only Republican candidate to complain of unfair coverage, as Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush and others also weren't happy with CNN and the press. "That's more about the nature of change in that party right now," he said. "I think we're going to see it on the Democratic side, too."

Bewkes also said he isn't worried that Trump has said he'd like to prevent AT&T's $85.4 billion acquisition of Time Warner, suggesting that maybe politicians who initially spoke against the merger confused Time Warner with Time Warner Cable, which would have been a tougher sale to regulators, given AT&T already owns pay-TV giant DirecTV.

"We were still before the election and we know some of the strains of populism in that election on both sides," he said. "I'm not saying whether everybody thought it was the cable company merging with a phone company — they're different competitive issues — but it isn't that, and I think when it becomes clear what we're doing it will become clear to everyone that it will be pro-competitive, pro-consumer and improve competition in advertising."

After the Business Insider event, Bewkes headed to the UBS Global Media & Communications Conference for further discussion about CNN.

"CNN had a killer year," he said. "We could say this has been an unusual year in world events, but it's actually not true. Every year is … if you go back three or four years ago, everybody would be saying you'd have to have a political slant," he said, suggesting that CNN is thriving yet unbiased.

When the conversation turned to digital distribution of Time Warner's cable networks, Bewkes noted that DirecTV Now launched for $35 a month for 100 channels but $5 extra for HBO, and he suggested he's open to more such deals for the premium channel. "We welcome distributors making aggressive price offerings," he said.

He boasted of "a pretty hefty budget, a couple of billion dollars" at HBO, adding: "We're not spending our programming money on library product, we're doing original shows. … We've been increasing it and we'll keep increasing it."