Magazine August 10, 2020, Issue

Don’t Watch One America News Network

(Roman Genn)
A report from someone who has, to his regret

On July 11, President Trump tweeted: “New documents just released reveal General Flynn was telling the truth, and the FBI knew it! @OANN.” It was a typical Trump tweet, perhaps even predictable by his standards; he has been complaining about the FBI and the treatment of Michael Flynn for some time. A less familiar element was the account tagged in the tweet: @OANN. Once an obscure cable-news outfit, One America News Network has seen a curious elevation in recent years, as its strategy to cater as much as possible to the president’s tastes has turned Trump into something of a fan. An examination of the network’s history, content, and controversies shows that this is an unfortunate development.

OANN was founded on July 4, 2013, by Robert and Charles Herring. Robert, the network’s CEO, is a San Diego–area millionaire who made his fortune in circuit-board manufacturing; Charles, his son, is the president. Robert’s prior history in television was creating the channel Wealth TV (now known as AWE), which highlighted high-end luxury items and lifestyles. Robert has described the goal of One America as filling more completely a market gap of news and opinion reporting from a conservative perspective to which only Fox News currently caters. “With only one outlet, if you happen to be an independent or a libertarian, or you are on the outside, you only have one platform right now, which is Fox,” he told the Daily Beast in 2017. “There just isn’t enough time in the day to have those voices heard. I see us as opening up another front, another platform.”  

It wasn’t a nonsensical idea, though the invocation of Fox was telling; the specter of that network and its success looms large in One America’s imagination. How well OANN is capturing any of that market is a bit of a mystery; the network does not participate in Nielsen surveys, though according to The Atlantic it is available in about 35 million television-owning households, about a third of the U.S. total, and also on streaming services such as Roku.  

The best way to learn about OANN is to watch it. But after having watched each hour of the network’s programming, from 6 a.m. to midnight (blessedly, over a few weeks and not all in one day), I cannot in good conscience recommend doing so. Its shows suffer from a general tedium and unprofessionalism that tend to make them simply dull, with occasional arresting interruptions of conspiratorial nonsense so far out of left (or right) field that one is left wondering whether the segment really just aired.

The most forgivable aspect of this unprofessionalism is a disproportionate focus on California news. Over the course of my watching, I saw more segments about California-specific news than about news from any other state: reports on Governor Gavin Newsom’s coronavirus measures, lawsuits filed by churches wanting to reopen, warnings about wildfires, etc. The network’s headquarters are in San Diego. But if One America wants to outdo Fox News, it should notice that Fox rarely covers New York City — the location of its headquarters — so disproportionately.

Then there are the network’s failures of basic cable-news competence. It seems to have been created by someone who has watched a lot of cable news and has a general idea of what it’s supposed to look like, but has no idea how to do it. According to Ernest Champell, a former OANN employee, that person is Robert Herring, whose management style is very hands-on. “He’s basically the news director,” Champell told me. “And [he] has no news experience.” So you still get some of the trappings of the cable-news look: dramatic logo graphics, foreign-affairs segments narrated by smart-sounding people with accents, etc. But the logos are too cheesy, and the segments abruptly end without someone on camera or on location wrapping them up. 

On top of that, there is the near-total lack of field correspondents; the careless use of B-roll and stock footage; the poor transitions between segments; the different anchors for different shows clearly reading off the exact same script, making different hours of programming hardly distinguishable from one another . . . You’d think that, at some point, all of this would start to improve. But over the course of my watching, I saw the same defects pop up over and over again. Say what you will about Fox; it certainly knows what it’s doing. Watching many hours of One America is like overeating store-brand candy: You feel stuffed and disgusting, and you haven’t eaten something good, just something that approximates something good. Allegedly, even Trump himself has noticed this, at least visually: According to the Daily Beast, the president’s assessment of OANN is: “Such great words, such awful visuals.” 

This general incompetence is also evident in something OANN does quite deliberately: its pervasive, almost relentless pro-Trump framing of the news. The Herrings started OANN with an at least defensible mission as a media corrective. But it’s one thing to cover the news from a conservative perspective; it’s quite another to create a kind of safe space for conservatives, where they are insulated from bad news or get it qualified in some way to make it palatable. 

In the news programming, it’s subtle, though hardly enough to justify Charles’s description of its content, when speaking to the San Diego Union-Tribune, as “hard news, fast paced, no fluff, no opinion.” Those segments dealing in some way with politics will key off of Trump tweets, statements by Trump-administration officials, or efforts by Republican politicians as though opposition to them simply did not exist. This is stifling; one recalls John Stuart Mill’s dictum that “he who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” But from a television perspective, it has a simpler defect: It’s boring. Television, including cable news, needs drama, and drama comes from conflict. But in much of the OANN world, there is no real conflict.

There is simulated conflict in OANN’s prime-time talk-show lineup, where its resemblance to Fox is perhaps the most apparent. Graham Ledger’s The Daily Ledger makes explicit the conservative safe-space attitude. His motto that opens every show is: “The doors to the newsroom are locked, and the PC police aren’t getting in.” During one episode, after Ledger called fear of coronavirus “a lie,” threatened to leave his church if it asks him to wear a mask during services, and dedicated an entire segment to reading and commenting on Trump tweets, I wondered if his content had barred the door to most viewers as well. But don’t worry. He always reassures us in closing, “Even when I’m wrong, I’m right.” The sum total of the proceedings is angry bluster: Sean Hannity without the nuance. 

Another feature of the prime-time lineup is Liz Wheeler, a weirdly unblinking host similarly given to hackery. The worst part of her show is “Across the Aisle,” an empty exercise in cable-news “bipartisanship” in which some unfortunate left-leaning guest is brought on for what is at best a display of two people talking completely past each other and at worst a ritual flaying. The aping of Fox here is obvious, but, like so much else at OANN, poorly done. 

There are two areas, though, where OANN outdoes Fox. Neither is to its credit. The first is the degree to which the whole enterprise subordinates itself to Donald Trump. It is one thing to cover him favorably; it is quite another to let him essentially dictate your programming. The network has a long history of this, dating back at least to the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, during which as a rule it covered all Trump rallies in full while depriving other candidates of the same treatment. Something like that practice remains in place today even as Trump is president. His words and deeds receive almost obsessive coverage — not just his tweets but also his press conferences and speeches.

At Trump press conferences, Chanel Rion, OANN’s White House correspondent, routinely asks questions that flatter or favor the president. (One such question last May concluded: “Does the White House get a sense that members of the Democrat Party are less confident in Pelosi’s leadership during this pandemic?”) In 2018, when the Trump administration revoked the press credentials of CNN White House correspondent — and self-proclaimed Trump heel — Jim Acosta, Fox News joined CNN’s lawsuit in D.C. District Court to get them reinstated, but not OANN: Robert Herring filed a brief in the White House’s favor. This past June, after Trump tweeted about OANN’s “report” accusing elderly activist Martin Gugino, who was manhandled and injured by Buffalo police, of being an “ANTIFA provocateur,” Robert Herring flattered the president even further to try to make the best of the network’s big moment: “Mr. President,” he tweeted, “why are you still watching Fox News?” “Later today, @OANN will be releasing a poll concerning the 2020 presidential race. It looks as though it will be in favor of @realDonaldTrump #OANN.” “Mr. President, you haven’t let us down on doing what you say and we won’t let you down as your source for credible news.” 

The second area in which OANN surpasses Fox is bizarre conspiracy theories. It was already my misfortune to have seen the segment on Gugino before Trump tweeted about it. It referred to the “so-called police brutality” that the Buffalo police video captured and called it a “false flag” (an event staged by malicious forces to engineer desired outcomes). The reporter, Kristian Rouz, who has also worked for Russian state-owned media, has been responsible for many other segments of dubious authenticity. During the period of my viewing, he also cited “new reports” that the left-wing movement to defund the police is actually a product of the “deep state” meant to incite chaos and enable voter fraud, and that contact-tracing — a method of analyzing and mitigating the spread of disease — is actually an attempt to suppress Republican voter turnout. Another recent segment opened with the Illuminati all-seeing eye and proceeded to tie together Bill Gates, George Soros, Anthony Fauci, the Clintons, the deep state, the World Health Organization, and the Wuhan Institute of Virology into a conspiracy theory that the coronavirus is a population-control bioweapon engineered in China and that the aforementioned entities are now scheming to ensure that the vaccine for it also emerges from China. (The network pulled this segment after its initial airing following complaints from other media outlets.) But, you know, they’re just asking questions.

This is hardly the only conspiracy-minded material to appear on the network, and Rouz is hardly the only personality who has presented it. Rion, the White House correspondent, for example, has considered the possibility that the novel coronavirus was engineered in North Carolina. That an elite pedophilia ring was being run out of a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant; that the Clintons arranged the murder of DNC staffer Seth Rich; that sexual-misconduct allegations against failed Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore were fake — all have received airtime and serious consideration on OANN. Jack Posobiec, who indulged in such theories before working for the network, has found a welcome home there. While I was watching, Laura Loomer, a conspiracy theorist and now an aspiring politician, got a chance to plug her congressional campaign on the ostensibly straight-news show Wall to Wall, hosted by Greta Wall. 

Even skeptics of Fox News, such as Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan, admit that it tries to do much better than that. “Say what you will about how low Fox News’s reporting and commentary can sink — and I have — but it seldom stoops this low. The network does make an effort, most of the time, to adhere to some sort of standards, citing where reporting came from and even trying to draw a line between reporting and opinion,” Sullivan wrote, citing some of OANN’s recent conspiracy theories. 

Despite — or perhaps because of — all this, President Trump continues to promote the network. By one count, he tagged OANN in tweets 23 times in 2019 and retweeted it three times that year. One such tweet, from last August, is a good example of Trump’s Twitter interaction with the network: “Watching Fake News CNN is better than watching Shepard Smith, the lowest rated show on @FoxNews. Actually, whenever possible, I turn to @OANN!” Smith, who has since left Fox, was by far the most willing of its prominent personalities to criticize Trump. Trump, who seems to value loyalty (to him) highly, seems also to like to wield the upstart network as a weapon against Fox, threatening to take “his” viewers there if Fox doesn’t get in line. Alex Salvi, another personality on OANN, told Politico that he thinks “the president does use us a little bit as a leverage against Fox News at times where he’s not happy with their coverage.” 

This is bizarre presidential behavior, to be sure. But so long as Trump is who he is, we should hope that he stays with Fox. For it would be truly unfortunate for the nation if One America News Network’s popularity and influence grew.

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Jack Butler is an associate editor at National Review Online.

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