Telecoms have long been accused of trying to skew politics, but a new report suggests AT&T might have gone further than most. According to The Verge, Reuters reports that AT&T is a major backer for One America News Network (OAN), a right-wing media outlet YouTube temporarily banned last November for spreading misinformation. While multiple TV providers carry the channel, an OAN accountant testified in 2020 that 90 percent of OAN parent Herring Networks’ revenue, tens of millions of dollars, came through deals with AT&T-owned platforms that included DirecTV.
OAN founder Robert Herring separately testified that AT&T executives inspired him to launch the network in 2013 after looking at a media landscape with relatively few conservative outlets. Court documents also indicated that AT&T offered to buy a 5 percent equity stake in OAN and Herring’s lifestyle channel AWE, although the two ended up choosing a different agreement.
OAN even claimed that one AT&T executive, Aaron Slator, offered to put the channel on DirecTV in return for help lobbying for the satellite broadcaster’s 2014 merger. The Herring family also supposedly met FCC officials to talk about the merger and speak well of AT&T in news stories. AT&T has denied making the offer linked to Slator, and an OAN lawsuit alleging a breach of that deal supposedly led to AT&T adding OAN to DirecTV’s selection.
AT&T rejected claims of undue influence in responses to Reuters and The Verge. The carrier maintained that DirecTV “does not dictate” channel programming, and that DirecTV merger support was “never a condition of or part of” any content carriage agreement. In a Twitter statement, AT&T maintained it “never had a financial interest” in OAN and that the decision to carry the network was now in DirecTV’s hands.
The concern, as you might imagine, is that AT&T may have contributed to the spread of misinformation without being held to account like online providers and other companies. On top of YouTube suspending OAN following a violation of COVID-19 misinformation rules, voting machine maker Dominion sued the network in August this year over unproven claims of election fraud. If the report is accurate, there could easily be pressure on AT&T to distance itself from OAN and focus more on its core services than politics.