April 26, 2020
Just hours after AT&T announced that its CEO Randall Stephenson would be stepping down in July after 13 years, President Donald Trump called Stephenson’s departure “great news!” in reference to WarnerMedia’s ownership of CNN, which the president often clashes with.
“Randall Stephenson, the CEO of heavily indebted AT&T, which owns and presides over Fake News @CNN, is leaving, or was forced out. Anyone who lets a garbage ‘network’ do and say the things that CNN does, should leave ASAP. Hopefully replacement will be much better!” Trump tweeted April 24 on social media.
Stephenson’s departure comes as AT&T grapples with shrinking pay-TV subscribers at DirecTV and AT&T U-verse, an online TV misfire with DirecTV Now (rebranded as AT&T TV), and $163 billion in debt — a figure that grew by $5.5 billion earlier this month following a third-party loan during the coronavirus pandemic.
Some have speculated the DOJ’s repeated attempts to nix AT&T’s $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner (and formation of WarnerMedia Entertainment) in 2016 stemmed from the president’s public animosity toward CNN.
“CNN’s job is not to be popular with the president,” Stephenson said at the time of the merger. “CNN’s job is really simple: It’s the job of all media: to hold people in power accountable.”
Strong words from a CEO who often criticized government regulation, welcomed Trump’s corporate tax cut and was frequently accused of telling Wall Street that he preferred taking care of shareholders over consumers.
Indeed, in the first quarter (ended March 31), AT&T’s dividends paid for common shares totaling $3.7 billion (up 47% since 2017) and the company repurchased 142 million of its common shares for $4.7 billion.
Stephenson made headlines in 2017, when, as National Chair of the Boy Scouts of America, he criticized Trump’s address at the Boy Scouts of America’s annual Jamboree in West Virginia.
Trump had turned his speech into a partisan political rally, criticizing Obamacare, reiterating his 2016 election victory over Hillary Clinton, reportedly asking for greater loyalty from scouts and their parents and criticizing former President Barack Obama for not attending the Jamboree — a tradition among presidents since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937.
“Anyone knows his speeches get highly political — we anticipated that this could be the case,” Stephenson told The Associated Press. “Do I wish the president hadn’t gone there and hadn’t been political? Of course.”
Stephenson’s dogged defense of CNN continued despite some concern on Wall Street the global network founded by billionaire Ted Turner could undermine AT&T’s businesses going forward.
“This is one of those issues you just ask, ‘What is the right thing to do?'” Stephenson said at a Wall Street Journal forum as reported by The Dallas Morning News. “And then you do the right thing.”
Craig Moffett, analyst with MoffettNathanson, said Stephenson leaves behind a company that transformed from telecom operator to media conglomerate.
“But the jury is still out if the transformation is for better or worse,” Moffett told CNBC.