CNN’s Brian Stelter on Sunday spent a full interview with AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson lobbing softballs, even as congressional talks over a coronavirus stimulus package were faltering due to, among other things, concerns about whether corporations would use the aid responsibly. However, the Reliable Sources host’s decision to genuflect rather than ask anything meaningful isn’t much of a shock when one considers that AT&T owns CNN — which technically makes Randall Stelter’s boss.
Below are all of the questions Stelter asked Randall, in order, during the 12:00 p.m. hour of CNN’s Reliable Sources on Sunday (click "expand"):
I’m curious about what has changed for you and AT&T in the past couple of weeks. How have you had to change AT&T’s priorities?
What about the wireless and the broadband customers that have AT&T all across the united states? Is the internet infrastructure able to keep up with increased demand?
You know, I never thought my first time interviewing you on Reliable Sources would be with you at home. But everyone’s at home, everyone’s using these webcams to join and feel a little less lonely. I wonder if you’ve thought about how this is going to change our world after this pandemic? Is — is this going to be the normal, are we all going to be working from home? Have you thought about that?
There’s so much fear about the state of the economy, and the possibility of something as big as another great depression. What do you say to AT&T employees and other workers who are worried about losing their jobs?
While I have you, what do you make of the stimulus package that is being prepared on Capital Hill as we speak. Right now the figure is two trillion dollars. Is that a sufficient figure?
It’s been a couple of years since AT&T acquired CNN, and the rest of what was known as Time Warner. This is the biggest story CNN has had to cover since you’ve been in charge of CNN and the rest of these brands. What’s it like for you to own a news division? How are you approaching owning CNN in this period?
Rather than going through each prompt one at a time, let’s instead consider what Stelter did and didn’t do. Perhaps the two most obvious things to ask a CEO during this period of economic turmoil would be some version of the following:
1) Can you assure your employees that all of their jobs are safe?
2) If your company receives stimulus money, can you guarantee that those funds will go towards paying employees’ salaries rather than stock buybacks and executive bonuses?
Stelter’s version of the first question was pretty close to the gentlest phrasing imaginable: “What do you say to AT&T employees and other workers who are worried about losing their jobs?”
Randall discussed paid sick leave for employees, but he did not directly answer whether anyone at AT&T would be losing their job. Unsurprisingly, Stelter did not press the issue.
A followup question would have been especially welcome considering in January 2020, a report by Axios revealed that AT&T would be cutting thousands of jobs this year. The company garnered heavy criticism for this news in light of the $3,000,000,000 tax cut that the company had received in 2019.
On the stimulus issue, Stelter completely flubbed the chance to ask anything even remotely meaningful, instead producing only a simpering: “Two trillion dollars, is that a sufficient figure?”
This non-question represents an incredibly important missed opportunity. Stelter could have pressed Randall for the kind of commitment that might have helped the dying talks on Capitol Hill Sunday morning.
Instead, he moved on and closed out the interview by asking his boss’s boss what it was like to own CNN.
Hard-hitting stuff. Randall had better get some ice for his feet.