AT&T chief says CNN coverage of Trump should not be an obstacle in merger review

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, left, listens while President Trump speaks during the American Leadership in Emerging Technology event at the White House on June 22.
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

AT&T Chief Executive Randall Stephenson indicated that President Trump’s tensions with CNN should not factor into the federal government’s blessing of AT&T’s proposed $85-billion purchase of Time Warner Inc., which owns the cable news network.

“I don’t know what the relevance is of CNN to an anti-trust review,” Stephenson said Wednesday at Vanity Fair’s new establishment summit in Beverly Hills. “I don’t anticipate that being an issue.”

AT&T is awaiting the U.S. Department of Justice’s approval for the Dallas telecommunication’s blockbuster acquisition of Time Warner Inc. The review has slowed because the Senate just last week approved Trump’s appointment of Makan Delrahim as chief of the Justice Department’s anti-trust division. The Justice Department and AT&T continue to negotiate conditions for the merger, according to knowledgeable people who do not want to be identified discussing the sensitive process.

Trump frequently has taken to Twitter to blast CNN’s coverage of him, calling the 24-hour news network “fake news.” Stephenson’s point Wednesday was that there was not legal justification to attach conditions to the deal related to CNN’s coverage of the president.


Trump also has suggested that CNN’s chief, Jeff Zucker, will be fired after AT&T takes over Time Warner, which also includes HBO, TBS, TNT, Cartoon Network, Turner Classic Movies and the Warner Bros. film and television studio in Burbank. Trump and Zucker have had a long association, and it was Zucker — when he was head of NBC Entertainment — who gave a green light to “The Apprentice,” the reality show that projected Trump into millions of American homes.

So is Zucker on the way out? asked Vanity Fair’s Stephanie Mehta, who was leading the question-and-answer session.

Stephenson hesitated, but went on to say that “CNN has had a lot of success,” and that AT&T had no interest in taking over just to “screw things up.” Privately, AT&T executives have said that Zucker’s job was not in jeopardy. “The hope is that we keep the key talent in place,” Stephenson said.

In addition to Zucker, AT&T’s John Stankey — who will take over the Time Warner properties after the merger — has been meeting with Richard Plepler, chief executive of HBO, and Kevin Tsujihara, who runs Warner Bros. Both executives attended the conference.

Stephenson also made a joke about concerns in Hollywood that the phone company, and its rigid culture, might stymie the creativity at Warner Bros., HBO and Turner.

“I’m worried that Plepler’s and Tsujihara’s culture will infuse into the phone company and really screw it up,” Stephenson said. “That’s what keeps me up at night.”