Trump’s Favorite TV Network Is Post-parody

One America News, or OAN, or OANN—whichever you like, it’s all the same thing—is Donald Trump’s favorite cable-news channel. Mostly this is because One America News seems to agree with Trump about everything, in the same way a dog agrees to chase its own tail. Every day, Trump does something that catches OAN’s attention, and it’s off to the races. He’s part ringleader, part muse. If you’re wondering just how deep the fealty goes, consider this actual headline that ran on OANN.com at the end of March, when Trump was still in his denial phase about the coronavirus: “President handling emergency well in first term.” So well, in fact, we should just give him that second term right now, wouldn’t you say? Every so often, Trump and Fox News have a lover’s spat, and this is when he really turns on the charm toward OAN—retweeting its praise of him, calling on its correspondents at press briefings two days in a row. Or, to put the relationship in tabloid terms familiar to Trump: he treats OAN like his sidepiece, and Fox News like a future ex-wife.

One America News predates the Trump presidency—it launched in 2013—so its rise is less a response to Trumpism than an extension of the besieged, paranoid worldview that got him elected in the first place. In 2018, well after the debunking of Pizzagate—the allegation that Hillary Clinton and a secret cabal were running a pedophile ring out of a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant—the network hired one of Pizzagate’s chief boosters, Jack Posobiec, as an on-air correspondent. (Posobiec has backed down from the Pizzgate theory, telling The Washington Post in 2016 that he thought his live-streamed look into the pizzeria “could just show it was a regular pizza place.”) OAN covered the so-called migrant caravan—a slow-moving wave of migrants that began rolling north from Central America in 2018—as if it was a Category 5 hurricane. OAN has referred to the 2016 murder of Seth Rich, a Democratic National Committee employee, as if it might have been a political assassination; tin-foil-hat corners of the internet have connected it to the leaking of DNC emails. Recently, OAN has been advancing the theory, without any evidence to support it, that the coronavirus was developed in a Chinese bioweapons lab, and spread from there. Soon enough, The New York Times reported that administration officials were pushing the intelligence services to investigate, even as the theory was debunked on the front page.

“Our big secret and a key differentiator of OAN from other cable news networks is that the star of OAN’s news lineup is the news, not the talent,” Charles Herring, the network’s president, told me by email recently. Now on the one hand, ouch—on-air talent likes nothing more than hearing their boss say they weren’t chosen for their talent. On the other hand, he’s right: At OAN, what comes out of their mouths is far more important than how well they say it. To watch OAN is to experience the Trump presidency the way Trump himself would cover it, if he built a network from the ground up and then, as he did with his administration, hired amateurs to run it. I spent hours watching OAN, and the whole time I found myself yearning for the skill and professionalism of Fox News. In the age of alternative facts, though, a news network doesn’t need polish to be dangerous. All the talent needs to do is look into the camera and read off the teleprompter.

Trump’s frequent shout-outs have turned OAN into a minor media sensation, and its coverage has been described as “fast paced,” which is only true if you’re comparing it with the burning-Yule-log channel. As I watched One America, it gradually dawned on me that I was watching Anchorman. Everything was so earnest and slapdash, and so transparently inane. In both appearance and metabolism, OAN is a nostalgia machine—familiar, reassuring, the Turner Classic Movies of cable-news networks. It’s built for the members of an aging #MAGA army who want to be comforted by news the way they remember it. The same good news, the same bad news. The same invisible enemies too, so that even the nightmares come wrapped in a warm blanket. Gang violence at the top of the hour, baby pandas at the bottom. OAN is post-parody: It’s the straight truth for Trump fans, and completely surreal for everyone else.

[Read: The pro-Trump conspiracy theory that’s becoming a new religion.]

OAN was born on the Fourth of July seven years ago, when Trump was already deep into his birtherism phase. The network is headquartered in an office-park cul-de-sac in San Diego, a city that, in addition to being the setting for Anchorman, is the longtime corporate base of One America’s founder, the microchip multimillionaire and aging paterfamilias Robert Herring, Charles’s father. Robert built his fortune as a manufacturer of circuit boards, cashing out of two companies in 2000 with  $122 million. He and Charles broke into television in 2004 with WealthTV, now known as AWE (A Wealth of Entertainment), a cable channel that would feature shows such as Cheese Chasers and Dream Cruises. Robert also started giving money to conservative causes. In 2005, he made news when he offered $1 million to the husband of Terri Schiavo—a young woman who spent years in a vegetative state as her husband and parents fought in court over whether to end her life—if he agreed to keep her on life support. (He declined the offer.) When Robert and his son decided Fox News had gotten too soft, too centrist, they launched One America to compete with it.

Robert Herring does not poke his head out much, granting only the occasional brief interview to his local San Diego Union-Tribune. Since the coronavirus pandemic began, though, he has been tweeting about it regularly. On April 20, he posted about hydroxychloroquine, the antimalarial drug that Trump has touted as a cure for COVID-19—and now claims to have taken himself—despite the lack of evidence that hydroxychloroquine is an effective treatment for coronavirus and the emerging evidence that it may cause harm:

Not a word of this tweet is accurate, not even the part about Trump being the first to tell us about the drug. Robert just lobbed it out there, and then vanished behind his Twitter account. Like its founder, One America does not reveal much about itself. A two-page media kit on the network website carries this boast about One America: “Fast becoming the 4th rated national cable news channel!” But I couldn’t find a single press contact. The anchors seem to have written their own bios, possibly pasted from their Tinder profiles. Emily Finn, who is 23 according to AnchorsWiki.com, is described as someone who loves traveling (“especially to Dublin, Ireland ... her most favorite place in the whole world”) as well as “jamming to some classic rock music, or soaking up the sun at the beach.” I scoured the site, clicking on every tab, until I happened to click on a page called “Affiliate Relations,” and there it was, kindly supplied for OAN viewers: Charles Herring’s direct email address. So I emailed him. He emailed right back.     

[Conor Friedersdorf: Maybe Trump isn’t lying]

“One America News Network is a small family business,” Charles wrote when I told him I’d been surprised to find his personal contact information right there on the OAN site. “Our staff does the best job they can do with the resources we have. Many of our staff members play numerous roles, including me.” In another email, Charles wrote: “Glad that you have taken the time to watch on Roku (and thank you for the $4.99 per month! 😊) You’ll get a good sense of the channel by watching, rather than reading opinions from advocacy ‘journalists’ [who] admit they have never watched the channel. Let me know how I can be helpful.”

Anyone with a mobile device can watch One America in chunks on YouTube, or through the network’s app, or on the streaming service Roku, but the majority of One America’s viewers are, like Trump, TV watchers. In order to watch it on TV, you have to live in the right place, because only a smattering of U.S. cable operators carry OAN, representing a potential pool of about 35 million households, or less than a third of the total U.S. television audience. The network’s precise viewership remains a mystery. The Herrings don’t participate in Nielsen surveys and have declined to share subscriber data. But according to the scant available data from Comscore and conversations with industry analysts, at least 34.5 million of those households are not watching OAN.

The more you search for evidence of OAN viewers, in fact, the less they seem to exist. “If you look at the constellation of sources around the 2020 election, OAN registers but it doesn’t make the top thousand,” says Ethan Zuckerman, a Web 2.0 pioneer and media and public policy professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “That surprised me … but it seems like they’re really focused on being a TV network rather than a multimedia platform.” Indeed, most of the segments on OAN’s YouTube page have just a few thousand views. OAN often gets compared to Breitbart News, but it exemplifies a reversal of Brietbart’s strategy under Steve Bannon, which sought to leverage social media aggressively. One America may be relatively new, but it seems almost pre-web.

Breitbart really embraced this idea that it wanted to be shareable in all these sorts of formats—they wanted to show up in video, they wanted to go viral,” Zuckerman told me. “I don’t think that’s the game OAN is playing.”

Charles Herring was right: In order to understand OAN, you have to take in every second of airtime, from the Wikimedia stock footage of pills on a factory belt to the advertisements for military-grade tactical sunglasses. And then you have to think about what the hell happened in the world to produce such a sealed-off vision of modern life—half-comforting, half-paranoid, like a Truman Show for angry retirees. Every so often, you feel an invisible hand at work. On April 17, shortly after Trump had picked a fight with protective-mask-manufacturer 3M, One America aired a segment about a San Antonio–area nurse who’d made a medical-grade face mask that, according to the OAN anchor’s opening line, “works even better than 3M’s N95 mask.” The nurse boasted about her mask’s 99.5 percent filtration rate (which, if true, would be better than 3M’s) and the fact that so far she’d made 600 of them. The premise of this segment seemed to be: Eat it, 3M! Just a few commercial breaks later, an advertisement urged viewers who’d suffered hearing damage from faulty earplugs to join a class-action lawsuit against … 3M. Coincidence? Maybe. In One America’s America, though, there are no coincidences. Everything is a conspiracy.

All of One America’s anchors bear an uncanny resemblance to more famous anchors on other networks. The bespectacled, babyish-faced Alex Salvi hosts a prime-time show called After Hours that airs at 10 p.m., but before you get any naughty ideas, it’s more like watching a high-school production of All In With Chris Hayes. Then there’s Graham Ledger, who spent nearly 15 years anchoring San Diego’s KFMB-TV local news, which means that, yes, prior to joining WealthTV and One America, he was Anchorman’s Ron Burgundy. You could spend all day fuming about border security and still fall asleep face-first into a bowl of Ledger’s word soup. One of the soft bigotries of right-leaning opinion journalism is that brunettes don’t get to be righteously indignant—this is a job for spitfire blondes. Liz Wheeler, the host of 9 p.m.’s Tipping Point, is a slightly desiccated Megyn Kelly whose hobbies include emasculating the libs. If Ledger is OAN’s bid to take back the Anchorman archetype, Wheeler is a conservative fantasy of Ron Burgundy’s love interest and rival co-anchor, Veronica Corningstone.

Doppelgängers abound. Patrick Hussion, who hosts OAN nightly news at 5 p.m., which is technically the late afternoon, looks haunted, like a half-in-the-bag David Muir. John Hines, who interviews many of OAN’s big gets—regulars include Representative Devin Nunes of California and Health and Human Services secretary Alex Azar—has mastered Chris Wallace’s very sober manner, right down to the very sober head tilt. Wallace, though, is a born inquisitor. Hines is trained to heel. One afternoon, I watched him hold an expression of squinty encouragement for nearly five unbroken minutes as Nunes went on about a “highly suspicious” weapons lab in Wuhan and about the World Health Organization’s alleged ties to the Chinese Communist Party.

If you’ve encountered OAN out in the world, though, it’s probably not because of Ledger or Hines or Hussion. One America gets talked about for one overriding reason: Trump keeps calling on its correspondents during press conferences. By now, a pattern has emerged. He calls on an OAN correspondent; the correspondent asks a bewildering question; everyone in the briefing room turns around to see who the hell just asked the bewildering question; then Trump thanks the correspondent for serving up such an incisive meatball. For weeks, Trump labored to shift blame for the pandemic onto China by referring to the coronavirus as the “China virus” or “Wuhan virus,” provoking charges of thinly veiled racism. He received a helpful boost from the OAN’s chief White House correspondent, Chanel Rion, whose name is pronounced Sha-nell Ree-ohn. (Rion is Korean American; her father’s surname is Ryan.) Her question on the matter was more akin to a preemptive defense with a question mark stuck on the end: “Mr. President, do you consider the term Chinese food to be racist because it is food that originated from China?”

Rion does seem to have a knack for head-scratching behavior. According to a Daily Mail investigation, she changed her surname from Dayn-Ryan to Rion shortly before applying for a White House security clearance (which is a peculiar moment to change your name). The newspaper reported that Rion’s father, Dann Ryan, has gone by the names Christopher Preboth, Dan Ryan, Danford Nmi Dayn-Ryan, Michael David Ryan, and David Michael Ryan. One reason he may have changed his name so many times is because, according to the Daily Mail account, he kept getting accused of defrauding people in real-estate scams.

[Ellen Cushing: I was a teenage conspiracist]

Breaking news is very expensive and, for the Herrings and One America, very overrated. Charles Herring has said that his family pumps tens of millions of dollars into One America, but for a national TV-news operation, that’s pennies in a bottomless well. In all the hours I spent watching One America during the pandemic, I never saw evidence of a second camera in the studio. I never saw a field correspondent deliver a report from anywhere other than the White House. Some of the male anchors should not be dressing themselves.

In any case, why break news when you can just repeat the already broken stuff? When I emailed Charles about what he considers the high points of OAN’s history as a news network—an incisive meatball of my own—he didn’t seize the open invitation to boast. “The high points,” he replied, “are simply executing on our mission, namely providing credible national and international news. Having staff break important news stories is always a high point for any news organization.” It sure is. But he didn’t name any of those stories.

I thought Charles might tout the network’s hard-hitting coverage of the 2020 presidential election, in particular its coverage of Joe Biden. A vague theme emerged from the many segments I watched—see if you can spot it: “Joe Biden stumbled through another interview today .…” “Concerns about his cognitive decline are reportedly on the rise …” “Joe Biden’s gaffes continue—that’s according to his harshest critics.” (Yes, even Biden’s harshest critics were willing to speak out.) The anchors hit their prescribed marks with a mixture of amusement and pity. They could barely contain themselves at a clip of Biden referring to the coronavirus as “the Luhan virus.”                              

In my email exchange with Charles, I tried to nail down a few more answers. Given the tenor of One America’s pandemic coverage, I asked him if he personally knew anyone who had become ill with COVID-19. For some reason, he didn’t want to reply on the record. I also asked him for examples of times OAN has had to correct its work, because I couldn’t find very many myself. “Unfortunately, we make errors on a frequent basis,” he replied. “Most are very minor and simply corrected. At times, we’ve made on air corrections.” One correction I did find was a “Report removal” tweet walking back an infidelity accusation; the tweet repeated the original accusation and stated that the item was removed “pending additional sourcing.” Charles is right about how often One America gets things wrong, but wrong about how often One America sets them right.

Despite its tiny audience, One America can still be a useful vector for propagandists, both foreign and domestic, even unwittingly. A conspiracy theory that pops up only in, say, a Russian propaganda organ, or in the mouth of a spiral-eyed congressman, can’t travel as widely as one that receives some sort of American media imprimatur, however shabby.

This requires a bit of a dance to work. For instance, a guest can speculate ominously about Chinese plots, but the interviewer has to sit there, thunderstruck by the logic of it all, and not ask even the most basic of questions. Okay, walk me through this: Scientists in a Chinese bioweapons lab developed the coronavirus and then ... what? Turned it loose on their own people? Or did it get out by accident—a monkey escaped, a test tube spilled, that sort of thing? Liberated from critical probing, innuendo does its work.

For years, coastal elites roared with laughter at Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert as they dressed up as newsmen and turned a familiar ritual of American life into a nightly punch line. Throughout the Obama presidency, liberals comforted themselves with the idea that they’d mocked a certain kind of news program out of existence, and that sanity had triumphed. But during Obama’s second term, the post-truth pendulum swung back hard, from left to far right, from parody to propaganda, from Obama doctrine to Trumpism.

One America may be Donald Trump’s favorite news network, but that doesn’t mean he stays up all night watching it. If there’s one thing we can all agree that Trump really does know something about, it’s good (“good”) television, and I just can’t picture him having any patience for One America’s production values. “The key to success in this space is that you actually have to look enough like a news network to have some influence … and that’s what Breitbart did incredibly well,” the media analyst Ethan Zuckerman said. “It really has to have luster and gloss to it. And then when it’s simultaneously disturbing, that’s when it has power.” OAN, though, skipped the luster-and-gloss part. Zuckerman went on, “If you don’t have it—even if the product is really provocative—it’s going to fail.”

So many times while watching One America, I went back and forth about how “dangerous” it is, how alarmed we should be, what threat level it represents. One America’s sponsorship roster remains on the skimpy side—appliance insurance, class-action suits against Trump foes, a selection from the William Shatner oeuvre. The network has survived this long only because of the oxygen hose that Trump provides. And when he’s gone? One America isn’t Fox News. The Herrings aren’t the Murdochs. Someone else will replace them. It might be someone with much better news chops. It might be someone more insidiously adept at using the cover of journalism to erode trust in journalism. It might even be people with ties to Trump. According to news reports, the investment firm owned by the family of Republican National Committee co-chair and Texas investor Tommy Hicks Jr., a friend of Donald Trump Jr., has been exploring possible options.

Charles Herring demurred when I asked him about the rumors. “We didn’t build OAN to sell it and we are excited about the future,” he wrote. “We’ll look at any growth opportunities, yet we are not looking to sell our business." In that case, for the time being, let’s savor a virtue of the network that just about everyone can acknowledge: It’s unwatchable.