The court documents were first reported by Reuters on Wednesday in an in-depth story detailing how AT&T, which is also the parent company of CNN, “helped build” the channel.
The Reuters story said that, in addition to playing a pivotal role in its founding, AT&T remains a crucial revenue stream for the network today. The outlet cited sworn testimony in 2020 from an OAN accountant who said 90% of the channel’s revenue is from AT&T-owned platforms.
While CNN was unable to review all of the court documents Reuters obtained for its story, AT&T is by far OAN’s largest television distributor.
OAN is a little-watched channel headquartered in San Diego that was founded in 2013 by California businessman Robert Herring. But it has grown in popularity in recent years due in large part to promotion by former President Donald Trump.
The outlet has been notorious for pushing misinformation about the coronavirus as well as being one of the main promoters of the lie that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.
But until Reuters published its reporting on Wednesday, little was known about AT&T’s role in the founding of the channel.
Herring filed a lawsuit in 2016 against AT&T, alleging the company had violated an agreement to carry his channel on DirecTV, which it owned at the time (AT&T still owns 70% of DirecTV, which has been spun off into a standalone company). In a court document as part of the lawsuit, which was reviewed by CNN, Herring said that when he was thinking about creating a new cable channel, AT&T advised him to launch a news network.
“They told us they wanted a conservative network,” Herring said in a 2019 deposition for a separate case. “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.”
In the 2016 court document, Herring said a deal worth approximately $100 million over five years had been struck with AT&T to carry his channel on DirecTV after AT&T completed its acquisition of the satellite provider, but that it had reneged.
In another document, also reviewed by CNN, Herring said AT&T had even proposed taking a 5% ownership stake in his company, and that this stake would guarantee OAN a spot on DirecTV’s channel lineup.
The ownership stake never materialized, but AT&T ultimately reached an agreement with OAN to carry it on DirecTV after the lawsuit was filed. The terms of that agreement were not disclosed publicly.
In a statement, an AT&T spokesperson said, “AT&T has never had a financial interest in OAN’s success and does not ‘fund’ OAN. When AT&T acquired DIRECTV, we refused to carry OAN on that platform, and OAN sued DIRECTV as a result. Four years ago, DIRECTV reached a commercial carriage agreement with OAN, as it has with hundreds of other channels and as OAN has done with the other TV providers that carry its programming.”
“DIRECTV offers a wide variety of programming, including many news channels that offer a variety of viewpoints, but it does not dictate or control programming on the channels,” the spokesperson added. “Any suggestion otherwise is wrong. The decision of whether to renew the carriage agreement upon its expiration will be up to DIRECTV, which is now a separate company outside of AT&T.”
A spokesperson for AT&T deflected when asked a series of questions from CNN. When asked, for instance, whether AT&T ever discussed acquiring a 5% stake in OAN, the spokesperson only said that it has “never had an ownership stake” in the channel. And when asked whether AT&T representatives ever suggested Herring start a news channel, the spokesperson only said that it initially “refused to carry” it when it acquired DirecTV.
“The only news network we ‘fund’ is CNN because it’s a part of AT&T,” the spokesperson said. “Just like we do with MSNBC, Fox News and other news channels, we simply have a commercial carriage agreement with OAN.”
Charles Herring, the son of Robert Herring and president of OAN’s parent company, did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
AT&T’s involvement with OAN drew swift criticism on Wednesday after Reuters published its report.
“We are outraged to learn that AT&T has been funneling tens of millions of dollars into OAN since the network’s inception,” National Association for the Advancement of Colored People President Derrick Johnson said in a statement. “As a result, AT&T has caused irreparable damage to our democracy. The press should inform the American public with facts, not far-right propaganda and conspiracy theories.”
“We are sickened by these revelations,” Johnson added.
CNN’s Katelyn Polantz and Brian Stelter contributed to this report.