By Drew FitzGerald and Keach Hagey
21st Century Fox Inc. Executive Chairman Rupert Murdoch called AT&T Inc. boss Randall Stephenson twice this year to gauge the telecom CEO's interest in selling CNN should it complete its acquisition of Time Warner Inc., the cable network's parent company, according to people familiar with the conversations.
The phone calls, one in May and a second in August, came as AT&T was working through the regulatory approvals needed to close its $85-billion takeover of Time Warner, a deal that is still pending.
Mr. Murdoch didn't offer to buy CNN, two people familiar with the calls say. Other people familiar with the calls said Mr. Murdoch did mention buying CNN and Mr. Stephenson conveyed both times that he wasn't interested in selling the cable news channel. The calls were first reported by Reuters.
CNN has been a sensitive topic for AT&T as the telecom company seeks Justice Department approval to buy Time Warner, which also owns HBO and the Warner Bros. film studios. President Donald Trump has often criticized the channel's coverage of him. The White House has said it hasn't pressured Justice Department antitrust enforcers in any way regarding the purchase.
Mr. Stephenson said at a business conference Thursday that he had no interest in selling CNN and no reason to suspect the Trump administration was meddling with the department's work on the deal.
Mr. Stephenson said the news channel had attracted interest from others outside the department. "I have been called and asked if I would sell CNN by numerous people not in the Department of Justice," he said. "There have been a lot of people [who] express interest in CNN."
The Justice Department has raised the prospect with AT&T that it divest one of two assets to get clearance for the merger, people familiar with the negotiations have said: CNN parent Turner, which also includes cable networks such as TBS and TNT; or AT&T's DirecTV satellite TV unit.
21st Century Fox and Wall Street Journal parent News Corp share common ownership.
--Lukas I. Alpert contributed to this article.