Reprinted with permission from Media Matters
With research contributions from Madeline Peltz and Justin Horowitz
After the police killing of George Floyd, both DirecTV and its parent company, AT&T, made statements across social media claiming to support racial justice, including "advancing equal justice reforms" for Black Americans and promising to "continue to learn and listen" to their experiences with racism. DirecTV even promoted racial justice programming titled after some of Floyd's final words, "I can't breathe," to promote "discussion on systemic racism in our society." But these messages are a stark contrast to the racist lies spread on right-wing cable outlet One America News -- programming that DirecTV and AT&T financially support.
Like most pay-TV contracts, DirecTV pays OAN subscription fees, also known as carriage fees, in exchange for the conservative network being available to DirecTV customers, whose subscription costs pay for OAN. The network reportedly relies on these subscriber fees -- not ad revenue, which at Fox has proven vulnerable to controversy -- as its primary funding source. DirecTV is also OAN's largest distributor, making the service a vital lifeline for the up-and-coming network with an "almost pre-web" online presence and only a fraction of the audience of Fox News.
OAN claims its distribution reaches 35 million viewers compared to Fox News' 84 million, though a spring 2019 Nielsen attempt to quantify OAN ratings (since the network does not subscribe to Nielsen) with data from some large metro areas found an average of 14,000 nightly viewers, compared to Fox's 631,000. With OAN's reported 13.6 million DirecTV subscribers, at a rate of 15 cents per subscriber per month, OAN would cost DirecTV $24,480,000 every year.
OAN's three-year contract with DirecTV is reportedly set to expire in early 2021 -- possibly April 5, the anniversary of its DirecTV debut. OAN President Charles Herring has denied that the deal ends in early 2021, but neither party has provided any details. Herring told Bloomberg, "We are very pleased that AT&T seems to want to offer programming for everybody and not just people with one viewpoint." But in the case of OAN's programming, AT&T is supporting an alternative viewpoint based on racist falsehoods.
While AT&T shares statements about standing "unapologetically for equality and justice, and firmly against systemic racism," and "challenging everyone" to do the same, OAN is committed to blaming George Floyd for his own death, spreading the lie that he died of a fentanyl overdose even after two autopsies confirmed that Floyd's cause of death was homicide. Minor differences between the two reports still fuel reckless, racist speculation that "a lethal dose of fentanyl" actually killed Floyd, despite scientific evidence proving his death was caused by another human being. But OAN's business model relies on fueling our national divisions with far-right falsehoods to expand its audience.
OAN's devotion to racist lies like smearing Floyd's name, its falsehood-based hysterics against needed police reform, and its promotion of conspiracy theories to defend police brutality undermine AT&T's "moral and business obligation to engage on this fundamental issue of equality" and DirecTV's "advocacy toward equality and inclusivity" -- and yet, both AT&T and DirecTV pay for it.
Nobody is arguing that TV channels should support the views of their corporate distributors. Nobody is arguing that everyone should have to support any particular social movement or legislation. And TV services affiliated with AT&T still offer Fox News, which is its own malevolent political force. But OAN is something different -- diving farther into the fever swamps than even Fox News is willing to go.
OAN has tried everything to deliver enough bigotry, lies, and conspiracy theories to satisfy a right-wing audience expecting such content, and not just by spreading racist falsehoods surrounding Floyd's death.
- OAN once falsely reported that "a globalist conspiracy" involving Bill Gates, George Soros, and Dr. Anthony Fauci sought "sweeping population control" by suppressing hydroxychloroquine treatment for COVID-19 patients, with help from "the deep state Democratic cabal."
- One of OAN's stars -- the network's White House correspondent during the Trump administration -- reported that the coronavirus was developed in a North Carolina lab.
- And the network's newest host used the first episode of her show on March 22 to promote the lie that Trump actually won the 2020 election until it was "stolen" from him.
This final lie directly led to the January 6 attack on the Capitol, which was internationally condemned, including by AT&T. CEO John Stankey said the "perpetuation of [this] fiction" by elected officials was "not only reprehensible, but also a danger to our democracy, our society, and our economy." But what about the fictions spread by his company's cable partners?
AT&T and DirecTV both profess to stand for racial equality and hope that we can move past bitter divisions to better understand one another. As a business, OAN promotes the exact opposite. One has to ask: Which model do AT&T and DirecTV really believe in?
OAN exists to poison politics and society for profit, but the fledgling network is still searching for a big break. Without DirecTV distribution, OAN would seem to lose about 64% of its potential audience for its brand of desperate, corrosive misinformation. If AT&T dropped OAN altogether, that figure rises to 81 percent.
By the company's own logic, there is simply no reason for AT&T and DirecTV to fund an operation like OAN to the tune of tens of millions of dollars per year. It's time for that to end.