At the heart of an explosive report showing AT&T nurtured and enriched the far-right cable network One America News is a bigger, more disturbing issue: a failing media system that forces us all to subsidize content we don’t want. not – and that, in this case, actually undermines democracy.
Reuters last week released the results of a massive investigation in the tangled relationship between the two companies. Journalist John Shiffman, digging through court records, showed that the launch of OAN in 2013 was instigated by AT&T and that the telecoms giant’s continued patronage is responsible for around 90% of its revenue. ‘OAN.
“They told us they wanted a conservative network,” OAN founder Robert Herring Sr. said of AT&T executives in a 2019 deposition. “They only had one. one was Fox News, and they had seven more on the other side. When they said that, I jumped on it and built one.
OAN first came to prominence last fall, after Fox (briefly) refused to lend credence to Donald Trump’s election fraud allegations. OAN and another far-right cable network, Newsmax, have soared in embracing Trump’s lies. Today, the two networks, along with Fox, have positioned themselves as firebenders of disinformation and disinformation on the elections, the January 6 insurgency and COVID-19.
In an age where the reach of even the smallest media can far exceed their primary audience through amplification on Facebook and other social networks, what OAN says to its audience is very important.
“The reach of OAN television may not be vast: most Americans will not encounter it when they turn on their television.” writes Margaret Sullivan, Washington Post media columnist. “But the offerings on her website may very well show up in their social media feeds.”
But why would a big company like AT&T subsidize a shady operation like OAN? After all, powerful business leaders tend to be conservative in an old-fashioned sense – they don’t like taxes or regulations, but they like stability. The penultimate thing a company like AT&T wants is for a Confederate flag-waving crowd to storm the Capitol. And the last thing he wants is to be associated with a medium that delights in such anarchy.
The answer may lie in our perverted cable TV system, which forces us to pay for channels we don’t want and which, in turn, depends on government favors to keep the money flowing.
According to Shiffman’s report, in 2014 AT&T was trying to acquire the DirecTV satellite service, and its executives feared they would clash with regulators. OAN and another Herrings-owned network, WealthTV, were already running on U-verse, a smaller outlet owned by AT&T. AT&T therefore suggested that both channels be broadcast on DirecTV as well.
In doing so, according to court documents, AT&T could allay concerns that the acquisition would make it more difficult for independent networks to be routed by major cable companies. The optic of reaching out to a conservative network may have been helpful even though Barack Obama was president at the time.
“What we seem to be seeing here,” writes Josh Marshall to Talking Points Memo, “Regardless of personal politics, AT&T was operating and growing in one of the areas of the industry most dependent on regulation – telecommunications, cable TV, internet service, content – and they wanted more conservative programming because that helps get the regulations help. “
Now it is also true that AT&T is a declining player in the cable wars, and that the OAN is carried by other providers. So it’s not necessarily a slam dunk that AT&T activated OAN for the sole purpose of gaining regulatory benefits from the FCC. But if Marshall’s theory is correct, then it’s a good illustration of how our media system works on behalf of giant corporations and against the rest of us.
There is a simple solution to this, which I mentioned before: break connection between cable services (and, in the case of DirecTV, satellite) and programming. Beyond basic local channels, require cable companies to offer additional pay-per-view channels. If you want Food Channel but not HGTV, you shouldn’t have to pay for both. You can also pay only for the news channels you want.
Of course, all of this comes at a time when we can see that cable TV will eventually disappear as more and more people cut the cord and get all of their video programming through the internet. So the problem I am describing is a problem that will eventually be solved on its own.
However, technologies can take a long time to die. AM radio is always with us, as are the print newspapers. Likewise, we can assume that cable television will be with us for years to come, even as its audience shrinks and ages.
Given this, it makes sense to let us pay only for the channels we want. Such an approach would be pro-consumer and pro-democracy. And that would remove the incentives for companies like AT&T to promote dangerous propaganda for the sole purpose of appeasing their regulatory overlords.
The blog of GBH News contributor Dan Kennedy, Media Nation, is online at dankennedy.net.