AT&T-owned DirecTV recently made headlines when it ended its contract with conservative cable channel Newsmax, cutting off the 4th-highest cable news channel from its 25 million DirecTV viewers.
DirecTV claims that its decision to remove Newsmax was simply a business decision related to the channel’s asking price for carrier fees, but Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy is calling DirecTV’s choice to walk away from the negotiating table “a blatant act of political discrimination and censorship against Newsmax.”
It’s the second time within the past year that DirecTV has cut ties with a highly rated conservative news network, with One America News (OAN) being shown the door last April. A year before that, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) and then-Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-CA) wrote to cable and satellite providers, urging them to remove Newsmax, OAN, and Fox News from their service offerings. Only Fox News currently remains.
As Ruddy’s network explains on its website, Newsmax was only asking to be treated on an equal playing field before being canceled.
“DirecTV pays cable license fees to all top 75 cable channels and to all 22 liberal news and information channels it carries,” it wrote. “Almost all of these channels are paid hefty license fees significantly more than Newsmax was seeking — and despite the fact that most of the channels have much lower ratings than Newsmax.”
Ruddy and Newsmax are not alone in wondering whether the move from DirecTV came from a partisan desire to silence conservative voices in the public square. Several members of Congress have signed a letter asking for clarity about the decision, and many other politicians have expressed concern that DirecTV’s action is politically motivated censorship. DirecTV may soon face an investigation by the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
It's hard to accept DirecTV’s argument that dropping Newsmax was purely about the numbers when it also dropped another top-performing conservative channel in April 2022.
According to a lawsuit filed against DirecTV, One America News saw very high ratings in quarter three of 2021 that put them in the top ten percent of channels, outperforming CNBC and Fox Business. But DirecTV decided to end its contract with them despite their high performance.
DirecTV’s 2022 decision to drop OAN—which came amid pressure from Democratic members of Congress and far-left groups like NAACP and Media Matters to do so—prompted five state treasurers to send a letter to AT&T demanding more information. In the letter, sent in October 2022, the treasurers wrote:
OAN’s cancellation followed on the heels of this media frenzy, suggesting that DirecTV bowed to the demands of political actors, rather than independently assess the financial costs and benefits of its contract with OAN— as it was required to do so as a fiduciary.” In addition to being a breach of its fiduciary duty to shareholders and other beneficiaries, the state treasurers said the decision “brands the company as a partisan operative, damaging its reputation with consumers, other cable channels, and the public writ large.
The state treasurers are right to raise these concerns. Pursuing political ends through a business enterprise betrays the interests of the company’s diverse shareholders and beneficiaries. It can pose a threat to society as a whole—especially when it’s done by de facto gatekeepers of public discourses like AT&T and DirecTV, whose decision to oust a channel makes it far more difficult for millions of Americans to hear from the conservative side of the political aisle.
Businesses like AT&T have a duty to respect the freedoms essential to American democracy and society. If a major carrier service engages in partisan de-platforming, it picks and chooses which opinions people are allowed to speak and hear, which threatens the free speech rights of everyone. Companies owe it to the public and to their shareholders to correct course and provide a substantive explanation when their decisions appear politically motivated.
The way forward for companies like AT&T is to commit to accountability in their practices and policies. AT&T can take a first step towards showing it respects freedom in its business practices by responding to the survey portion of the Viewpoint Diversity Score 2023 Business Index.
The company can also reassure lawmakers and the public that they will commit to freedom, not censorship, by adopting a Product or Service Anti-Viewpoint Discrimination Policy. This policy ensures that they do not condition or restrict use of their service based on the ideology, opinion, or perspective of a person or group. A public commitment to viewpoint diversity is a good step towards rebuilding trust with external stakeholders.
Major corporations should not be censoring speech and taking sides in public discourse. If AT&T—and other companies—want to assure lawmakers and the public that they are just engaging in good business, they must be transparent about their policies.