It’s the president’s favorite “news” channel, and a cornerstone of America’s growing disinformation problem. It’s One America News (OAN), a rotating collection of wobbly conspiracies and gibberish that has more in common with a state-run disinformation network than a credible news organization.
OAN’s definition of “news” has included false claims of electoral fraud, baseless Kremlin-backed conspiracy theories, false claims that the novel coronavirus was developed in a North Carolina lab as part of a vast government conspiracy, and accusations that last summer’s protests over the police killing of George Floyd were part of a diabolical “coup.”
“According to the mainstream media, the riots and extreme violence are completely unorganized,” the network proclaimed last August. “However, it appears this coup attempt is led by a well-funded network of anarchists trying to take down the president.”
Last June, 75-year-old Martin Gugino had his skull fractured after being shoved to the ground by Buffalo police officers. Video clearly showed the elderly Gugino doing nothing wrong, but OAN insisted he was an “Antifa provocateur” using sophisticated tech to target the police.
“Newly released video appeared to show Gugino using a police tracker on his phone trying to scan police communications during the protest,” the network falsely claimed.
Tuesday, YouTube suspended the OAN channel for a week after the company uploaded a video promoting a bogus cure for COVID-19.
In seven years OAN has gone from completely unknown to being routinely amplified by Trump, catering in many ways to an audience of one. It is a symbiotic relationship, in which Trump can point to what vaguely look like news reports to buttress his own conspiracy theorizing, and the network, by providing them, can access his massive and loyal audience.
This relationship, like so much about Trump's presidency, is seemingly unique and aberrant. But while experts say OAN’s impact is overstated and future success unsure, they also warn that without a major course correction, the channel’s modest success is a troubling harbinger of dumber and more dangerous things to come.
OAN is the brainchild of millionaire Robert Herring, who ran a chain of Los Angeles pet stores before making his fortune printing circuit boards. In 2003, Herring created Herring Networks, which includes WealthTV, a self-proclaimed “lifestyle and entertainment cable network,” and OAN, which was launched in 2013.
Few gave OAN a second glance until it became a network exclusively dedicated to pandering to Donald Trump’s insatiable ego. Dating back to 2015, Trump touted the network and its coverage of his presidential bid, and throughout his presidency, he has praised and promoted it to his tens of millions of followers. Throughout election season, OAN heaped lavish praise on the president, even pulling polls that dared suggest Trump might not win his reelection bid. And post-election, both Herring and the channel he founded have pivoted to parroting false Trump claims of rampant electoral fraud.
Much like the alternative-reality contemporaries OAN hopes to compete with, the channel’s unbridled dedication to Trumpism—and the relentless repetition of every conspiratorial MAGA brain fart—is routinely portrayed as objective journalism by company executives.
“We’re a no-fluff, very fast-paced live news service meant to inform,” Robert’s son Charles Herring told the Washington Post in 2017. “News anchors are not allowed to express opinions. They simply deliver the news and we leave it up to the viewers to decide. It’s not our family’s mission to determine the news.”
The president’s adoration of OAN means that despite being banned from briefings by the White House Correspondents’ Association for ignoring CDC safety protocols, the channel has been allowed to simply ignore the ban, and on any given week can still be found amplifying ludicrous claims from White House grounds with a quality reminiscent of high school A/V clubs.
Last week, OAN received yet another signal boost when Trump tweeted out a segment featuring bogus claim of electoral fraud propped up by “expert analysis” by Ron Watkins—son of 8kun (formerly 8chan) owner Jim Watkins—who is alleged to be a cornerstone of the QAnon conspiracy cult, where the false claim first originated:
But even with daily free marketing from the president, OAN’s real-world influence has been largely overstated.
OAN doesn’t subscribe to industry-standard Nielsen estimates, so accurately measuring its viewership has proven to be a guessing game for TV ratings firms. (OAN claims to reach around 35 million potential homes, little more than a quarter of the total number of U.S. homes that currently own a television set.) Research firms like Kagan estimate OAN’s reach to be 23 million cable subscribers, a significantly smaller potential footprint than right-wing outlets like Newsmax TV (58.2 million) or Fox News (78.6 million). When Nielsen attempted to more accurately measure how many of those users actually watch the channel last year, it wasn’t pretty:
OAN’s ambitions have been challenged by the fact that numerous major cable outlets, including Comcast, Spectrum, and Dish Network have refused to carry the channel. A June Bloomberg report attributed this reluctance to stringent OAN contract requirements, an asking price out of line with the channel’s quality, or a lack of interest in being associated with controversy.
OAN’s biggest cable distributor, AT&T/DirecTV, has been trimming costs due to sustained TV subscriber losses from cord cutting and mismanagement. Reports earlier this year indicated that OAN’s contract with AT&T is up for renewal next year, potentially removing AT&T’s 19 million potential viewers from the equation if a new deal can’t be reached.
Neither OAN nor AT&T responded to inquiries about the status of the contract.
While OAN may not be brainwashing a massive audience; it is providing plausible-seeming props and set dressing for Trump as he uses social media to create an alternate reality in which he won the election, defeated the coronavirus, and is unfairly besieged on all sides by mean journalists and the “deep state.” It’s a false reality OAN hopes to take to the mainstream.
The MAGA set has become furious at Fox’s failure to more fully embrace false claims of election fraud, and for (accurately) calling Arizona for Joe Biden before other outlets on election night. A recent Morning Consult poll found that Fox News’ favorability among Republicans dropped from 67 to 54 percent post-election—simply for occasionally telling viewers the truth.
But without free daily advertising from the president, overtaking Fox will be a steep uphill climb for the fledgling network—especially if OAN continues to double down on conspiracies and nonsense, Stanford professor of political economics Greg Martin told Motherboard.
“Fox News in some sense created the market for OAN, by building up the taste for conservative-slanted TV news in a large audience,” Martin said. But he added that Fox maintains its massive audience by including just enough hard news (like a legitimate election data team willing to call Arizona early for Biden) to keep at least the illusion of integrity intact.
Martin’s research has found that in terms of gaining cable TV market share, there are diminishing returns when it comes toward pushing extremism at your target audience, suggesting that OAN’s quest to out-conspiracy Fox might not be a winning formula.
“One of the points we make in the paper is that there is a tradeoff in moving farther towards the ideological extreme: if people watch, you'll have greater influence on their beliefs, but you also increase the risk that they are turned off by it and don't watch at all,” Martin said.
Martin added that Fox has been very successful at this balancing act to create the illusion of mainstream respectability, but a network like OAN positioning itself even further to the right of Fox is likely to be drawing viewers from a limited pool of total viewers.
“Fox has already pushed the envelope about as far as you can go before the returns to additional ideological extremity start to turn negative,” he said. “So I am skeptical that OAN will achieve anything like Fox's influence on public policy and politics in the US, even if its ratings were to continue to grow.”
While OAN may never see the same level of success as Fox News, it doesn't have to: It has had, and could continue to have, real effects on the public discourse just by inverting the usual formula by which powerful people reach a mass audience via news outlets. And other media scholars say the success it has seen is a troubling omen for the future of U.S. journalism and America’s accelerating battle with disinformation and propaganda.
Victor Pickard, an American media studies scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, told Motherboard OAN’s rise comes at a major inflection point for U.S. media. With U.S. journalism facing an existential and financial crisis—and so many bad faith actors looking to fill the vacuum created—OAN will likely be the least of our problems.
“It's difficult to imagine a surefire way to undo the damage to our media ecosystem, but one key piece of any solution must be to rebuild local journalism, whose dissolution has created the vacuum into which all manner of conspiratorial nonsense and disinformation has rushed in,” Pickard said.
Decades of corporate consolidation and layoffs have hit local journalism particularly hard, replacing quality local reporting with a troubling combination of Facebook conspiracies, Trump-loyal disinformation empires like Sinclair Broadcasting, and a flood of even more malicious actors looking to disguise corporate and political propaganda as legitimate local news.
Researchers have shown repeatedly that as local journalism is replaced with homogenized fluff and nonsense, Americans not only become less informed and more divided, but local corruption reporting falls through the cracks. In some instances, a lack of quality reporting has been directly linked to a measurable impact on election results.
Pickard noted that without addressing the underlying rot that fertilized the rise of the U.S. disinformation problem in the first place, things are likely to only get worse.
“Several structural conditions enabled the rise of OAN,” Pickard said. “First are the commercial values that incentivize media outlets to privilege profits above all else,” he said. “The proven formula of outrage-driven commentary is both cheap to produce and captures audiences' attention, which advertisers covet.”
In short, we’ve created an entire information ecosystem that prioritizes engagement above accuracy or insight, one in which it’s often not as profitable to tell the sometimes-boring but important truth.
Pickard has been a consistent advocate of providing more public funding for U.S. journalism as an antidote to the corrosive impact of engagement-based advertising. He also advocates for stronger “public interest protections that mandate social responsibilities such as maintaining ideological balance and fact-based coverage in our news media.”
In the 1940s the FCC passed the Fairness Doctrine, which required that broadcast news outlets cover issues of public interest fairly. But the rules were demolished in 1987 after Republicans spent years demonizing them, insisting they violated the First Amendment. Even if still around today, the rules would have only applied to broadcast television, not cable TV.
With inflammatory nonsense so profitable and Congress increasingly divided, a more modern proposal seems all but doomed. In its place, U.S. media policy has consisted of rubber stamping problematic mergers, eliminating decades-old media consolidation rules, and doubling down on an ad-based media environment that only tends to reward the inflammatory.
Without a major funding boost for real journalism and a massive rethinking of U.S. media policy, “news” empires like OAN will continue to see outsized influence on U.S. discourse, Pickard said—and it's not hard to imagine the possibilities for more sophisticated actors creating bespoke fake news for powerful politicians and political movements. Media experts also argue more mainstream journalists and outlets need to rethink their role in amplifying or validating bad faith viewpoints in a misguided quest for artificial balance.
“I predict that our news media in general will continue to worsen because there's less and less actual journalism,” Pickard said. “Meanwhile, the rightwing, fact-free media model is a proven money maker with no countervailing force.”
As trust in institutions is eroded, the public tends to turn to dubious, sometimes terrible alternatives to reinforce their shaken worldview. OAN wasn’t the first “news” outlet to exploit our failure to prevent conspiratorial thinking from being mainlined into the American bloodstream, and without a dramatic shift in U.S. media policy and funding, it certainly won’t be the last.