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AT&T-Time Warner Merger Raises Concerns Over CNN's Independence

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

AT&T's plan to acquire Time Warner is getting a lot of attention from politicians, regulators, consumer advocates. One reason is that Time Warner owns CNN. The deal raises questions about the cable news network's journalistic independence. CNN has had a really good year thanks in significant part to the initiatives of its chief, Jeff Zucker. As NPR's David Folkenflik reports, that performance is also due to another man in the news, Donald Trump.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Election years always give a huge boost to all three major cable news channels. For CNN, it's been particularly good. According to two sources with direct knowledge, CNN will make approximately $100 million more than it would expect in the typical election year, and that's thanks to the huge interest in Donald Trump. CNN could guarantee advertisers relatively high level of viewers and charge those advertisers higher advance rates. CNN has also gotten big-name sponsorships that were hard to get in the past.

TRACY STALLARD: I think it's pretty obvious what made this year pop from an election cycle perspective.

FOLKENFLIK: Tracy Stallard is senior director of media for Anheuser-Busch InBev's American operations. It's the parent company of Budweiser and Bud Light.

STALLARD: It's certainly been a fun one to watch.

FOLKENFLIK: The brewer struck a deal worth several million dollars to CNN this cycle, the first in years between the two.

STALLARD: CNN in particular was an exciting partner because of this on-the-ground activation aspect and the fact that they were also like-minded with us in that they didn't just believe that they were going to sell us television ad placements and sell us 30-second placements to run a television commercial.

FOLKENFLIK: As well as vignettes that ran on the air and digitally on CNN, Bud and Bud Light sponsored the CNN Grill, a TV news set and active bar during each major party convention this summer. To be very clear, CNN chief Jeff Zucker actually has put in place a far broader strategy in recent years. He placed an emphasis on breaking news. He also hired a ton of journalists to cover the news nationally and globally both on the air and online.

Secondly, Zucker invested in outside documentaries and major original taped series, too, starring such stars as Anthony Bourdain and Lisa Ling, giving viewers a reason to tune in - what they call appointment television. But something else was happening, too.

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JEFF ZUCKER: We recognized much earlier than most that there was a little bit of a phenomenon to Donald Trump, and we recognized that there was something going on with him.

FOLKENFLIK: This is Jeff Zucker at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center earlier this month.

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ZUCKER: I'd say that if we made a mistake last year, it's that we probably did put on too many of his campaign rallies in those early months unedited and just let them run - you know, listen because you never knew what he was going to say. You never knew what was going to happen.

FOLKENFLIK: And viewers responded. Through a spokeswoman, Zucker declined to comment today about the AT&T deal. Jon Klein is the CEO of TAPP, a paid video-on-demand service, and was president of CNN U.S. for six years.

JON KLEIN: There's no corporate history at AT&T of journalism.

FOLKENFLIK: As Klein notes, CNN has in the past been part of major media conglomerates. This deal could be complicating in different ways, Klein says. AT&T has huge telecommunications interests and is involved in national security matters, tech policy and privacy concerns.

KLEIN: They're more often in the news than the people who brought you "Superman Versus Batman." And so these issues may come to a head more often. And the question will be, how will AT&T handle it when CNN becomes a burr in the saddle even if inadvertently?

FOLKENFLIK: The two CEOs involved in the deal, AT&T's Randall Stephenson and Time Warner's Jeff Bewkes, told me CNN's independence would be preserved. The two men spoke in a joint interview late this afternoon.

RANDALL STEPHENSON: You have to allow the organization to run independently.

FOLKENFLIK: That's AT&T's Randall Stephenson.

STEPHENSON: And it's not an altruistic thing either. I mean I personally think it's a smart business thing to do. If the customer ever believes that the news is being tainted by the opinion of myself or somebody else than AT&T, that's brand damaging.

FOLKENFLIK: More from our interviews of both men as NPR's coverage of the deal continues. David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.