How AT&T fuels right-wing extremists

One America News (OAN), a right-wing propaganda network that promotes unhinged conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, COVID, and other topics, relies almost exclusively on funding from AT&T. Court records first obtained by Reuters reveal that AT&T is responsible for 90% of OAN's revenue. 

In sworn testimony, OAN CEO Robert Herring Sr. said that without OAN's contract with AT&T — which carries OAN on DirecTV and other television platforms — OAN's value "would be zero."

Popular Information first reported on AT&T's relationship with OAN in February, when OAN repeatedly ran a two-hour movie created by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, "Absolute Proof," that uses discredited conspiracy theories to claim that Trump was the real winner of the 2020 election. “Absolute Proof" aired thirteen times from February 5 to 8 — encompassing 26 hours of OAN's programming over four days.   

Lindell's film promoted lies about Dominion, a voting machine company. For example, lawyer Matt DePerno claims that files "were deleted from the Dominion system in Antrim County. We know that for a fact." Lindell responds, "wow." Although a clerical error briefly showed a landslide for Biden in the county, it was corrected. There is absolutely no evidence of any vote manipulation in the county and the results were confirmed by a hand recount of the votes. 

While "Absolute Proof" was technically a paid advertisement, OAN promoted it as a news program. In a tweet, OAN billed it as an "exclusive report" about "[g]rowing evidence of election fraud reveal[ing] that the presidency of the United States has been stolen from the American people."

Lindell's movie was not out of place on OAN. In July 2020, OAN described QAnon, the conspiracy theory that Democrats are part of a Satanic cult operating a child sex ring, as "the new mainstream." OAN host Kristian Rouz said that QAnon "is becoming a widely accepted system of beliefs" and is "immensely popular." She described efforts to ban QAnon adherents from social media sites as the "deep state… fighting back." Rion said that Q, the fictional character sending coded messages about the child sex ring, was "anonymous for a reason" and "people need to respect that." 

After Trump lost the election, OAN declared that Trump won and Democrats were just delaying the results in an effort to steal it. "Donald Trump won a second term last night. Democrats are tossing Republican ballots, harvesting fake ballots, and delaying the results to create confusion," host Christina Bobb said.

While Bobb was appearing as a "journalist" on OAN, she "also worked part-time for the Trump recount legal team, according to a recent deposition by Trump’s then-lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani." In recent months, "OAN allowed two reporters to raise $605,000 to help fund a 'private' audit of the presidential vote in Arizona." 

In February, Popular Information estimated that AT&T was providing at least $3 million in revenue to OAN annually. The court documents uncovered by Reuters reveal that AT&T's contract with OAN was worth far more. In court filings, Herring said that AT&T paid OAN about $57 million over five years. (AT&T disputes that number but refused to say how much it does pay OAN, citing a non-disclosure agreement.) 

A lawyer for OAN, Patrick Nellies, testified in court that if OAN "was to lose or not be renewed on [AT&T's] DirecTV, the company would go out of business tomorrow." 

In February, Popular Information asked AT&T if it would continue to carry OAN on its platforms. AT&T provided the following response:

When it comes to the channels we carry for customers, we do not exercise control over their editorial content. We review our contract terms continually and, in the meantime, if customers have questions about a provider’s content, they should contact the individual channel provider.

AT&T did not respond to a request for comment for this article. 

AT&T donated more than $300,000 to the sponsors of Texas' extreme abortion ban

AT&T's support for right-wing extremists is not limited to OAN. As Popular Information reported in September, AT&T is one of the top donors to the sponsors of Texas' extreme abortion ban, also known as SB 8. The law ban all abortions after six weeks — before many women know they are pregnant — and places a $10,000 bounty on anyone who helps a woman receive an abortion after that time. Since 2018, AT&T "donated $301,000 to the sponsors of SB 8."

This week, American Bridge, a Democratic Super PAC, purchased digital ads on the Dallas Morning News website highlighting AT&T's donations to SB 8 sponsors. Here is what the ads would have looked like:

But, at the last minute, the Dallas Morning News rejected the ads. Grant Moise, the president and publisher of The Dallas Morning News, defended the decision in a statement to CNBC:

The Dallas Morning News reserves the right to edit or reject any advertising for any reason. We have been particularly cautious when advertising content assumes the intentions of another business. Our decision was based solely on our policy, not on any outside influences.

The ads did not "assume the intentions" of AT&T. They stated a fact: AT&T donated money to the anti-abortion politicians who sponsored SB 8. But the Dallas Morning News chose to reject the ads in order to protect AT&T, one of the nation's largest advertisers that is headquartered in Dallas. 

DirectTV carries OAN, but refused to run a related TV ad from American Bridge criticizing its corporate parent:

AT&T broke its pledge not to fund Republican objectors

After the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, AT&T announced that it was suspending contributions to all 147 Republicans who tried to overturn the election results:

Employees on our Federal PAC Board convened a call today and decided to suspend contributions to members of Congress who voted to object to the certification of Electoral College votes this week.

Many prominent media outlets covered that announcement. 

Last month, Popular Information reported that AT&T had broken its pledge. In August, FEC disclosures revealed AT&T donated $15,000 each to the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) and National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC). These donations will support the reelection of every Republican objector running for reelection.

Even though the donations were to multi-candidate committees and not individual candidates, AT&T promised in March that it would not use such committees to evade its pledge. "Any future contributions to multi-candidate PACs will require such consistency with the policy suspending individual contributions," a company spokesperson said. 

The violation of the pledge was ignored by other media outlets. 

Other ways that AT&T backs right-wing extremists

AT&T has provided considerable financial support to right-wing extremists across a host of issues. Some examples:

Since 2019, AT&T has donated almost $1.1 million to anti-LGBTQ members of Congress who were rated "zero" by the Human Rights Campaign. The company also donated to the sponsors of anti-trans legislation in Arkansas ($12,950), Tennessee ($4,000), North Carolina ($5,000), Texas ($22,500), and Florida ($17,500).

Since 2018, AT&T has donated $574,500 to the politicians pushing voter suppression in Texas, including Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R), Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick (R), and the sponsors of  Texas' voter suppression bills.

Since 2018, AT&T donated $99,700 to the sponsors of voter suppression bills in Georgia

In the 2020 cycle, AT&T donated $237,950 to anti-abortion politicians in Arkansas, Florida, South Carolina, South Dakota, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Ohio — states that are now considering enacting a Texas-style abortion ban. 

AT&T's legislative strategy is run by Ed Gillespie, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee.