AT&T Says Its Relationship with Far-Right OAN Isn’t a Big Deal. People Have Doubts.

In the months leading up to the November 2020 presidential elections, Fox News recycled then President Donald Trump’s baseless claims of an electoral conspiracy against him. But on Nov. 7, Fox reversed course, declaring Joe Biden the winner.

As Trump and his supporters railed against Fox, the most-watched network in the U.S. saw its ratings plummet in the weeks after the election. Trump took to Twitter to berate Fox’s election coverage.

Now, the Dallas-based communications giant AT&T is catching flak for reportedly funding One America News Network (OAN), a far-right outlet known for pushing conspiracy theories and pumping out claims of widespread voter fraud.

OAN’s baseless election fraud accusations were funded almost entirely by AT&T, a Reuters investigation revealed last week. The investigation found that AT&T, through a deal between its subsidiary company DirecTV and OAN, brings in 90% of the network’s revenue.

The revelation marks the latest in a series of blatant contradictions between AT&T’s spending and its attempts at public branding, experts and activists say.

In July, AT&T contributed $100,000 to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s campaign the same day he pledged to hold a special legislative session to pass a restrictive voting bill. CEO John Stankey made comments supporting expanded voting rights legislation only two months earlier.

After George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, AT&T announced its devotion to racial justice and criminal justice reform. “Sure the public statements AT&T made after George Floyd were great, but now it’s time to see some actual action,” said James McGee, president of the community development group Southern Dallas Progress.

McGee said stark racial inequities in internet services by race in AT&T’s hometown show just how devoted the company really is to racial justice.

Since news broke of AT&T’s role in creating and funding OAN, spokespeople have tried to downplay the significance of the relationship, casting the deal as no different than any other business transaction between the company and the many networks from across the political spectrum it carries.

AT&T quickly dismissed the report’s conclusions.

“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 and as OAN has done with the other TV providers that carry its programming,” an AT&T spokesperson told Deadline last week.

The day before Reuters dropped its investigation, news broke that The Dallas Morning News rejected an advertisement blasting AT&T for funding politicians who backed Texas’ abortion ban. “The Dallas Morning News reserves the right to edit or reject any advertising for any reason,” DMN Publisher Grant Moise told CNBC.

AT&T’s strategy of investing in political causes and entities on both sides of the aisle is common among for-profit corporations, said John Watson, a journalism professor at American University specializing in media law and ethics.

For companies legally bound to shareholders to pursue the most profitable investments, “That’s a necessary corporate practice. So you’ll be able to have access to whoever wins the election,” Watson said.

But AT&T’s deal with OAN is different, he explained. “When you provide financial support to what people believe is a news organization, the effect is much deeper, much more profound, and much more dangerous. Especially when this news organization is not bound by the ethics of the profession,” he said.

The problem comes down to people’s tendency to trust their preferred media sources, added Watson. “Much of what we believe we know we get from the various media,” he said. “So the money that goes to a news organization has a deep and profound effect not only for any one election, but for a whole span of issues over a significant period of time. It makes us more susceptible to accepting a big lie.”

AT&T denies responsibility for the OAN’s programing. In an email to the Observer, an AT&T spokesperson said the company has no “financial interest” in the media outlet’s success and “does not ‘fund’ OAN.”

“CNN is the only news network we fund because it’s a part of AT&T,” the spokesperson said. The company adds that they had refused to carry OAN for months after purchasing DirecTV, which resulted in Herring Networks, OAN’s founder, suing AT&T.

Only because of that lawsuit and the settlement that came out of it did “DirecTV consent to a commercial carriage agreement with OAN four years ago,” the spokesperson explained.

“DirecTV does not dictate or control programming on the channels it carries, and any suggestion otherwise is wrong,” they added. “The decision of whether to renew the OAN carriage agreement upon its expiration will be up to DirecTV, which is now a separate, independent company outside of AT&T.”

With polls estimating that some two thirds of Republicans nationwide still believe Trump won the election, lawmakers across the U.S. have passed restrictive voting laws which experts say will lessen access to the ballot for voters of color and those with disabilities, among others.

This summer, Texas legislators passed Senate Bill 1, which slashes mail-in voting and other initiatives designed to increase participation in elections. Now, as Texas lawmakers carry out a third special legislative session, two bills are moving through the state Senate that activists say will restrict voting access even further if passed.

“A lot of the support comes from the fact that the lawmakers can rely on the Big Lie narrative that has been created and continued by OAN,” said Katya Ehresmann, an organizer with Common Cause Texas. “OAN’s allowing for these voter suppression bills to have weight,” she said.

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