Special Report: How AT&T helped construct far-right One America News

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SAN DIEGO, Oct 6 (Reuters) – One America News, the far-right community whose fortunes and viewership rose amid the triumph and tumult of the Trump administration, has flourished with help from a stunning supply: AT&T Inc, the world’s largest communications firm.

A Reuters overview of courtroom information exhibits the position AT&T performed in creating and funding OAN, a community that continues to unfold conspiracy theories concerning the 2020 election and the COVID-19 pandemic.

OAN founder and chief government Robert Herring Sr has testified that the inspiration to launch OAN in 2013 got here from AT&T executives.

“They told us they wanted a conservative network,” Herring mentioned throughout a 2019 deposition seen by Reuters. “They only had one, which was Fox News, and they had seven others on the other [leftwing] side. When they said that, I jumped to it and built one.”

Since then, AT&T has been a vital supply of funds flowing into OAN, offering tens of thousands and thousands of {dollars} in income, courtroom information present. Ninety % of OAN’s income got here from a contract with AT&T-owned tv platforms, together with satellite tv for pc broadcaster DirecTV, in response to 2020 sworn testimony by an OAN accountant.

Herring has testified he was provided $250 million for OAN in 2019. Without the DirecTV deal, the accountant mentioned beneath oath, the community’s worth “would be zero.”

Dallas-based AT&T, a mobile-phone and Internet supplier, additionally owns leisure big Warner Media, which incorporates CNN and HBO. AT&T acquired DirecTV in 2015 and in August spun off the satellite tv for pc service, retaining a 70% share within the new, independently managed firm. AT&T’s whole U.S. tv subscriber base, together with satellite tv for pc and streaming providers, fell from 26 million in 2015 to fifteen.4 million as of August.

AT&T spokesman Jim Greer declined to touch upon the testimony about OAN’s income streams, citing confidentiality agreements. He mentioned that DirecTV broadcasts “many news channels that offer viewpoints across the political spectrum.”

“We have always sought to provide a wide variety of content and programming that would be of interest to customers, and do not dictate or control programming on channels we carry,” Greer mentioned. “Any suggestion otherwise is wrong.”

Although the contracts are confidential, in courtroom filings Herring cited month-to-month charges included in a single five-year cope with AT&T. According to an AT&T submitting citing Herring’s numbers, these charges would whole about $57 million. Greer mentioned that determine is inaccurate, however declined to say how a lot AT&T has paid to air OAN, citing a non-disclosure settlement.

Herring and his grownup sons personal and function OAN, a subsidiary of their intently held San Diego-based Herring Networks. Their AT&T deal consists of Herring’s different community, a little-watched way of life channel, AWE. The Herrings declined interview requests.

Herring, who simply turned 80, is a self-made businessman who amassed a fortune within the circuit board business, then turned to tv and boxing promotion. OAN’s affect rose in late 2015, when it started overlaying Trump rallies stay, at a time when a number of the media nonetheless noticed the New York movie star businessman as a longshot presidential contender. The community continues to bathe Trump with consideration and sometimes supplies a pleasant platform for his Republican allies.

As president, Trump continuously urged supporters to look at OAN. In his closing two years in workplace, Trump touted the community, often known as @OANN on-line, to his 88 million Twitter followers no less than 120 occasions.

“Hope everybody is watching @OANN right now,” Trump tweeted on December 1, citing a doubtful report a couple of truck carrying greater than 100,000 pretend ballots. “Other media afraid to show.”

The state and federal courtroom paperwork reviewed by Reuters element a profitable relationship for OAN with AT&T, whilst the 2 sometimes tangled in courtroom.

The information embody a reported supply by AT&T to accumulate a 5% fairness stake in OAN and AWE, although the 2 sides finally signed a special deal. The courtroom filings additionally cite a promise by OAN to “cast a positive light” on AT&T throughout newscasts.

The confidential OAN monetary information are drawn partially from testimony, together with by Herring and the accountant, generated throughout a labor lawsuit introduced towards OAN by a former worker and unrelated to AT&T. When that case went to trial final 12 months, the community’s lawyer informed the jury that AT&T was maintaining OAN afloat.

“If Herring Networks, for instance, was to lose or not be renewed on DirecTV, the company would go out of business tomorrow,” OAN lawyer Patrick Nellies informed the courtroom, a transcript exhibits.

Researchers who tracked the rise of conservative media pillars Rush Limbaugh and Fox News see similarities between these pioneers to One America News and different new rightwing networks, notably throughout their youth.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center on the University of Pennsylvania, mentioned the births of Fox News and OAN share widespread threads: cash and alternative. She famous that the late Republican operative Roger Ailes had the foresight within the Nineteen Nineties to advocate that Fox create a conservative information community.

“If somebody recognizes there’s a market for something and there’s a lot of money attached to that market, you get a news outlet,” Jamieson mentioned. “So this is AT&T playing the Roger Ailes role.”

Greer, the AT&T spokesman, referred to as that comparability “a ridiculous claim,” noting that different distributors additionally carry OAN.

A BOOST FROM THE INSURRECTION

America’s post-election turmoil, punctuated by the Jan. 6 rebellion on the U.S. Capitol, continues to roil the nation. Dozens of election directors in battleground states Trump misplaced have obtained a barrage of demise threats, Reuters has reported. A Reuters ballot in May confirmed {that a} quarter of Americans – and 53% of Republicans – wrongly consider Trump received the 2020 election.

OAN caters to this viewers. Trump’s loss was OAN’s achieve, social media information present.

The community’s on-line viewers soared in November, after conservative mainstay and OAN competitor Fox News affirmed Joe Biden’s victory. Trump and his camp blasted Fox. A document 767,000 folks put in the OAN app that month, 9 occasions as many as in October, in response to information agency Sensor Tower. In January, Trump supporters, together with no less than one carrying an OAN flag, stormed the U.S. Capitol. That month, app installs spiked once more to 517,000.

The OAN web site averages 8 million visits a month from desktop and cellular customers, having peaked at 15 million from November by way of January, information agency Similarweb present in an evaluation for Reuters. Two in three folks on desktop computer systems return to the web site after an preliminary go to, about the identical loyalty price as Fox News and Newsmax, one other rival conservative information channel.

One America’s tv rankings are more durable to measure, partly as a result of it’s out there in solely a couple of quarter of the estimated 121 million TV households within the United States. Ratings providers Nielsen and Comscore, which each present that Fox News continues to be the main cable community, don’t launch OAN figures. In an inner electronic mail, an OAN information director informed workers that the week of the Capitol assault produced the community’s “best ever” rankings, however gave no statistics.

OAN says it’s the fourth-rated information community, behind Fox, CNN and MSNBC, and forward of CNBC, the BBC and Newsmax, however has not offered figures to again this up. (Each of those networks, together with One America News, pays Reuters charges to publish the information service’s tales, movies and/or footage.)

Even so, the variety of viewers OAN reaches could also be much less essential than the sort of observers it attracts and galvanizes, mentioned John Watson, an American University journalism professor specializing in ethics and media legislation.

“If you have 12 Americans being fed a diet of untruth, that’s 12 too many – and here, it’s literally millions,” Watson mentioned of the OAN viewers. “When you have that sort of poisonous influence on mass media, it’s a problem; because elections in the United States tend to be so close, a few percentage points here or there can really make a difference.”

At least one self-described common OAN viewer lately despatched a threatening notice to an election official. In August, Sheila Garcia of Riverside County, California, despatched Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold a scathing message. Biden beat Trump in Colorado, and Garcia accused Griswold, the state’s prime election official, of treason – warning her that punishments for that crime are hanging and authorized injection. “Within several months you will have to decide between the two,” Garcia wrote.

In an interview, Griswold mentioned she thought of threats like Garcia’s message a reputable risk on her life. That risk and dozens of others induced her to hunt further safety measures, she mentioned.

Garcia, 55, informed Reuters she’s satisfied Biden stole the election and mentioned she will get most of her information from OAN. She in contrast U.S. mainstream media to state propaganda shops in China and Cuba. Her message to Griswold, she mentioned, was authorized. “If you’re afraid of a little old lady in a trailer park in California, I feel sorry for you,” she mentioned in an interview.

Neil W. McCabe, OAN’s former Washington bureau chief and now nationwide political correspondent for The Tennessee Star, rejects the concept that the community is a poisonous affect. He mentioned OAN serves an essential public position and has earned loyalty from viewers who share an analogous world view.

“When you give a voice to the voiceless, you’re going to bond with them,” McCabe informed Reuters. “Who else is doing these stories?”

In a number of cases, information present, the community broadcast statements and theories that had been confirmed false.

YouTube suspended OAN from making a living off its YouTube channel final 12 months for, amongst different issues, repeatedly violating its COVID-19 coverage, which prohibits content material claiming there’s a assured remedy. OAN touts hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug promoted by Trump, with out scientific proof, as a remedy for COVID.

During final summer time’s Black Lives Matter protests, OAN aired an unconfirmed report that an aged demonstrator in Buffalo, New York, who was knocked down and critically injured by police was attempting to jam the cops’ radios. Trump, citing the OAN story, tweeted that the person “could be an ANTIFA provocateur.”

The false accusation went viral. In the 2 days after the OAN broadcast, one-third of all on-line references cited the community, an evaluation compiled by Zignal Labs for Reuters discovered.

On January 6, after Trump supporters broke into the U.S. Capitol, an OAN information director cautioned workers by way of electronic mail, “Please DO NOT say ‘Trump Supporters Storm Capitol …’ Simply call them demonstrators or protestors … DO NOT CALL IT A RIOT!!!”

A day later, Herring advised the riot is perhaps a false-flag operation by the leftwing Antifa motion. “We want to report all the things Antifa did yesterday. I don’t think it was Trump people but lets investigate,” he emailed OAN producers. The Federal Bureau of Investigation says there isn’t a proof of Antifa involvement within the riot. All however a handful of the some 600 suspects charged thus far have been rightwing Trump backers.

The subsequent day, Herring tweeted: “If anyone thinks we will throw the best President America has had, in my 79 years, under the bus, you are wrong. We will continue to give him honest coverage.”

His community went on to help Trump in an uncommon means: OAN allowed two reporters to boost $605,000 to assist fund a “private” audit of the presidential vote in Arizona, regardless of Republican officers’ assurances that Biden received the state. According to an OAN government, they did so with the community’s blessing however in a personal capability.

One of the OAN reporters, Christina Bobb, additionally labored part-time for the Trump recount authorized staff, in response to a latest deposition by Trump’s then-lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani. An OAN government confirmed the association. Bobb, a lawyer and former Trump administration official, didn’t reply to a request for remark.

Five former OAN producers mentioned in interviews that they discovered the follow of reporters elevating funds for occasions they cowl unethical, however mentioned OAN’s transfer didn’t shock them.

“If there was any story involving Trump, we had to only focus on either the positive information or basically create positive information,” mentioned Marissa Gonzales, an OAN producer from 2019 till she resigned in 2020. “It was never, never the full truth.”

Since March, OAN has bought hours of infomercial time to MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, a number one purveyor of false claims the election was stolen. Lindell has used that point on OAN to repeatedly broadcast his election conspiracy “docu-movies.” A main Lindell goal is Dominion Voting Systems Inc, whose machines rely votes in 28 states and use paper ballots and information for auditing.

In August, Dominion sued OAN for defamation. “OAN saw a business opportunity” and fueled bogus conspiracies about alleged vote tampering, Dominion contended. “OAN helped create and cultivate an alternate reality where up is down, pigs have wings,” the lawsuit mentioned.

The community’s legal professionals have mentioned in letters to Dominion that the election protection is protected free speech and that the Lindell packages embody a disclaimer that they’re “opinions only and are not intended to be taken or interpreted by the viewer as established facts.”

Other Trump supporters, together with Lindell and legal professionals Giuliani and Sidney Powell, provided an analogous free speech protection in associated lawsuits introduced by Dominion. In August, a federal decide mentioned the Lindell, Giuliani and Powell circumstances ought to proceed towards trial, noting that the Constitution doesn’t essentially supply “blanket immunity for statements that are political in nature.”

Generally, the community runs few commercials in comparison with its rivals, and former bureau chief McCabe mentioned the paucity of promoting is a sort of superpower. The community’s reliance on charges from cable, satellite tv for pc and streaming suppliers, as an alternative of commercials, inoculates it from advertiser boycotts confronted by counterparts corresponding to Fox News and rightwing on-line information web site Breitbart, in McCabe’s view.

“Because they basically live off the cable and satellite fees, nobody can organize a protest against One America News,” McCabe mentioned.

AT&T & OAN: ORIGIN STORY

From the early Nineteen Seventies to the late Nineteen Nineties, Robert Herring Sr, with sons Charles and Robert Jr, created extremely profitable and worthwhile circuit board corporations. They bought one such enterprise in 1988 for about $52 million and one other two in 2000 for $122 million.

In 2004, they created a tv community referred to as WealthTV, a channel devoted to prosperous life – yachts, mega-mansions and personal jets.

It proved to be a troublesome promote. Most cable and satellite tv for pc suppliers declined to hold it, even when the Herrings provided WealthTV at a reduction, and even without spending a dime, simply to get it on air. “We went to every place you could think of, begging to get on,” Herring mentioned final 12 months on his community.

In 2007 and 2008, Herring petitioned the Federal Communications Commission and courts for assist, alleging that the big cable suppliers favored networks they owned or co-owned, discriminating towards impartial broadcasters like him. The suppliers countered that they’d the best to broadcast channels they believed offered one of the best content material.

The FCC concluded that the suppliers had exercised applicable enterprise discretion and a federal courtroom affirmed that call. The Herring litigation irritated some suppliers, legal professionals for 2 carriers informed Reuters, making it even more durable to get WealthTV on cable or satellite tv for pc.

Still, the Herrings say they developed an excellent relationship with AT&T, which started carrying WealthTV in 2006 by way of U-verse, an Internet set-top field service that may entry stay TV and video on demand. By 2012, WealthTV had advanced, carrying information updates and stay boxing. The Herrings had been eager to leverage their present manufacturing services in San Diego to launch a second community, both a boxing channel or information outlet.

In a pivotal second for the corporate, the Herrings say in courtroom filings, depositions and sworn statements, unidentified AT&T executives informed them there was an viewers for an additional conservative information community. Herring seized the chance.

In his 2019 deposition within the labor go well with unrelated to AT&T, the elder Herring mentioned he created OAN for 2 causes.

“To make money, number one,” Robert Herring mentioned. “But number two, is that AT&T told us … they wanted a conservative network.”

The lawyer questioning Herring, Rodney Diggs, adopted up.

“So,” the lawyer mentioned, “AT&T kind of dictated the kind of network that they wanted. Because there was an opportunity, you jumped at it?”

“Yes, sir,” Herring replied.

EQUITY, CELEBRATION, SURPRISE

A couple of months after launching OAN in July 2013, AT&T proposed buying a 5% stake in Herring Networks.

In a sworn assertion, OAN president Charles Herring mentioned he accepted the oral supply in October 2013. Emails present that the 2 sides executed a non-disclosure settlement that December and that AT&T due-diligence executives visited the Herrings in San Diego in January 2014.

But the fairness proposal didn’t materialize right into a signed contract. Instead, in April 2014 the 2 sides signed a extra standard deal: AT&T agreed to pay the Herrings 18 cents per subscriber on U-verse every month for 5 years. AT&T had 5.7 million U-verse subscribers.

Suddenly, after years of rejection, the Herrings had been gamers.

The pleasure lasted lower than a month. In May 2014, AT&T introduced that it deliberate to accumulate the satellite tv for pc service DirecTV, which had 20 million TV subscribers on the time.

This alarmed the Herrings as a result of their cope with AT&T was restricted to U-verse. If AT&T moved all its U-verse clients to DirecTV, the Herrings feared they may obtain nothing, courtroom filings present. OAN would lose thousands and thousands of potential viewers.

To forestall that, Charles Herring hustled to Los Angeles to see a key AT&T government.

LOBBYING FOR AT&T

That government, in response to Charles Herring’s sworn account in a lawsuit the Herrings would later file towards AT&T, was Aaron Slator, then AT&T’s president of content material and promoting.

Slator informed him AT&T wanted assist to allay FCC and different officers’ concern that the DirecTV deal – a consolidation of suppliers – may make it more durable for impartial networks to get on the air, Charles Herring mentioned.

So, he mentioned within the affidavit, Slator proposed a brand new deal: If the Herrings lobbied on AT&T’s behalf, AT&T would air OAN and WealthTV on each U-verse and DirecTV. The Herrings can be paid one-third much less per subscriber, however as a result of DirecTV had so many extra subscribers, the deal may very well be value $100 million over 5 years.

The Herrings started working.

Charles Herring employed a Washington lobbyist and met with FCC officers, FCC information present. He says he signed a submitting of help “ghostwritten by AT&T” and despatched it to the FCC. He says he attended a $50,000-per-person Republican fundraiser as a part of the marketing campaign.

The Herrings even provided to air optimistic information about AT&T on OAN, the community mentioned in its lawsuit towards AT&T, which mentioned it couldn’t touch upon the litigation.

“Herring’s support of AT&T ran deep,” the Herrings’ legal professionals wrote. “Herring invited AT&T to utilize OAN’s news programs to cast a positive light on the acquisition and advocated for other issues affecting AT&T’s business.”

In courtroom information, AT&T denied it made such a deal to hold OAN on DirecTV if the Herrings lobbied for the merger. “Support for the merger was never a condition of or part of any content agreement,” an AT&T spokesperson lately informed Reuters. Slator, now not with AT&T, couldn’t be reached for remark.

Another former senior AT&T government informed Reuters the corporate by no means made quid-pro-quo gives linking community offers to political help. “You just don’t mix the two,” he mentioned.

In any occasion, the previous government mentioned, such lobbying by a conservative information channel can be implausible or ineffective as a result of it could have come in the course of the presidency of Barack Obama, a Democrat. “The Herrings were not going to have influence with Obama’s people,” mentioned the previous AT&T official.

The FCC authorized the AT&T-DirecTV deal in July 2015.

The Herrings say AT&T nonetheless refused to place OAN and WealthTV on DirecTV, leaving them solely on the shrinking U-verse platform. In March 2016, the Herrings sued AT&T, alleging it had damaged an oral promise.

AT&T denied any wrongdoing, issuing a press release on the time that mentioned, “This lawsuit is simply a ploy by Herring to negotiate a slanted deal.”

The Herrings received a key pretrial ruling from a federal decide, nevertheless, and in March 2017, the case was settled on undisclosed phrases. A month later, OAN and WealthTV (since renamed AWE) started showing on DirecTV.

KEEPING HIS NETWORK

On February 5, 2020, the U.S. Senate, sitting as a jury throughout Trump’s first impeachment trial in Washington, acquitted him of abusing his energy for asking Ukraine’s president to launch an investigation into then-candidate Biden.

On the identical afternoon, in a San Diego courtroom, Robert Herring sat earlier than a special jury, the one which heard proof from the OAN accountant within the employment case.

The jury had already discovered that OAN had wrongly fired the previous producer for submitting a racial criticism. Now, the jury was contemplating punitive damages. To assist decide an applicable penalty, the legislation allowed the jury to listen to testimony about OAN’s monetary situation.

In addition to testifying that AT&T offered 90% of Herring Networks’ earnings, the accountant mentioned the corporate’s guide worth – the web worth of its property – was a modest $16.6 million.

When Herring took the witness stand, he mentioned OAN’s market worth was far greater. He confirmed a 2020 Wall Street Journal report that pro-Trump personal fairness traders sought to purchase OAN for $250 million. Herring informed the courtroom he had given the group just a few unique months to give you the cash however that it had solely raised $35 million.

“No way I would sell for $35 million,” Herring testified.

For almost 4 many years, Herring had labored intently together with his sons to construct a number of profitable companies, together with OAN. The community, he mentioned, carried sentimental worth.

“I am not sure I want to sell for anything,” he mentioned.

Reporting by John Shiffman in San Diego. Additional reporting by Elizabeth Culliford, Linda So, Jason Szep and Brad Heath. Editing by Ronnie Greene

MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell is interviewed by the One America News Network during former U.S. president Donald Trump's rally at the Lorain County Fairgrounds in Wellington, Ohio, U.S., June 26, 2021.  REUTERS/Gaelen Morse/File Photo

Mississippi Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith speaks to a reporter from One America News Network (OANN) from a bus window after a tour around a section of the U.S.-Mexico border on a Texas Highway Patrol vessel in Mission, Texas, U.S., March 26, 2021.  REUTERS/Go Nakamura/File Photo

MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell is interviewed by the One America News Network during former U.S. president Donald Trump's rally at the Lorain County Fairgrounds in Wellington, Ohio, U.S., June 26, 2021.  REUTERS/Gaelen Morse/File Photo