AT&T executives should be held accountable for playing a key role in helping to build the far-right conspiracy channel One America News (OAN).
AT&T played a key role in creating and funding OAN, according to court documents reviewed by Reuters and CNN.
The court documents were first reported by Reuters in an in-depth story detailing how AT&T “helped build" the channel.
Reuters reported that in addition to founding OAN, AT&T remains a crucial revenue stream for the network.
An OAN official said in sworn testimony that 90% of the channel’s revenue is from AT&T-owned platforms. AT&T is also OAN’s largest television distributor.
OAN founder and chief executive Robert Herring has testified that the inspiration to launch OAN in 2013 came from AT&T executives.
“They told us they wanted a conservative network,” Herring said during a 2019 deposition reviewed by Reuters. “They only had one, which was Fox News, and they had seven others on the other [leftwing] side. When they said that, I jumped to it and built one,” said Herring.
AT&T has been providing tens of millions of dollars in revenue, court records show. Ninety percent of OAN’s revenue came from a contract with AT&T-owned television platforms, including satellite broadcaster DirecTV, according to 2020 sworn testimony by an OAN accountant.
Herring has testified he was offered $250 million for OAN in 2019. Without the DirecTV deal, the accountant said under oath, the network’s value “would be zero.”
AT&T issued a statement saying it has “never had a financial interest in OAN's success and does not 'fund' OAN.”
AT&T’s statement is contradicted by court documents.
In court filings Herring cited monthly fees included in one five-year deal with AT&T. According to an AT&T filing citing Herring’s numbers, those fees would total about $57 million.
The state and federal court documents reviewed by Reuters detail a lucrative relationship for OAN with AT&T.
The confidential OAN financial records are drawn in part from testimony, including by Herring and the accountant, generated during a labor lawsuit brought against OAN by a former employee and unrelated to AT&T. When that case went to trial last year, the network’s lawyer told the jury that AT&T was keeping OAN afloat.
“If Herring Networks, for instance, was to lose or not be renewed on DirecTV, the company would go out of business tomorrow,” OAN lawyer Patrick Nellies told the court, a transcript shows.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said the births of Fox News and OAN share common threads: money and opportunity. She noted that the late Republican operative Roger Ailes had the foresight in the 1990s to recommend that Fox create a conservative news network.
“If somebody recognizes there’s a market for something and there’s a lot of money attached to that market, you get a news outlet,” Jamieson said. “So this is AT&T playing the Roger Ailes role.”
OAN has become a favorite of former President Trump and his supporters.
“Hope everybody is watching @OANN right now,” Trump tweeted on December 1, citing a dubious report about a truck carrying more than 100,000 fake ballots. “Other media afraid to show.”
Records show many of the network broadcast statements and theories were proven false.
YouTube suspended OAN from making money off its YouTube channel last year for repeatedly violating its COVID-19 policy, which prohibits content claiming there’s a guaranteed cure. OAN touts hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug promoted by Trump, without scientific evidence, as a cure for COVID.
During last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, OAN aired an unconfirmed report that an elderly demonstrator in Buffalo, New York, who was knocked down and seriously injured by police was trying to jam the cops’ radios.
On Jan. 6, after Trump supporters broke into the U.S. Capitol, an OAN news director cautioned staff via email, “Please DO NOT say ‘Trump Supporters Storm Capitol …’ Simply call them demonstrators or protestors … DO NOT CALL IT A RIOT!!!”
A day later, Herring suggested the riot might be a false-flag operation by the left-wing antifa movement. “We want to report all the things Antifa did yesterday. I don’t think it was Trump people but lets investigate,” he emailed OAN producers. The Federal Bureau of Investigation says there is no evidence of antifa involvement in the riot.
The day after the riot, Herring tweeted: “If anyone thinks we will throw the best President America has had, in my 79 years, under the bus, you are wrong. We will continue to give him honest coverage.”
His network went on to support Trump in an highly unethical way: OAN allowed two reporters to raise $605,000 to help fund a “private” audit of the presidential vote in Arizona, despite Republican officials’ assurances that Biden won the state. According to an OAN executive, they did so with the network’s blessing.
OAN reporter, Christina Bobb worked part-time for the Trump recount legal team, according to a recent deposition by Trump’s then-lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani. An OAN executive confirmed the arrangement.
Five former OAN producers said in interviews that they found the practice of reporters raising funds for events they cover unethical, but said OAN’s move did not surprise them.
“If there was any story involving Trump, we had to only focus on either the positive information or basically create positive information,” said Marissa Gonzales, an OAN producer from 2019 until she resigned in 2020. “It was never, never the full truth.”
AT&T should be held accountable for playing a key role in building up OAN and for the right-wing network spreading of conspiracy theories about the 2020 election and the COVID-19 pandemic.