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Political donations from AT&T, deal with OAN lead to culture wars

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During the Donald Trump era, AT&T suffered repeated gunshots from the President for his acquisition and ownership of CNN – the cable news station he and his supporters regularly referred to as “fake news”.

Less than a year after the changing of the guard at the White House, the telecommunications giant from Dallas is back in the crosshairs of the political culture war. This time around, it is Democratic and moderate Republican activists who aim to provide financial support for burgeoning right-wing extremism in the United States

The anger arises from newly surfaced court testimonies and records suggesting that the right-wing broadcaster One America News Network would not exist without the support of AT&T.

A week after the simmering controversy, the only public comment from AT&T is a prepared statement to the Dallas Morning News.

“AT&T has never had a financial interest in the success of OAN and does not ‘finance’ OAN,” the statement said in part. “CNN is the only news network we’re funding because it’s part of AT&T.”

For a company that traces its history back to Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone in 1876, this is an inconvenient spotlight that has only expanded since the OAN unveiled.

  • Progressive PAC American Bridge, co-chaired by former Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards, urged AT&T to take a stand against Texas’s restrictive new abortion law.
  • Anti-Trump Republican PAC The Lincoln Project describes the company as a supporter of white nationalism and calls for a boycott. The group has a wide reach: it has more than 2.7 million Twitter followers and 785,000 YouTube channel subscribers.
  • NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson said the organization was “sickening” from the revelations about AT&T and OAN. The Congressional Black Caucus criticized AT & T’s reported support for OAN as “in direct contrast to its claims to accept and value diversity, equity and inclusion”.
  • John Oliver, who hosts Last Week Tonight on HBO owned by AT&T, criticized the company, saying, “You do bad things and make the world worse.”

In the week following the Reuters report, the hashtag #BoycottATT – mostly used by democratic political organizations – reached 2.5 million users across hundreds of posts on Twitter, Instagram and other platforms, according to social media research firm Brandmentions.

OAN, Robert Herring Sr.’s cable network, has received frequent praise from Trump for its admiring coverage of his presidency. It has also been accused of spreading conspiracy theories, exposing lies about the outcome of the 2020 election and the COVID-19 pandemic that killed 722,000 Americans. In June, OAN anchor Pearson Sharp falsely claimed that the Democrats stole Trump’s election and suggested executing those responsible.

The OAN controversy is rooted in AT & T’s strategic shift into the media world.

In the mid-2010s, the company entered into a series of deals aimed at transforming its business from a company that simply controls wired and wireless infrastructure into a “modern media company” that delivers entertainment and news content to consumers.

That played out during Randall Stephenson’s tenure as CEO. Now his successor, John Stankey, has the task of clearing up the billion dollar deals that brought the satellite cable provider DirecTV and Time Warner under its corporate roof and returning the company to its telecommunications roots.

The Reuters report, titled “How AT&T Helped Build Right-Wing One America News,” quotes OAN owner Herring’s 2019 testimony in a lawsuit unrelated to AT&T. He said AT & T’s executives were the inspiration behind the network’s creation in 2013.

“They only had one, which is Fox News, and they had seven others on the other” [left wing] Page “, said Herring according to the report in a judicial statement.

OAN was broadcast on AT & T’s U-Verse TV service when the company, poised to move into the media world on a larger scale, announced its intention to acquire DirecTV. Herring sued concerns that AT&T would migrate its U-Verse customers to DirecTV, which did not carry an OAN.

AT&T eventually reached an agreement with OAN. Herring said the deal raised tens of millions of dollars over a five-year period to OAN and a sizeable platform on DirecTV for the nascent network to reach US households.

The fees earned from OAN’s contract with AT & T’s own television platforms provide the network with 90% of its revenue, according to Reuters, citing affidavits from OAN’s accountant.

Shortly after the network launched, AT&T even attempted to buy a 5% stake in Herring’s company, Reuters found.

“Basically, AT&T came to them then and formed a really serious business partnership,” said Angelo Carusone, CEO of progressive media surveillance group Media Matters, on MSNBC.

“Maybe part of the company was invested and bought, but the more tempting thing was to say, ‘We guarantee you enough income to get even if you don’t get commercials, even if you have almost no viewers. Still be a profitable one Company for as long as you exist and make this deal. ‘”

In its statement, AT&T downplayed its role in strengthening the network.

“When we took over DirecTV, Herring put us under pressure for months to take over OAN. We declined their offer, and in response, Herring Networks sued us, alleging that we intentionally intended to harm Herring. It was only in the context of the settlement of this lawsuit that DirecTV approved a commercial transport contract with OAN four years ago. “

But the fees that OAN were obliged to pay as part of the transport business would have been about 18 times the market value at the time, said Carusone, describing it as “outrageously high”. Reuters describes the relationship with AT&T as “lucrative” for OAN.

AT&T wasn’t the only one who wanted to be part of the network.

Roughly 10 months before the 2020 elections, the growing role of OAN in far-right political circles caught the interest of conservatives across the country.

Led by a Dallas-based private equity arm of Hicks Holdings – the Dallas Family Office of Tom Hicks, father of Republican National Committee co-chair Tommy Hicks Jr. – Hicks Equity Partners was keen to submit an offer for the Submit network. That deal never came off.

Marc Ambinder, Senior Fellow at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center for Communication Leadership and Policy, described AT & T’s agreement to carry the network as “a reflection of AT & T’s realization that right eyeballs are big bucks”.

Speaking for the first time on Friday, Herring described Reuters’ investigation as a “biased hit” and denied OAN’s own accountant testimony that AT & T’s transportation fees account for 90% of the company’s funding.

“I wish it was [true]“He said in an interview with his network. “AT&T pays us a very small amount compared to other channels. … We get enough to live on. “

Herring said AT&T never told the network what to send.

“All the people on the other side … they’re all trying to get rid of us,” said Herring. “We are making some changes in America and we will continue to do so.”

AT&T sold its media holdings under new CEO John Stankey.  It retained a 70 percent stake in DirecTV.AT&T sold its media holdings under new CEO John Stankey. It retained a 70 percent stake in DirecTV.(Andrew Burton – Getty Images)

In August, AT&T closed a deal to outsource its TV and streaming businesses, including DirecTV, to a separate company that it will jointly manage with private equity group TPG Capital. AT&T said the new company will be overseen by its “own board of directors,” on which AT&T has non-controlling and equal representation with TPG.

“The decision as to whether the OAN contract will be extended after it expires rests with DirecTV, which is now a separate, independent company outside of AT&T,” it said in its statement. AT&T retained a 70 percent stake in DirecTV.

But with a controversial Texas legislature continuing to push new laws, like those restricting the rights of LGBTQ Texans, pressure on AT&T could remain.

AT&T responded to its critics in response to the restrictive new abortion laws in Texas by stating that it “never took a position on the subject of abortion”.

“AT&T has neither endorsed nor supported the passage of Senate Law 8 in the Texan legislature. AT & T’s political action committees have never based their contribution decisions on a legislature’s positions on abortion, and PAC contributions from staff to Texan lawmakers have gone to both opponents and supporters of Senate Bill 8, ”the company said in the statement.

But activists believe that one of Texas’s greatest corporate citizens should take a stand on abortion and other issues. The non-partisan watchdog group Accountable.US urged AT&T to “stand by their declared public values” and condemn the partisan redistribution by the Republicans in Texas.

“Silence at this point is complicity. Especially in a state where they have their headquarters, ”said Julie McClain-Downey, vice president of strategic communications for American Bridge.

AT & T's headquarters in downtown Dallas.

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