Janine Jackson interviewed Media Matters’ Bobby Lewis about AT&T and OAN for the October 15, 2021, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: Corporate owners tend to be conservative, we know. We know they support causes and projects, including media outlets, that further their goals. CBS and Viacom head Sumner Redstone told Time magazine, back in 2004, “I do believe that a Republican administration is better for media companies than a Democratic one.”
But the relationship between AT&T and far-right network One America News is different. As revealed in a blockbuster Reuters report by John Shiffman, the inspiration for the network that now espouses the notion that Donald Trump won the 2020 election, among other things, came directly from AT&T executives. “They told us they wanted a conservative network,” OAN founder Robert Herring stated in a deposition Reuters saw. “When they said that, I jumped to it and built one.”
Unpeeling how that happened and why we don’t know that’s how it happened and how it’s sustained, all of that is a lesson in the differences between corporate news media and journalism. As well as the fallacy that because something is on your TV, that means that it’s passed some sort of public interest, public integrity test.
Our next guest has been tracking OAN for some time. Bobby Lewis is editorial writer and researcher for the group Media Matters. He joins us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome to CounterSpin, Bobby Lewis.
Bobby Lewis: Hi. Thank you for having me. Glad to be here.
JJ: The revelation is the deal between AT&T and OAN. But first, for those listeners who have maintained a blissful ignorance of OAN, can you just first give us a sense of the flavor, if you will, of this network? What’s the kind of content that one can expect when they turn on OAN?
BL: I think a good way to put it is a lot of people are familiar with, say, Fox News, that may not be familiar with OAN. And OAN feels very similar but very different from Fox. Obviously, as two conservative news networks, they cover similar topics from similar viewpoints. But OAN seems more eager to proudly embrace the cringiest, most obviously nonsense positions that, especially in the latter years of the Trump era, Fox decided to quietly ignore.
One big example of this is the My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell. He’s been on a whole thing for months about how the election was stolen from Trump. And he has been very angry with Fox News that they won’t give him any time of day. OAN, however, has broadcast hours upon hours of his different events and documentaries and cyber symposiums. I think a good way to think of OAN is kind of like Fox, but more out there, more daring with the lies that it will serve as truth.
JJ: What do we learn from this Reuters story about the relationship between OAN and AT&T, which is this very sort of bread-and-butter institution, as folks might think about it? Besides phone and internet, AT&T also owns Warner Media, which means HBO and CNN, among others, as well as DirecTV. Tell the story. What is the revelation about the relationship between OAN and AT&T?
BL: The big revelation is really the one you started with, that AT&T played an integral role in OAN’s very founding. There isn’t all that much reporting on One America News itself out there. There’s been more of it in the recent months. But it had been known for a while that the channel founder, Robert Herring, essentially founded it to make money. He’s never been particularly quiet about that aspect.
But the Reuters article, revealing that the spark of inspiration for OAN and its right-wing bent came from a meeting with AT&T executives—in a sense, it basically shows that AT&T asked for this. Obviously, the media giant probably doesn’t assert control over day-to-day and hour-to-hour operations at OAN. But they asked for a conservative news channel. In the competitive market that exists, a conservative news channel is going to come out looking a lot like One America News.
There were also some good details in that Reuters report that you could get a feel that something like that was true, but we didn’t exactly know, for instance, that as recently as 2020, AT&T provided about 90% of OAN’s revenues, presumably through all the carrier fees with DirecTV and, to a lesser extent, U-verse. That was another huge thing to learn. It really cements how involved AT&T is with the history and the continued existence of this network, even though the company is consistently trying to distance itself from OAN.
JJ: We know this, at least in part, due to an unlawful firing lawsuit. A jury found that OAN had wrongly fired a producer for filing a racial complaint. And then when it got to punitive damages, then OAN’s financial condition came to light. And that’s kind of the way that this became clear, which, as you say, as much as, we’re to understand, 90% of that revenue comes from AT&T-owned platforms.
And the person said in court, without the deal with DirecTV, which AT&T owns, OAN’s network value would be zero. So, in other words, it’s not a thing where we’re used to hearing conservative companies want to support certain kinds of entities. But this is a much more formative relationship. It sort of sounds as though without AT&T, OAN might not be there.
BL: Exactly. Yeah. For me, that was the overall takeaway of the first part of the Reuters report, is that, like you said, like, OAN would not and could not exist without AT&T’s blessing.
We already knew that AT&T owned OAN’s biggest carrier, DirecTV. And we already knew that that generated enough revenue for the network to at least stay alive. But learning how ingrained AT&T was and is with how OAN was created, and how OAN continues to exist—as you described it at the top of the show, it really is a blockbuster.
JJ: People can’t help but think that ideas are on their TV because those ideas are popular among actual people. But you and I are media critics because we recognize that media can shape thought, and not just reflect it. And that they can create communities around particular thoughts.
And so, I guess what makes me so mad and sad about this story is that we have OAN that is telling hateful yahoos that they’re onto something, that there are so many of them that there’s a whole network that will create it. So I guess—can you talk a bit about what is the harm done? Folks are like, OK, folks have certain points of view, and they pay people to create a network to put out those points of view. What is troubling? What’s problematic about it for you?
BL: What’s problematic about that whole dynamic, for me, the most problematic part at least, is that it’s so all or nothing with whatever this in group believes, like the election was stolen from Trump, versus whatever the outgroup believes, no, it wasn’t.
The media coverage of these stories from right-wing media, and particularly One America News, to continue with the example, is that American democracy is on the edge. They’ve already stolen the election from Trump, and we must do whatever is necessary to save the republic. It’s so maximalist, so fatalistic. It drives up the temperatures, so to speak, on all of these issues of national import, and doesn’t leave any room for error. And it’s just very distressing to see that happening.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Bobby Lewis from Media Matters for America. They’re online at MediaMatters.org. Bobby Lewis, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
BL: Thank you for having me, again.
The post ‘OAN Would Not and Could Not Exist Without AT&T’s Blessing’ appeared first on FAIR.
This content originally appeared on FAIR and was authored by Janine Jackson.