In AT&T's Deal for Time Warner, CNN Could Be Conundrum

FeaturesDow Jones Newswires

AT&T Chairman and Chief Executive Randall Stephenson is saying all the right things with regards to CNN, the global news operation that the telecommunications giant will own if its $85.4 billion deal to acquire Time Warner Inc. is successful.

"CNN is an American symbol of independent journalism and First Amendment free speech. My board and I are clear -- CNN will remain completely independent from an editorial perspective," Mr. Stephenson said in a statement. He even went on CNN Monday and reiterated the company's commitment to keep CNN free from corporate overlords. "The last thing we want to do, as AT&T, is in any way taint that in the slightest bit."

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But saying it and doing it are two different things, and some believe AT&T will be in for a learning curve when it comes to CNN.

"An editorial company is just a different beast than most industrial firms," said Jay Rosen, an associate professor at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. "If your customers are mad, for a normal company that's bad and you have to fix it. For an editorial company, not only is that not a problem, it is kind of expected," he said, adding, "editorial companies are built to expect and resist pressure from advertisers."

There are also potential land mines in how CNN will cover its corporate parent when it makes news.

"AT&T is much more likely a company to make news and be in the news and be controversial than Time Warner ever was," said former CNN President Jon Klein. "Self-censorship is a concern."

Corporate ownership isn't new in television journalism, and the same issues CNN will face have been challenges for others. General Electric Co. owned NBC for decades, and NBC was often criticized for its lack of hard-hitting coverage of its corporate parent. When CBS was trying to sell itself to Westinghouse Electric Corporation in the 1990s, it didn't have the stomach for a hard-hitting "60 Minutes" story about the tobacco industry that likely would have resulted in lawsuits. While the story eventually aired, it was watered down and correspondent Mike Wallace told Charlie Rose, "we were caving in."

One way to keep the owners out of the newsroom is make money, said Mr. Klein. "There is nothing like profitability to shield a journalistic organization from pressure," he said. On that score, CNN is in good shape, as it is approaching $1 billion in profitability, according to people familiar with the matter.

CNN isn't the only Time Warner unit that potentially could cause consternation for AT&T. At HBO, every week John Oliver takes apart political issues or big business such as Sunday's episode on opioid addiction that was critical of pharmaceutical companies. Bill Maher's show "Real Time" is known for its blunt take on politics and Wall Street, and HBO's latest addition to its editorial business is Vice News, which prides itself on rogue journalism.

But media watchdogs think CNN, in particular, should be part of the conversation when lawmakers and regulators scrutinize this deal.

"The news media serve the public trust and inform the electorate," said Todd O'Boyle, program director of Common Cause. "It's an industry that's critical to our experiment in self governance. We need a policy regime that treats journalistic institutions as more than more assets on a balance sheet."

Write to Joe Flint at