AT&T wanted OAN to compete with Fox News. It worked too well.
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AT&T wanted OAN to compete with Fox News. It worked too well.

In trying to pay less in fees to Fox, the communications giant helped empower a monster.
Photo illustration: A TV microphone has the One America News Network logo on one side and the AT&T logo on the other.
The archconservative network depends on AT&T to survive.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

The headline from Reuters — “How AT&T helped build far-right One America News” — is alarming enough. A major corporation, the biggest communications company in the world, has subsidized and is continuing to subsidize propagandists who amplified harmful false facts about Covid-19 and the 2020 presidential election.

The why is a little hard to understand, unless you think like a cable news executive who ultimately wants to maximize profits. We know it’s not because AT&T executives can’t get enough of OAN hosts like Elma Aksalic.

Follow me here: When the telecom giant bought DirecTV in 2015, it did so at a time the satellite TV company didn’t want to allow OAN carriage on its system, the company said. What this essentially means is that OAN wanted to charge AT&T a lot of money in exchange for carrying its programming, and AT&T said it wouldn’t pay the price. OAN sued.

Then, AT&T had a change of heart: Not only would it put OAN on its menu of DirecTV channels, it would also provide what amounts to a subsidy for the network to the tune of tens of millions of dollars — $57 million in monthly fees over five years, Reuters reported. As it turns out, no one wants to advertise on OAN except for maybe the MyPillow guy and a few others, and OAN obtained 90 percent of its revenue from the AT&T deal.

OAN’s antidemocratic impulses helped propel its visibility to new heights after the 2020 election.

This metamorphosis from “We don’t believe you have any value” to “Please, please, let us pay you to produce whatever type of content you’d like” took about a half-decade, the midpoint of which was the presidential election of Donald Trump. It's a reflection of AT&T’s realization that right-wing eyeballs mean big money. But OAN’s viewership was — and is — fairly small. (It won’t disclose its actual ratings.) So why would AT&T even care?

For one thing, Reuters reported that AT&T got help from OAN’s founder, Robert Herring Sr., who said he promised to publicly support the merger plans with DirecTV. His son, Charles, later met with the FCC and provided other helpful nudges to the regulators. (AT&T denies that the Herrings played a role here.)

Herring claimed that AT&T craved conservative money and wanted a second conservative network, too. Well, there’s more to this. Cable providers combined pay billions of dollars for Fox News, and over time, AT&T wants to negotiate a lower price. OAN’s presence can be used as leverage. Most OAN viewers also watch Fox.OAN is like a second or third sports network that’s used to negotiate a lower carriage for ESPN, which in 2017 cost multichannel video program distributors such as your cable company around $9 per person per month.

OAN is cheap, compared to the amount of money AT&T — and Comcast (which owns NBCUniversal, which owns MSNBC) and Spectrum cable — pay to the Fox Corporation for its news product. We don’t know exactly how much these deals are worth because they’re proprietary.

What’s so bad about that?

Well, OAN, like many purveyors of grift masquerading as journalists, amplifies content for profit. Sometimes the content is anodyne. Often it is misinformation, false facts. Just as often, those false facts are harmful.

On Wednesday, OAN’s website had an interview featuring a “Pfizer whistleblower” telling the discredited Project Veritas gadfly James O’Keefe that natural immunity — that is, a body’s immune response to Covid — is superior to immunity conferred by a Covid vaccine. To be clear: For those who survive Covid without long-haul symptoms, natural immunity can be powerful. But 700,000 Americans don’t have access to either type of immunity because they’re dead. Of Covid. Which is a potent argument in favor of vaccines that significantly reduce the chances of dying or getting very sick.

There is no reason — none at all — for a news organization to trumpet a claim like this, because it adds nothing to the debate: Doctors understand that most people who get Covid automatically train their immune systems to fight it. That’s basic science. The point of this segment seemed to be to convince people to not get the vaccination because, if they get Covid, their subsequent natural immunity will prevent them from getting Covid again. There is no logic to that argument; if you can take something relatively safe (as vaccines are) that will protect you from severe illness and death, then you should take that thing. Trying to persuade people otherwise is gaslighting. It is bad faith.

OAN’s antidemocratic impulses helped propel its visibility to new heights after the 2020 election, and it was a prime source of harmful misinformation about the elections. By antidemocratic, I mean this: The company’s founder instructed his staff to blame the Jan. 6 insurrection on antifa, according to Reuters.

So: AT&T should refuse to carry OAN because it’s harmful. I’m OK with that.

But then, to be fair, we need to look at all the cable systems that pay Fox a lot more for Tucker Carlson’s false health facts — which get amplified well beyond anything OAN might ever produce — and make the case that the entire system denies consumers choices and subsidizes toxic content.