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The Watchdog: AT&T has a merger to worry about — and customers, too

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Dave Lieber, The Dallas Morning News

I have a nightmare scenario rolling around in my head involving AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, President Donald Trump and a quasi-constitutional crisis.

It's a scary what-if story line.

What if the president, knowing he has leverage over his arch-enemy CNN, demands that Stephenson defang the network in return for his administration's support of AT&T's much-desired $108 billion purchase of Time Warner, CNN's owner?

Trump's hatred of CNN is legendary, as is his contempt for his former NBC ally Jeff Zucker, who now runs CNN.

No surprise that Trump tweeted in June: "Fake News CNN is looking at big management changes now that they got caught falsely pushing their phony Russian stories. Ratings way down!"

If Trump demands this, what should Stephenson do? I asked AT&T, but first ...

Our expert

I checked with an AT&T expert, but not a telecom wonk, antitrust analyst or media talking head. I talked with a different kind of expert, one who knows AT&T all too well. Much to her dismay, Sally McKeever lately has spent much time with Stephenson's employees.

<p><span style="font-size: 1em; background-color: transparent;">Sally McKeever wanted to remove her late husband's name from her AT&amp;T account. It took some doing.</span></p>The Dallas Morning News

Sally McKeever wanted to remove her late husband's name from her AT&T account. It took some doing.

The Dallas Morning News

Sally is an 83-year-old widow from Richardson and decades-long AT&T customer. Among her credits as an expert: Upon my recommendation, she spent last week talking to someone from Stephenson's "Office of the President."

"I'm also a stockholder," she adds.

Before I tell you what Sally and Stephenson both say about a potential Trump power play with CNN, let me tell you how I came to discuss this with Sally. She wrote to me about her experience with AT&T (one of 30 beat-down customers I passed on to the CEO in the past month). Her story stands out. I called her.

It's hard enough to be a widow, lost in sorrow and loneliness, without being forced to jump through hoops simply to change a family account.

Her husband, Harry (yes, she's heard every When Harry Met Sally joke), met Sally and married her 57 years ago. Harry passed away in November.

She called AT&T for two reasons. She wanted the account changed from his name to hers, and she also wanted to stop paying for Harry's cellphone. She was told she must visit an AT&T store.

In her own words:

"At the store, they immediately began to talk about getting DirecTV. It would cut $100 off my bill. I kept reminding them I was there to change the name. Finally, they said they could but they'd have to shut off my land line for a couple of days, and then turn it back on again.

"My concern was, would I keep my old number? 'Oh, sure.'

"Back to DirecTV. I told them OK to DirecTV (and it did cut $100 off my bill). Then I told the guy one more time, I'd better get my old number back as we had that since we moved to Richardson in 1965, or I was going to the president of AT&T.

"After six days of waiting, I went back to the store. They'd lost the order for setting up the new account in my name. So almost two weeks later, I had a new account in my name and yes, glory be, I had my original number back.

"I was surprised when a guy showed up [to upgrade her system]. No one told me that a tech would come or that it had been scheduled.

"Also, I was assured that DirecTV didn't cut out when it rains. HA! Every time it rains.

"Here's the latest. I received a check for credit due. Made out to my husband."

Company's response

Here's what AT&T told me in a written statement: "We have apologized to Mrs. McKeever for the delay in retaining her old number. Her new plan substantially lowered the cost of her phone and TV services, and we are working to ensure she enjoys them. Knowing it's important to continually improve, we are addressing these subjects in our training."

Back to our expert Sally.

"No one else gave me the runaround that AT&T did," she says. "Not the Richardson water bill, the gas company or even the credit cards."

Sally says she doesn't approve of AT&T's purchase of Time Warner. "They're too big right now, and they can't handle what they got."

On Trump, she and Stephenson actually agree.

She says: "We do have a free press. The president should not always feel obligated to answer them. He should just ignore them and go on. I taught school for 25 years, and that's what I used to tell the kids when somebody pestered them."

What does the AT&T CEO say about the potential dilemma? Kill the independent voice to save the deal? AT&T sent me one of Stephenson's comments.

"We are committed to continuing the editorial independence of CNN. Independence is what makes CNN so popular and so valuable," Stephenson has said. "We will not do anything to change that."

Remember that.

Staff writer Marina Trahan Martinez contributed to this report.

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