AT&T allegedly played a pivotal role in the creation of One America News Network (OAN), a right-wing outlet frequently criticized for spreading false news stories, according to a Reuters report. Based on court documents and other sources, Reuters recounts the telecom giant’s executives telling OAN creator Robert Herring Sr. that they wanted a conservative outlet that could sit alongside Fox News and balance out more liberal channels.
“They told us they wanted a conservative network,” Herring reportedly said in a 2019 court deposition. “When they said that, I jumped to it and built one.”
Reuters’ story draws on records from the companies’ tumultuous legal history, including an OAN complaint against AT&T and a retaliation lawsuit filed against OAN by a former producer. The report, disputed by AT&T in statements to Reuters, details a close relationship between the two companies that goes well beyond a simple carriage agreement.
Although OAN is carried by multiple cable services, a company accountant testified last year that AT&T provided 90 percent of Herring Networks’ income. If the channel had lost a carriage deal with then-AT&T subsidiary DirecTV, an OAN lawyer told the court, “the company would go out of business tomorrow.”
AT&T objected to the reports. “DirecTV offers its customers a wide variety of programming, including many news channels that offer viewpoints across the political spectrum, but does not dictate or control programming on the channels. Any suggestion otherwise is wrong,” a spokesperson said.
AT&T later posted a longer statement on Twitter. “AT&T has never had a financial interest in OAN’s success and does not ‘fund’ OAN,” it reads in part. “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.” The statement says that future decisions about carrying OAN will be made by DirecTV, which was spun off from AT&T earlier this year.
AT&T originally picked up OAN — alongside Herring’s then-struggling luxury channel WealthTV — for its online U-verse platform. It reportedly made a never-completed offer to acquire a 5 percent stake in the company, and when AT&T announced plans to buy DirecTV in 2014, OAN court testimony claims that AT&T executive Aaron Slator offered to put the network on DirecTV in exchange for help with lobbying government regulators.
The Herrings allegedly met with Federal Communications Commission officials to discuss the merger and also offered to “cast a positive light” on AT&T in news coverage. (AT&T told Reuters and the court that it never made such an offer, and it turned DirecTV into a separate company earlier this year, although it retains a majority stake.) OAN later sued the telecom for breaking its alleged deal, and following a settlement, AT&T added OAN to its DirecTV lineup.
OAN garnered widespread attention in 2017 for earning the approval of former President Donald Trump. But over the past year it’s become better known for promoting false information about COVID-19 and the 2020 presidential election, including claims that have drawn a defamation lawsuit from voting machine company Dominion. Online platforms like YouTube have faced pressure to demonetize or remove OAN’s content, something YouTube did briefly in late 2020. So far, AT&T has faced less public scrutiny — even though it may have played a much larger part in supporting OAN’s growth.