NEWPORT NEWS, VA - SEPTEMBER 25: A reporter with One America News Network works at a campaign rally ...
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A new report uncovers how AT&T is propping up the ultra-conservative One America News Network.

Impact
Thanks, AT&T, for adding to our misinformation hellscape

One America News Network (OANN), the premier cable news outlet for people who think Fox News is a deep state operation, spent years largely toiling in obscurity and engaging in conspiracy theories until it finally caught on during the Donald Trump era, because of course. But how exactly did a news network that no one was watching survive long enough to propel itself to relevancy and become the go-to source for anti-vaccine nonsense and election fraud conspiracies pushed by a pillow salesman? Why, with a little help from America’s largest communications company, of course!

According to a new report from Reuters, telecom giant AT&T has served as both the inspiration for OANN’s beginnings and its primary financial life raft. In a deposition obtained by Reuters, the far-right news network’s founder and chief executive Robert Herring Sr. said that OANN came to be because executives at AT&T told him “they wanted a conservative network,” because they only had Fox News filling that niche. “When they said that, I jumped to it and built one,” Herring said. An accountant for Herring also claimed under oath that without a deal to be on AT&T’s TV offerings, OANN’s value “would be zero.”

That conversation with unnamed AT&T executives resulted in the launch of OANN in July 2013. But AT&T wasn’t satisfied with just planting the seeds of the far-right news network — the company also played a significant role in helping nurture and grow that seedling into Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors. According to Reuters, AT&T proposed buying a 5% stake of Herring Networks, the parent company of OANN, just months after it launched the news network that AT&T not-so-subtly asked for. That deal fell through, but AT&T found another way to prop up the conspiracy hub: a traditional cable agreement that paid Herring Networks 18 cents per subscriber to put OANN on its U-Verse cable subscription package.

While this may seem like a simple story of supply and demand — AT&T asked for a conservative news network and Herring provided — it’s actually a more symbiotic relationship. Shortly after AT&T added OANN to its cable lineup, the company announced plans to acquire the satellite TV service DirecTV. According to Reuters, an AT&T executive asked Herring to lobby on AT&T’s behalf in order to push federal regulators to approve the deal, in exchange for getting Herring Networks channels including OANN to the much larger and more lucrative audience DirecTV offered. Herring jumped at the opportunity, launching a lobbying campaign to support AT&T and even offering air time to the corporation to provide positive coverage for the merger.

AT&T reportedly denied such an arrangement and the corporation downplayed OANN’s influence at the time. But eventually, OANN did find its way to DirecTV. That basically saved the network from shriveling up and dying. According to an OANN accountant who testified about the financial state of the network, 90% of OAN’s revenue came from AT&T platforms. That has given the network real value: In 2020, Trump-aligned investors tried to buy the far-right news network for $250 million. If not for the AT&T agreements, the network would have been worth next to nothing.

AT&T’s tacit support of the right-wing news channel shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. The communications giant has been called “the most Republican of any publicly traded company,” and it happily sucked up to Trump during his presidency in hopes of getting its acquisition of Time Warner approved (which it eventually was), going so far as to hire Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen to curry favor. AT&T has also given hundreds of thousands of dollars to far-right political candidates, including politicians who pushed anti-abortion legislation and opposed laws designed to provide protection to members of the LGBTQ+ community.

The saddest part — or at least the most cynical — of AT&T’s quiet funding of OANN, far-right politicians, and super conservative legislation is that it probably doesn’t even come from a place of true belief in those causes. It comes from profit motive. Backing these politicians helps AT&T skirt regulation and anti-trust scrutiny. Having a far-right news network lets AT&T rack up subscribers seeking a channel that feeds their conspiratorial tendencies. And it all lets AT&T increase its bottom line.