The U.S. Capitol on January 9, 2021.
Airing “both sides of the story” has always been a somewhat suspect formula for journalism. Giving two opposing views equal weight is more suited to gossip columns than hard news, where fact and evidence should tilt the scale in favor of sources who convey credible, verifiable information. To its misfortune, AT&T is now seeing the result of both-siderism writ large, as the company suffers through a barrage of criticism on account of its relationship with the extremist news organization One America News (OAN).
As described in a special investigation published by Reuters last fall, OAN has established its credentials as a far-right network that “lauded former President Donald Trump and spread his unfounded claims of election fraud,” while also continuing to spread conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 pandemic.
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The AT&T connection comes in because the company’s DirecTV subsidiary carries OAN. A review of court records undertaken by Reuters suggests that AT&T was not simply a carrier of OAN, but was instrumental in its creation and funding.
Reuters cites a deposition signed by OAN founder and chief executive Robert Herring Sr., following a discussion with AT&T executives.
“They told us they wanted a conservative network. 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,” Herring stated, according to Reuters.
As Herring heard it, AT&T deemed it necessary to attract more viewers by balancing the “other” side with any random conservative news organization, regardless of its experience, qualifications or credibility.
By zeroing in on conservatism as the sole qualification, AT&T fell into the diversity trap articulated by Facebook (now Meta) co-founder Mark Zuckerberg in the runup to the 2016 presidential election cycle, when he appealed for the tolerance of diversity in viewpoints, regardless of what those views are.
“We care deeply about diversity. That's easy to say when it means standing up for ideas you agree with. It's a lot harder when it means standing up for the rights of people with different viewpoints to say what they care about,” he wrote in a leaked internal message to employees.
That’s both-siderism in a nutshell. This definition of diversity strips out all the trappings of morality, ethics, civic duty, community welfare and any other foundational sensibility that supports a modern democratic society, in favor of the idea that all viewpoints are equally worthy of discussion.
That formula for diversity is tailor made for social media, where fortunes are made on stretching the limits of sharing different viewpoints.
However, participating in social media is free. The Reuters investigation let DirecTV subscribers know, in meticulous fact-based detail, that they were paying for OAN’s viewpoint whether they chose to tolerate it or not.
The reaction from progressive organizations was swift and furious. On October 6, NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson issued a public statement accusing AT&T of causing “irreparable damage to our democracy” by “funneling tens of millions of dollars into OAN since the network's inception.”
“The press should inform the American public with facts, not far-right propaganda and conspiracy theories,” Johnson emphasized.
Johnson also clapped back at AT&T CEO John Stankey for talking up the company’s “Stand for Equality” program in public while providing OAN with financial support behind the curtain.
“For a corporation that fuels OAN, a network that continues to spread lies about the 2020 election and the Jan. 6 insurrection, AT&T's values could not be any more performative and flat-out fake,” Johnson said.
It is unknown how many DirecTV customers dropped their subscriptions after the Reuters story broke. The numbers could be fairly significant, but it’s not likely that a viewer boycott had any impact on what happened next.
Last Friday, Bloomberg reported that DirecTV will not renew its contract with OAN when it expires in April, noting that “OAN has been criticized for spreading misinformation.”
The Associated Press piled on over the weekend, stating that “DirecTV plans to drop One America News Network, significantly shrinking the reach of the right-wing TV channel friendly to Donald Trump and widely criticized for spreading misinformation including the former president’s false claim that he won the 2020 election.”
“OAN became a darling of Trump during his presidency and has continued to report his claim that the 2020 presidential election was rigged against him – a claim directly contradicted by the facts and exhaustive reporting. It has carried Trump live in post-presidency appearances, its reporters declining to challenge his contrafactual claims,” AP emphasized.
As for what actually motivated the decision, National Public Radio (NPR) zeroed in on the bottom line.
“In a statement, DirecTV said it made the decision ’following a routine internal review.’ A DirecTV spokesperson told NPR that the company looks at a wide variety of factors in deciding whether to renew a contract. The question for DirecTV was whether OAN's programming appeals to a broad enough base of customers, given increasing programming costs and more competition for consumers,” NPR observed.
It's a good guess that the “routine internal review” also included AT&T’s potential exposure to reputational damage over the failed insurrection of January 6, 2021, now that the U.S. Department of Justice has lobbed formal charges of sedition at almost a dozen participants. More charges are likely pending, and the U.S. House of Representatives is also preparing to expose the organizers of the almost-successful coup in public hearings.
In addition, OAN is reportedly facing legal jeopardy over its role in spreading misinformation about the 2020 election, in the form of separate lawsuits brought by Dominion Voting Systems and two election workers in Georgia.
Damage control is going to be a tight wire for AT&T. After all, AT&T was among a small but significant number of corporations that initially criticized Republican members of Congress who supported Trump’s “big lie” about massive voter fraud, yet the company itself enabled that lie to spread and amplify. Last September, investigative journalist Judd Legum also reported that AT&T continued to funnel money to members of Congress who supported the attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 Presidential election, despite a pledge to withhold donations.
Also complicating matters is AT&T’s past support for advertiser boycotts over offensive content on social media, which, makes it harder to cry foul when subscribers boycott DirecTV. In addition, the OAN debacle could recharge critics who took note of AT&T’s relationship with former President Trump, as indicated by Trump’s controversial 2017 appearance at a Boy Scouts of America event.
However, the damage has already been done. At a rally in Arizona over the weekend, Trump reportedly suggested that his followers boycott AT&T for dropping OAN, a call that was swiftly amplified through social media.
Unfortunately for AT&T, the company is in no position to mollify its outraged customers, regardless of which side they are on.
The only way back to brand reputation is for AT&T to steer some of its vast advertising resources to help restore public agreement on values that don’t have a side, beginning with the right to vote, respect for fact-based information, and other foundational principles of democratic government in a diverse society.
Image credit: Ian Hutchinson via Unsplash
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.