One America News Network is having a moment. In April the small, right-wing national cable network made headlines when Chanel Rion, its White House correspondent, was banned from the briefing room by the White House Correspondents’ Association for ignoring social-distancing regulations. Since then, the network has supported the president’s claim that hydroxychloroquine, a controversial and potentially dangerous drug, is a cure for the novel coronavirus.
The drug has “proven to be miraculous,” Robert Herring, OAN’s owner and chief executive, said, falsely, on an OAN broadcast in May. He’d purchased hydroxychloroquine himself, he added, and was grateful to Trump for leading by example.
From the moment in 2015 that Trump announced his run for the White House, OAN, sometimes called OANN, has worked aggressively to curry favor. In 2016, it devotedly carried Trump’s rallies in full. Since he took office, the channel’s programming has consisted of incessant and uncritical coverage of the president and his policies. Its aim: access, and praise. But that hasn’t all gone to plan. Until recently, the big interviews with Trump and top cabinet officials were given to Fox and, every once in a while, CBS and NBC. “For us, it was difficult to get interviews with Ben Carson,” a former OAN producer told me.
In late 2018, Herring attempted to right this wrong by meeting with Trump and administration officials in DC. But when he returned to the network headquarters, in San Diego, he was glum, according to multiple employees present at the time. All he had gotten from Trump was a compliment on OAN’s graphics.
In the following months, however, the president began fielding more questions from OAN during press briefings. Last May, the network nabbed an interview with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. And throughout last year Trump repeatedly praised OAN on Twitter—perhaps with the intention of needling Fox, but praised nonetheless. “Thank you to One America News for your fair coverage and brilliant reporting,” the president wrote in October. “@OANN is doing incredible reporting,” he tweeted in December.
Charles Herring, OAN’s president and Robert Herring’s son, says that the network’s news shows are unbiased. “Our news anchors are NOT allowed to express their opinion,” he wrote to me in an email. “They are presenters, and the STAR of the show is the ‘news,’ not the talent.” But to tune in is to enter a dizzying alternaverse in which the least credible of Republican talking points are taken as fact. On OAN, Trump is perennially the victim of deep-state scheming. Democrats’ efforts to block a census citizenship question were a ploy to hijack the Electoral College. And the Pentagon, by investigating atrocities committed under the American flag, is waging a “war on warriors.” Last December, OAN ran a three-hour special in which Rion and Rudy Giuliani collaborated to “debunk the impeachment hoax.” (Russian state television later rebroadcast part of the special.)
I spoke with more than a dozen former and current employees of OAN, some on the condition of anonymity because they feared reprisal. A few had kind words for the network and for their coworkers, but collectively they described a circus, where ethics are absent, turnover is high, and dissent is met with rage. At the helm, they say, is Robert Herring, a wealthy businessman and kind of mini-Trump, whose near-singular focus seems to be supporting the president and his policies. “[Herring] is the network,” a former anchor told me. “He is in control of absolutely everything he wants to be, and if someone doesn’t like it they’re fired.”
THE ONE AMERICA BUILDING, a brutalist two-story, sits north of downtown San Diego, in an office park off Interstate 5 that is also home to a tile store, a Southern Baptist church, and a vending machine distribution company.
Robert Herring, who declined to be interviewed for this article, is around eighty years old and stocky, with bottle-brown hair. He was described to me as an eccentric who buys his dress shirts from Costco but lives with his third wife in a luxurious mansion with a tennis court, a pool, and a pond with a bridge across it in the front yard.
Herring is originally from Louisiana but moved to Southern California as a boy. He worked briefly in pet stores—“he once casually informed me that he knows how to anally express a poodle,” a second former anchor told me—and in the 1960s became a salesman for a circuit board manufacturer in Orange County.
Over the subsequent decades he founded, then sold, two circuit board companies of his own, for $60 million and $122 million. In 2004 he founded Wealth TV, a luxury-lifestyle network, which later became A Wealth of Entertainment, or AWE, with shows including Boys Toys, Private Islands, and Platinum Playgrounds. The San Diego Business Journal called Herring a longtime, self-described “news junkie.” He started OAN in 2013.
Herring’s employees, who call him “Mr. H” or simply “H,” say that he loves his network. Herring is often the first to arrive at the office and the last among the day shift to leave. He is also known as a night owl and frequently watches the network from home into the early hours of the morning. “We’d be getting ready for the 1am, and he would be commenting on it,” Kyle Warnke, a former producer, says.
Helping chart the network’s course are Charles Herring and another son, Bobby; as children, the brothers cleaned shop on afternoons and weekends in their father’s factory. Each man leaves his mark on the network’s content, but it is Robert Herring whose life and views dominate OAN programming.
While much of the network’s coverage is in lockstep with Trump—it is anti-immigrant and pro-police and rejects climate science—some of the content is pure Herring, staffers say. He drives a Tesla and is said to invest in the company, for example, so stories that reflect negatively on Tesla or Elon Musk are discouraged. (“If you keep running stories about Tesla, and the stock keeps going down, I may not be able to afford you all,” a former employee recalls him telling the newsroom.)
Herring’s grip on the network’s coverage gets even tighter when it comes to stories of greater importance. Police shootings of unarmed Black men are a well-known taboo at OAN. “We ignored certain stories just because H didn’t like them,” Warnke says. “Even when there were compelling reasons not to ignore them.”
OAN WASN’T SUPPOSED to turn out this way. The Herrings say their intention was to create a network that focused on dispassionate reporting, to fill a gap in the cable news landscape left by an industry-wide migration to punditry and “news analysis.” A 2013 Pew Research Center “State of the Media” report showing that news packages had declined significantly on other networks convinced the Herrings there was an opportunity for a network that pitched straight down the middle.
Robert Herring is known for thrift—he told the Business Journal he “can do more with less than anybody in the world”—and he’d been sold by the makers of a control room system called Ross OverDrive, popular among local news stations, on the idea of “news automation,” which promised that a single computer could take the place of a team of people in managing the video, audio, and graphical overlays of a newscast. The plan was for OAN to run preproduced packages from video news services like Reuters, with an anchor to read intros and outros and a bare-bones team behind the scenes to operate cameras and the computer.
The problem was that such automation only works if the newsroom is already well staffed, according to Gabe Soltero, a former news director who was one of OAN’s earliest hires in April 2013. Without writers and producers, the network would be entirely dependent on wire content and would have no ability to respond quickly to breaking news. Herring had hired only a handful of anchors, some production assistants, and four directors, only two of whom, including Soltero, had news experience. It quickly became clear that OAN needed more people, but persuading Herring to pay for more staff wasn’t easy. “We tried to explain to him what a producer is and what it did, and that just pissed him off,” Soltero says. In the end, Herring relented—even if he insisted on calling the producers who were brought on board “story pickers.”
On July 4, 2013—Independence Day—the network launched, broadcasting twenty-one hours of live news. The reports were basic, and the majority of each news hour repeated the content from the hour before it. But it was something for everyone involved to feel proud of. “When we got there, it was not even a studio,” Renee Summerour, an early production assistant and anchor, says. “We helped build a station from the ground up.”
But Herring quickly assumed control. As soon as he understood that his staff had the ability to write the news, he began sending the news team must-run stories, often from far-right websites such as Breitbart and the Gateway Pundit, whose penchant for conspiracy aligned with Herring’s own seemingly insulated worldview, former employees say.
“From the get-go, there was no understanding of, ‘We are journalists and we follow the ethics of journalism,’ ” Soltero says. Bright-eyed, in his twenties, Soltero frequently approached his boss to suggest that the network verify facts, or that it steer clear of conspiracy theories. Herring welcomed the conversations but never budged. “I realized that he gets entertainment from debating us,” Soltero says. “He will never change his mind, but he enjoys the debate.”
When the 2016 presidential campaign season kicked into gear, Herring saw an opportunity to court Republican candidates’ attention. In August 2015, he hired Sarah Palin to guest-host the evening talk show On Point; her swooning interview with Trump was so popular that online searches for it crashed OAN’s website. Then, that fall, a handful of staffers decided to air a Trump rally in its entirety—not for partisan purposes, Soltero, who was in the newsroom, says, but because it struck them as an opportunity to stand out from Fox and CNN, which were not running the rallies at the time. “We were like, ‘Let’s do it and see what happens,’ ” Soltero says. The rally was a hit.
“I come in on Monday, and Mr. H is all excited,” Soltero recalls. “He’s like, ‘Did you see the ratings?’ ” From then on, OAN went live with all of Trump’s rallies and events. Production teams planned entire news hours only to scrap them minutes before showtime because somewhere out there Trump was talking. When the network missed a rally once, due to technical difficulties, it tweeted a public apology.
To an extent, this was just good business: the more viewers, the better. But Herring seemed increasingly driven by personal affinity. “H was filled with Trump-mania,” Soltero says. He even observed Herring sending a gift basket, with wine bottles, to the Trump campaign.
Despite the network’s conservative tilt, many of its former and current employees identify as politically liberal. As the network lurched to the right during the campaign, some told me, the wall-to-wall Trump coverage gave them a view of something happening in the country that mainstream media outlets seemed to be missing. The day after the election, recalls the second former anchor, “We all had this in-a-fog, depressed feeling. I said to [a colleague], ‘I feel like we’re a little bit responsible for this.’ And she goes, ‘I’ve been struggling with that all day.’ ”
That same day, Robert Herring wore socks that featured a roughly stitched likeness of Trump, with a shock of yellow hair.
THE ELECTION WAS A TIPPING POINT, and it showed in OAN’s coverage. “I used to turn to it when all the other cable channels were yelling at each other and talking about the same thing,” Marty Kaplan, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, says. In early 2015, Kaplan praised OAN for sticking to hard news in a Huffington Post column—a piece the Herrings use to this day to defend against their detractors. But after the election the network found its political ax to grind. Kaplan had once viewed OAN’s talk shows as “sand traps” in an otherwise “large green field,” he says. “But fairly quickly, it was more like the Sahara.”
Employees fed up with the network’s skewed coverage had already begun to leave over the previous year. Now, as OAN veered further from reality, some staff members revised their résumés to read “Herring Broadcasting” instead of “One America News” in the hope that prospective employers wouldn’t ask any questions. “There was a lot of worry, a feeling that having our names associated with this product would be detrimental to our careers,” Soltero says.
For the writers and producers who remained, the pressure to fall in line became suffocating. Democrats in scandal were in; Republicans in scandal were out. When referring to Hillary Clinton, it was never “former presidential candidate,” it was “twice-failed presidential candidate.” When selecting stories, writers and producers were to give the impression of a crisis: crimes in Europe committed by immigrants, for example, were typically preferred over stories about the EU. And when they strayed, the story was killed. Kendra Sitton, a former nighttime producer, once turned in a report on migrant deaths in the Texas desert, which she thought might humanize the border debate. She was warned not to write anything like it again.
“You want to help, want to put together a good show, want to look good compared to your coworkers,” Sitton says. “So having your stuff thrown out, it’s demoralizing.… In the long run, you wind up self-censoring.”
OAN relies heavily on young, inexperienced staff who work for low pay. Sitton was twenty-two when she started at the network and glad to find any job in journalism at all. She wasn’t alone. “Some of us would discuss amongst ourselves how different it was and that we knew it wasn’t proper,” Jorden Hales, a former writer, says—but with relatively little experience in newsrooms, staffers weren’t always sure if they should push back. Hales shared an email sent by OAN’s top producer instructing writers not to cite their sources, even though the network did little original reporting. “Keep it vague,” the email read. “We don’t want every story to say ‘according to CNN’…because it looks like we are using all other websites for all of our stories.” But that’s exactly what the newsroom was doing, Hales says.
In a typical newsroom, a show’s content might be determined in an editorial meeting. At OAN, the process was more scattershot. Each day, news directors presented writers with a wide pool of potential stories that needed writing. Stories coded as “H stories” were the top priority and usually came from far-right websites. The writers were technically free to choose whichever stories they wanted from the pool, which for those concerned with ethics prompted a rush for those pieces that could be written without a slant, David Jones, another former writer, recalls. Business and tech stories, even if about Tesla, were popular, as were local news stories that were more resistant to partisanship.
Firings were common. On a weekday in May 2017, Robert Herring barged into a studio in the middle of a live broadcast. “Who told you to say that?!” he shouted at an anchor in plain view of rolling cameras. The director motioned wildly to cut to commercial. The anchor had read a tweet on air that Herring thought—incorrectly, multiple employees say—was disparaging of Trump. “Did you tell her to say that?!” Herring yelled at a producer, a young woman, who was fired immediately. The anchor quit soon after.
In time, conservatives in the building grew emboldened. In October 2018, on the day Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court, applause carried audibly through the building. The same year, a conservative writer in the newsroom verbally attacked liberal coworkers on his shift with slurs and insults. The employee was ultimately fired. But even when management did the right thing at OAN, Robert Herring’s own behavior kept employees on their toes.
Employees said Herring watched them on CCTV cameras placed throughout the building and reprimanded them when he saw them visiting websites he didn’t like. He clocked one anchor’s movements during her lunch break, watching her car from his office window, and admonished her for returning to the office four minutes late. Another anchor was vehemently accused of shilling for Obamacare after he read on air that it was the final day to sign up. “We want it to fail!” Herring scolded.
Once an employee got on Herring’s bad side, Herring became suspicious and vindictive. “I’m concerned that you actually work for him,” the first former anchor, who left in 2017, told me, “and that he’s having somebody call former employees to see what they say.”
In February, a San Diego jury ordered OAN’s parent company, Herring Networks Inc., to pay $1.1 million in damages to Jonathan Harris, a former producer, who was fired after complaining of racial harassment at the network. According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, the jury did not find OAN guilty of racial discrimination but said Harris’s complaint itself had clearly motivated his firing.
IN OAN’S SEVENTH YEAR of operation, many of the basic aesthetic trappings of a national network are still missing. The lighting in shots is often flat; cameras are out of focus. The sound is off, with airy room tone and microphones placed too far away from those talking. Scripts contain poor grammar, and presenters stumble over their words, even in recorded segments that could have been reshot. (The network hires for experienced news positions on Craigslist.) And the reason the network goes by both OAN and OANN is because oann.com was the cheaper URL.
It makes up for these shortcomings with outlandish and unnecessary exaggeration. The network’s bio for Rion, the White House correspondent, says she is believed to be the first journalist in the world to report, in January, that Ukrainian Flight 752 had been shot down by an Iranian missile. (In fact, Newsweek had published an entire piece before Rion even tweeted.) In a recent segment on the coronavirus, Jack Posobiec—a semi-prominent alt-right troll who was instrumental in propagating the 2016 “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory, and who is a political correspondent for OAN—suggests he was uniquely prescient in predicting a pandemic. “Jack, you’re one of the few people who I’ve seen consistently following this situation,” the anchor in discussion with Posobiec says, endorsing his claim.
Perhaps none of this matters. In January, the Wall Street Journal reported that Hicks Equity Partners, owned by the family of Thomas Hicks Jr., cochairman of the Republican National Committee and a personal friend of Donald Trump Jr.’s, was exploring an OAN buyout. At the time, Charles Herring said the family business was not for sale. Then, this month, Vanity Fair reported that an investment group “aligned with” Hicks Jr. and Trump Jr. had acquired a major stake in the network, with an eye toward a “Trump TV,” possibly, to ensure the president maintains a news platform even if he loses reelection in the fall. Robert Herring subsequently denied the deal, adding that Hicks Equity Partners was not the only interested buyer.
The Herrings did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.
It’s not clear how many people are actually watching OAN. The network reaches thirty-five million homes across the US, up from about thirty million in 2017. But that’s still a fraction of the roughly ninety million homes reached by Fox, CNN, and MSNBC. Cable providers AT&T U-verse, DirecTV, and Verizon Fios carry the channel, but other majors including Comcast Xfinity and Charter Spectrum do not. (“Call your cable provider & demand OAN be added to your cable line-up!” a banner on OAN’s website implores.) The network claims to be the country’s fourth-ranked cable news network, ahead of Fox Business, CNBC, and others. It bases that on Comscore set-box data, rather than Nielsen ratings, which Brian Stelter, of CNN, has pointed to as a sign that the network’s audience might actually be quite small. Nielsen, he emphasized, and not Comscore, is the industry standard.
But Robert Herring is above such petty debates. “Our ratings are going up because we treat you like you are the President of the United States,” Herring tweeted at Trump recently. “Your ratings are going up because you are doing a great job. Let’s keep it up!”
TOP IMAGE: Screengrab via YouTube