AT&T and the Demon Spawn of OAN

How the telecom and content giant spawned Trump's favorite propaganda network.
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Reuters just published a fascinating special report about the role AT&T played in creating OAN, the far-right cable news network which has basically operated as a propaganda mill for Trumpite conspiracy theories. Just yesterday we learned that one of its lead “reporters,” Christina Bobb, worked for the Trump campaign while simultaneously working for OAN. That’s the kind of operation.

So is AT&T a far-right company trying to push Trumpism?

Well, we don’t know for sure. Reuters was able to piece together the story mostly from depositions in unrelated or tangentially related lawsuits. So we appear to have pretty solid confirmation of certain facts but we have to infer the different players’ motivations.

Here are the basics. I will try to fill in some of the blanks from my own understanding of the telecommunications world.

Basically, OAN’s whole operation has been funded by a series of carriage deals with AT&T. Basically it runs on AT&T’s cable TV operations, and particularly DirectTV, which AT&T acquired in 2015. A critical backstory is AT&T’s decade long effort to become a big time player in cable and eventually the post-cable cord-cutting world – an effort that culminated in the vast and most failed acquisition of Time Warner in 2018. Basically, without the AT&T deal OAN wouldn’t exist. That was the upshot of OAN owner Robert Herring Sr’s testimony in one lawsuit. That at least was the state of play before OAN got a new levels of viewership when Trump turned on Fox News because Fox – more or less – refused to fully validate the Big Lie.

But where it gets really interesting is in other testimony where Herring explained that he got the idea for OAN from AT&T executives.

Here a bit more backstory is necessary. Herring and his son made big money in the semiconductor business and then for a while they’d been trying to get into cable programming as independents. They weren’t having much luck. They had a lifestyles of the rich and famous type channel and they were into boxing content too. But basically they weren’t going anywhere. They even sued the big cable companies for spots on their channel lists but the suit failed and if anything that left them worse off because now the cable companies kind of hated them. But then in the course of some meetings with AT&T execs some unnamed execs said they’d be eager to carry another conservative network.

Let me quote here …

“They told us they wanted a conservative network,” Herring said during a 2019 deposition seen 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.”

Since then, AT&T has been a crucial source of funds flowing into OAN, 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.

And then later …

In a pivotal moment for the company, the Herrings say in court filings, depositions and sworn statements, unidentified AT&T executives told them there was an audience for another conservative news network. Herring seized the opportunity.

In his 2019 deposition in the labor suit unrelated to AT&T, the elder Herring said he created OAN for two reasons.

“To make money, number one,” Robert Herring said. “But number two, is that AT&T told us … they wanted a conservative network.”

The lawyer questioning Herring, Rodney Diggs, followed up.

“So,” the lawyer said, “AT&T kind of dictated the kind of network that they wanted. Because there was an opportunity, you jumped at it?”

“Yes, sir,” Herring replied.

In other words, the Herrings had been trying to break into the cable network world and failing. Then someone at AT&T said forgot your rich lifestyles channel, this is what we want: another conservative news channel. We’ll put that on our list.

Now, we should first note that the nature of the litigation gave Herring some interest in playing up AT&T’s role. But that doesn’t mean it’s not true. And the rest of the information in the article strongly backs up this basic version of what happened.

Why would AT&T want to do this?

One obvious reason would be that the executives were rightwingers and wanted to fund another right wing news network. Here we don’t really know who the executives were and they probably wouldn’t be forthcoming anyway. So that part of this is a bit of a black box. But later one of part of deal seemed to be that AT&T needing lobbying help tied to AT&T’s acquisition of DirectTV. AT&T denies this and points not implausibly to the fact that this was under Obama and lobbying from the wingnuts at OAN wasn’t likely to sway Obama regulators.

The Herrings may be making the understanding more explicit than the AT&T execs wanted to make it. But in general it seems pretty clear this happened. And in any case, the calculus and economy of political influence especially on the right is much more complex than whoever happens at the moment to control the White House.

What we seem to see here is that regardless of personal politics AT&T was operating in and expanding in one of the most regulatory-dependent industry spaces – telecom, cable TV, internet service, content – and they wanted more conservative programming because that helps get regulatory help. You can see in the descriptions above the unnamed executives appear to have been operating on the idea that CNN, CNBC and basically any network that’s not Fox News is “liberal”. That’s a pretty standard way corporate suits think in part because they’re corporate suits. But it’s also the way they have to operate in the regulatory space because that’s how Republican officeholders think and it’s how Republicans in general increasingly think.

I know this in part just because I’m a reporter and I’m paid to understand American political culture. But I’m also a publisher and for many years I spent a lot of time needing to understand and operate in the Washington, DC/political news publishing space. That’s a much more concentrated form of the space that these big corporations function in. Or to put it more directly, it’s a space where politics and these big corporations meet up.

In any case, in that world it’s very cookie cutter. You line up publications to advertise with …. and, well, we need a couple conservative publications for ‘balance’. That’s even if the ‘liberal’ publications are like The Washington Post and Politico. There’s a whole niche of right wing publications that survive or actually thrive on the basis of allowing corporations to check that box. Now some of these publications have decent sized audiences. And the politics of the corporations themselves, or rather the executives, play an important role. But this covering both-sides dynamic is the biggest and broadest driver.

As I said, there’s a lot we don’t know here. It’s possible the idea of getting another right-wing news network off the ground was the pet project of some AT&T executives for purely ideological reasons. But even if it was a driver I’m pretty sure these other factors played an important role. What is most interesting is how the high-powered corporate battle over control of the commanding heights of Internet provision and cable content distribution sort of spawned the bastard child/demon spawn of OAN. The AT&T execs may have thought there was just a good business opportunity as well. But the point is that that battle had essentially created OAN more or less viewerless and it was ready when Trump – who only really got into politics after AT&T pitched the OAN concept – needed it.

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