That eye-opening news, which met with pushback from the telecom giant, was reported in an investigative piece by Reuters. The news agency reviewed court records and came away with a number of stunning financial details and connections that had not previously been reported.
Robert Herring Sr., the 80-year-old founder of OAN who made his fortune in the circuit board industry, testified in a 2019 legal deposition that the decision to launch the network in 2013 was prompted by AT&T. “They told us they wanted a conservative network,” Herring said, according to the report. “They only had one, which was Fox News, and they had seven others on the other [left-wing] side. When they said that, I jumped to it and built one.”
Tens of millions in revenue have come in from distribution deals with DirecTV, which AT&T owned from 2015 until a spinoff was completed earlier this year, the report said. (In 2013, the company was a participant in pay-TV space via its U-verse cable operation.) The company still has a 70% stake in DirecTV, but the satellite operator is now controlled by a separate entity with private equity backing.
In a statement provided to Deadline, AT&T said it has “never had a financial interest in OAN’s success and does not ‘fund’ OAN. When AT&T acquired DirecTV, we refused to carry OAN on that platform, and OAN sued DirecTV as a result. Four years ago, DirecTV reached a commercial carriage agreement with OAN, as it has with hundreds of other channels and as OAN has done with the other TV providers that carry its programming.” The statement went on to emphasize that DirecTV “does not dictate or control programming on the channels. Any suggestion otherwise is wrong.”
In the Reuters piece, AT&T spokesman Jim Greer disputed the characterization of AT&T playing a quasi-Roger Ailes role, staking a startup news outlet with an explicit political objective. He declined to address any of the financials revealed in the court testimony, but said AT&T seeks to offer “viewpoints from across the political spectrum” to its customers.
Herring said he was offered $250 million for OAN (an overture that did not result in a deal), and his accountant testified under oath that without the DirecTV deal and AT&T’s support, OAN’s value would be “zero.”
OAN remains a fraction of the size of major cable news rivals, but it gained notable traction by embracing a tighter, more reliable version of the feedback loop that existed for years between Trump and Fox News. Before his Twitter account was permanently banned, the former president tweeted promotions of OAN more than 120 times during his last two years in office, by Reuters’ estimate. Chanel Rion, the network’s White House correspondent, became so closely associated with the media atmosphere around Trump that she made for a ripe on-screen satirical target for Sascha Baron Cohen in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.
Like NewsMax and some other right-wing outlets, OAN also benefited after last November’s election, as Fox News experienced a backlash after it called the election for Joe Biden. OAN has been among the staunchest supporters of lies propagated by Trump and other Republicans about election fraud in 2020.
The link between AT&T and OAN is especially striking in the context of the longstanding acrimony between Trump and CNN. That bad blood reportedly drove the 11th-hour decision by the Department of Justice to sue AT&T to try to block its acquisition of Time Warner. Antitrust regulators have always insisted that the case was about consumer protection and monopoly concerns, rather than any personal agenda. The federal judge who heard the case took the Trump element off the table, barring evidence and testimony that would seek to establish the former president’s potential motive. An article by The New Yorker‘s Jane Mayer in 2019 established the connection between Trump’s animus toward CNN and the antitrust case, however.
While AT&T stood by CNN and made good on its promises not to sell it off or remove it from the $85 billion Time Warner deal, all through the merger period it was backing a far-right competitor, Reuters found. Today, AT&T is in the process of sending CNN parent WarnerMedia off to a new stand-alone entity via a $43 billion merger with Discovery. The company will retain a sizable stake, but Discovery will be at the controls.
The right-wing network situation isn’t AT&T’s first political tangle of the week. On Monday, the Dallas-based company’s support for lawmakers who support the state’s strict new law limiting abortion, came under fire from the Democratic super PAC.
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