Dallas Morning News rejects ad hammering AT&T for backing sponsors of Texas abortion bill, Democratic super PAC says

Key Points
  • The Dallas Morning News won't run an ad calling out AT&T by name over the company's donations to lawmakers who backed a strict Texas abortion bill, a Democratic super PAC says.
  • The newspaper cited a policy against calling out companies by name in ads, according to the super PAC, American Bridge. AT&T is headquartered in Dallas.
  • The ad was set to run on the Dallas Morning News' website Tuesday, but the newspaper rejected it overnight, according to American Bridge.

In this article

Supporters of reproductive choice take part in the nationwide Women's March, held after Texas rolled out a near-total ban on abortion procedures and access to abortion-inducing medications, in Brownsville, Texas, October 2, 2021.
Veronica Cardenas | Reuters

The Dallas Morning News won't run an ad taking aim at AT&T for backing Texas lawmakers who supported the state's strict anti-abortion law, according to the Democratic super PAC behind the spot.

The ad was supposed to run on the paper's website Tuesday. The newspaper said it had a policy against ads that call out companies by name, according to American Bridge, which paid for the ad. American Bridge said it submitted the spot to the newspaper last week.

The Dallas Morning News' decision came after CNBC reported Monday that the PAC, which is co-chaired by former Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards, was aiming to run spots blasting AT&T for supporting lawmakers who co-sponsored the Texas bill, also known as SB 8.

AT&T is headquartered in Dallas. The Dallas Morning News is owned by DallasNews Corporation.

An American Bridge spokeswoman forwarded to CNBC what she said was text from an email from a Dallas Morning News account representative.

"I just heard back from the ad approval department. I am sorry for the late notice but once it made it to the final approval, it was decided to ask for another revision. There is a history (before me) that The Dallas Morning News will not run advertising calling out specific companies by name," the text of the Dallas Morning News agent's email reads.

"I have gone to my President to see if we can change it around to run if we refer to AT&T without actually saying the name. I am so sorry about any and all inconveniences this causes you and your client. Unfortunately, I am not the final say, and am at the mercy of others. I will let you know once I hear back," the email says.

The PAC's final submission to the paper, which was reviewed by CNBC, did not include the AT&T logo but did mention the telecommunications giant by name. The PAC representative said they had yet to pay the newspaper for the ad placement. She later noted that "this publisher actually did request that we prepay. We gave them our payment information, but they haven't processed it so no funds have been released."

"AT&T helped fund the anti-abortion politicians who wrote the dangerous law," says a copy of the final digital ad that was intended to be placed within the online version of The Dallas Morning News. A picture of Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is depicted on screen.

The ad also calls on voters to "Tell @ATT to get #Offthebanwagon" and to urge the company to "stop funding anti-abortion extremists in Texas." Abbott is up for reelection in 2022 and could end up facing Beto O'Rourke, who ran for the Democratic nomination in the 2020 cycle after narrowly losing to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in the 2018 U.S. Senate race in Texas.

An AT&T spokesman told CNBC on Monday that the company has never taken a position on abortion and has no plans to change that policy. The representative also said that AT&T contributed to the campaigns of lawmakers who opposed the bill, as well.

Julie McClain Downey, vice president of strategic communications at American Bridge, blamed AT&T for the ads not being run.

"It is deeply disappointing that AT&T has taken such aggressive actions to silence its critics," she said. "For too long, companies have gotten away with lip service around empowering women, while simultaneously financing the anti-abortion extremists who wrote this bill, causing a reproductive health crisis in Texas. The public deserves to know about AT&T's hypocrisy and efforts to bury the truth."

Shortly after publication of this story, CNBC was sent a statement from Grant Moise, the president and publisher of The Dallas Morning News. In it, Moise defended the decision not to run the ad, which the paper had reviewed Monday.

"The Dallas Morning News reserves the right to edit or reject any advertising for any reason," he said. "We have been particularly cautious when advertising content assumes the intentions of another business. Our decision was based solely on our policy, not on any outside influences." 

The TV ads that take aim at AT&T are still expected to go on air in both Texas and Florida in the coming days. Florida Republicans have introduced an abortion bill similar to the Texas law.

The Texas law allows private citizens to sue people who are performing abortions in the state. It also allows private citizens to sue anyone who assists a person getting an abortion. President Joe Biden's Department of Justice sued Texas over the law after the U.S. Supreme Court allowed it to go into effect last month.

This is the second media outlet to reject an ad taking aim at AT&T, according to an American Bridge representative. DirecTV also rejected a version of the ad. DirecTV rejected it in late September, "citing ties to its parent company," according to the PAC's representative.

AT&T came to an agreement with private equity firm TPG to spin off its DirecTV, AT&T TV and U-Verse businesses. Under the agreement, AT&T and TPG formed a new entity called DirecTV that will own and operate the company's DirecTV, AT&T TV and U-verse video services. The Verge reports that AT&T retained a 70% stake in the company.

Though DirecTV did not respond to CNBC's requests for comment before publication, a person with direct knowledge of that decision told CNBC the ad from the company's perspective "does not meet the long-standing advertising guidelines designed to safeguard customers against controversial subject matter." This person declined to be named in order to speak freely.

Corporations have faced pressure to respond to various political topics within their home states, from laws about governing access to abortion to those setting standards for voting.

After Georgia's state lawmakers passed GOP-backed voting laws, multiple corporations such as Delta and Coca-Cola voiced their opposition. Many of those same companies have remained silent on the new anti-abortion law in Texas.

The online news outlet Popular Information reported that AT&T is one of the top donors to state lawmakers who co-sponsored the anti-abortion bill. Since 2018, AT&T has given more than $300,000 to the co-sponsors of the bill, according to Popular Information's reporting.

Feminist group UltraViolet says nearly a dozen primary sponsors of SB 8 have recently seen over $100,000 from corporate donors, including AT&T.

Popular Information listed CNBC parent company Comcast/NBCUniversal as another corporate donor, saying the media company has given $58,250 to the sponsors of SB 8 since 2018. A person familiar with the matter said that since 2018, the company has also given over $120,000 to campaigns of lawmakers who opposed the bill, more than double the amount of its donations to lawmakers who supported it. This person declined to be named in order to speak freely.

American Bridge spent over $85 million and raised almost an equal amount during the 2020 presidential election, according to data from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Over $50 million of that went toward taking aim at former President Donald Trump.

Top donors to American Bridge during that cycle include the Sixteen Thirty Fund, a nonprofit dark money group that does not publicly disclose its donors, longtime investors Reid Hoffman and Josh Bekenstein, and legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg, according to CRP data.

Disclosure: Comcast is the owner of NBCUniversal, parent company of CNBC.