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Diller on AT&T: ‘They Drive Out Talented People and Then They Say, “Never Mind”’

Barry Diller appearing on CNBC's 'Squawkbox'
(Image credit: CNBC)

As AT&T shares rebounded Friday after a steep post-WarnerMedia divestment announcement plunge earlier this week, media mogul Barry Diller laid into the fickle telecom.

“They drive out talented people and then they say, ‘Never mind,” the IAC chairman said on CNBC’s Squawkbox Friday morning. 

Diller specifically mentioned CNN chief Jeff Zucker, who was set to depart the cable news network at the end of this year until AT&T announced on Monday that his parent company, WarnerMedia, would be spun off and sold to Discovery Inc. in a deal valued at $43 billion. 

It’s widely assumed that Zucker will reconsider his departure, given his reportedly warm relationship with Discovery president and CEO David Zaslav. But before that, Diller said, AT&T was on the way to driving the man who has sparked CNN’s ratings renaissance “out of the building.”

Then again, Diller could also have been speaking about WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar, who had reorganized the media conglomerate into a state of momentum, before learning of the Discovery deal and reportedly entering severance talks with AT&T. Or maybe Diller was talking about the nearly 55,000 former AT&T employees who have lost their jobs over the last four years—a period that followed a steep Trump-era corporate tax break that the telecom insisted at the time would grow jobs. 

Detailing AT&T’s series of missteps over the past decade, Diller said the “power of monopoly” has enabled former AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson and current chief executive John Stankey to stay in charge and keep making mistakes.

“Ma Bell should have been dead and buried by now,” Diller said. “They go into cable only to say a few years later, ‘Oh my god, we made mistake' and sell it. They go into buying DirecTV, they go into buying Time Warner, all with an idea, but certainly not a full fledged [idea]. And I believe they’ve hurt Time Warner’s assets.”

Noting that, within the complicated structure of the mostly stock $43 billion deal, it’s actually AT&T shareholders who are buying Discovery, Diller said WarnerMedia will ultimately be better managed under Zaslav. 

“It’s certainly in better hands,” he said. “How could it be in worse hands?"

Diller called Zaslav "scrappy" and noted that he built Discovery into "something from nothing.

"He’s exactly the right person to try to develop [WarnerMedia],” Diller said.

AT&T stock rebounded Friday after dropping nearly 14% earlier in the week.