One OAN anchor who read the message came away frustrated. The note, this anchor told me, had omitted a major part of the unfolding story that’s sweeping the nation during this turbulent American spring: Police brutality in response to peaceful protesters—a subject the cable network’s owners had a history of eliding in their coverage, beginning with civil unrest in Ferguson in 2014.
“It doesn’t explicitly say not to cover police brutality, but it’s not included in the email,” said this anchor, who asked for anonymity in fear of retribution from the network’s owners. “It discourages us from striving for objectivity when covering these protests—when there’s obviously been violence on both sides.”
It might be surprising that such sentiment exists in the newsroom at OAN, known as more loyal to the president than even Fox News. Founded and run by tech-business tycoon Robert Herring and his family, known as editorially tight-gripped, hands-on owners, it broadcasts to some 70 markets across the country, carrying every last minute of Trump rallies. It touts any silver lining in re-election polls for the president. And its chief White House correspondent, Chanel Rion, routinely serves up softballs for Trump during briefings.
But according to four current OAN employees, including three anchors, and two former OAN producers, most of the journalists they know at the network’s headquarters consider themselves liberal. For some, taking a job at the national network was a way to leapfrog small regional broadcast jobs—a Faustian bargain they say leads to high turnover in the newsroom.
“I’ve worked on every shift now (morning, afternoon and & overnight) and can objectively say there is only one or two hardcore conservatives” in the newsroom, said one anchor via text. (The anchor’s analysis didn’t include evening opinion hosts.)
This dynamic is, according to several of the employees I spoke to, leading to tensions inside the newsroom as OAN makes headlines for its controversial coverage of coronavirus and the anti-racist protests. They said that in recent weeks they have felt everything from “horrified” to “defeated” at their own network’s reporting on the protests and are concerned that the management is pushing them towards increasingly conservative coverage angles. These employees said they feel pressured to cover angles that will protect network founder and CEO Robert Herring’s business investments.
In recent years, Herring has become more and more concerned about the ideological leanings of his employees, according to Chris Pocock, a newswriter and producer who worked at the network for four years, beginning in 2015 and ending last March. At the same time, Herring, known by his employees as “Mr. H,” has also become more involved in the coverage.
“People with left-leaning beliefs were treated with suspicion by Mr. H—though with some exceptions, hardly anyone in the newsroom agreed with the direction the newscast had taken,” Pocock, who left because he was frustrated with the network’s one-sided coverage, told me in his first-ever on-the-record interview about his time at OAN.
A current network anchor told me that Herring and his son, Bobby, once made a list of newsroom employees and their assumed political leanings (liberal or conservative), with photos appearing next to names. The Herrings then interrogated each employee on the list as to whether that political affiliation was correct, according to that anchor, who was one of the people questioned. (Pocock said he heard about the list but was not questioned.)
OAN didn’t directly address questions about that interrogation. After answering several questions about the network’s relationship to Trump, the network’s future and their coverage, OAN president Charles Herring, Robert’s son, and OAN spokeswoman Krista McClelland stopped responding to my queries. “It’s complete FALSE garbage, not worthy of legitimate reporting,” McClelland wrote me in response to several questions I asked her, but she would not clarify to which claim she was referring.
McClelland also declined to provide a breakdown of the network’s total number of employees, or the number of employees at its San Diego headquarters, or New York or D.C. bureaus: “We don’t believe that other businesses would provide such information,” she said. The employees I spoke to estimate that they have about 30 newsroom colleagues in San Diego—that is where the network’s owners are based too—and said that the New York and D.C. bureaus are much smaller. OAN did not make reporters available from the New York or D.C. bureaus. None of the six OAN employees based in New York and D.C. I contacted returned messages seeking comment. Six other San Diego employees I contacted didn’t return my messages; a seventh declined an interview.
When I spent more than 14 hours watching OAN’s coronavirus coverage in May, I found that much of the content was pretty much straight-down-the-middle—for example, an interview with former Veterans’ Affairs Secretary David Shulkin about how the coronavirus was affecting vets—a source you might not expect, given his ouster by Trump—or dispatches on hydroxychloroquine that mention the drug isn’t FDA approved. And much of it is actually straightforward syndicated news: Throughout the day, the network runs packages from Reuters and the Associated Press. The employees I spoke to say they and their fellow progressives in San Diego are the people who read, write and produce this coverage.
These reports, however, are dwarfed in attention by a smaller percentage of coverage at the network that is flagrantly pro-Trump and often veers into conspiracy territory: partisan dispatches from reporters such as Rion and the correspondent Jack Posobiec—both of whom work in the D.C. bureau—not to mention nightly opinion shows helmed by commentators like Graham Ledger and Liz Wheeler, both based in San Diego.
The friction this situation creates was suddenly on display earlier this month. On Friday, June 5, a few days after the email from Schickedanz arrived in his inbox, the anchor was surprised when the network ran a package on Martin Gugino, the 75-year-old Buffalo man who was shoved by police officers and whose head smacked concrete beneath him, blood pooling around his right ear. “TWO ‘NEW YORK STATE’ POLICE OFFICERS ARE SUSPENDED FOLLOWING AN INCIDENT THAT PUT A 75-YEAR-OLD MAN IN SERIOUS CONDITION,” read a script I obtained from a newsroom employee.
An OAN anchor I spoke with believed that story had run because it hadn’t been seen by higher-ups at the network. The writer of that segment, said the anchor, drafted the script at 2 a.m. early Friday, “so there weren’t any bosses around besides the other producers.” The anchor didn’t know the writer’s identity, but could see the script was written during a 2 a.m. shift.
By Sunday, OAN was reporting a far different version of the story. In this one, Kristian Rouz, a Russian reporter who reports for OAN and Russian propaganda site Sputnik, called Gugino an “ANTIFA provocateur” who was interfering with police work. It was a baseless theory. But on Tuesday morning, Trump, an avid watcher of OAN, glommed onto the conspiracy and tweeted about it. (OAN has previously said Rouz’s work for Sputnik is unrelated to his work at OAN. Rouz did not respond to a request for comment.)
“When I saw the story I immediately thought, ‘this is wrong,’” an OAN anchor said of the network’s smear of Gugino. “No matter what he may have been doing, he didn’t deserve what happened to him. Why speculate when the man isn’t even in a position to defend himself after getting his skull cracked open? It’s just in poor taste.”
Robert Herring seemed to double down on the conspiracy theory later in the morning, in response to criticism, tweeting: “Follow-up reporting coming later today on @OANN ! We have information to challenge those who are questioning the facts.”
Unearthing even the most quotidian facts about OAN is a heavy lift. The network’s press kit is a two-page PDF with fewer than 300 words of copy. The nearly seven-year-old network doesn’t subscribe to Nielsen Media Research, so industry-standard viewership numbers aren’t available.
But OAN’s fealty to the president has boosted the network as a reliable bit player in the Trump-era conservative mediasphere, ensconced among right-wing talk radio, Fox News and Sinclair Broadcasting. According to third party set top box data, OAN today is available in more than 35 million homes each night, giving it about a third of Fox News’ reach. The only audience data I could find were from last spring, when Nielsen briefly measured OAN’s ratings in the country’s biggest metro areas. During that time period, OAN averaged 14,000 total viewers while Fox News averaged 631,000 viewers.
But OAN is growing in influence—its ratings are up by about 55 percent from a year ago, according to Charles Herring. In January, the Wall Street Journal reported that Hicks Equity Partners, a company connected to Republican National Committee co-chair Thomas Hicks Jr., was spearheading a potential buyout of the network alongside GOP donors—a future vehicle for Trump following his presidency.
Long before Chanel Rion lectured what she has called the fake news media or dished out interrogatory alley-oops to Trump during White House press conferences, OAN’s very founding came at a partisan event. At the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference in March, OAN personality Graham Ledger walked to the podium to unveil the new network. Prior to his engagement with OAN, Ledger worked as an anchor covering hard-news headlines on another Herring Networks channel called A Wealth of Entertainment, formerly Wealth TV.
“Like Fruit of the Loom, I will be brief,” he said back in 2013 at CPAC to groans. He had a couple of questions for the audience.
“Do you approve of a mainstream liberal media that covers for the mistakes of this president?”
“No,” they shouted.
“Do you approve of a mainstream liberal media that won’t cover Fast and Furious?” He said, referring to the Obama-era gun-running investigation.
“No,” they yelled.
“And do you approve of a liberal media that distorts and lies about the record of Ronald Reagan?”
“No,” they shot back.
“Well I’m as frustrated as you, but you know what? I have a solution. Yes, there is a solution. It’s One America. This is going to be your network.”
A few months later, on July 4, OAN flickered to life.
From the beginning, the network aimed to become the C-SPAN of cable newsers: No talking heads, aside from a few opinion shows, and news delivered 21-hours a day from a studio. And from 2013 to Trump’s presidential campaign, the network largely toiled in obscurity. When Pocock arrived in 2015, just before the Republican primaries, he was happy to land a job at one of San Diego’s two TV news stations (the area is also home to KUSI, an independent station owned by McKinnon Broadcasting). Back then, he didn’t get the impression OAN was conservative from the job posting or his interview. “The coverage then was much more down the middle and left mostly to producers,” Pocock told me. “And as far as I can remember, there were no rules yet dictating coverage and what stories to avoid. Writers and producers were generally enthusiastic because it really was a great opportunity for people right out of college.”
Over time, Pocock said, founder and owner Robert Herring became more involved in the newscast. As Trump ran for president, the network became known for covering his rallies and quashing negative stories about the then-candidate. When Mitt Romney gave a blistering March 2016 speech about Trump, for example, Herring told his journalists: “Do not carry the Romney speech live,” according to a 2017 report from the Washington Post.
“OAN’s focus, namely providing a credible source of national and international news, hasn’t changed since its launch on July 4, 2013,” Charles Herring told me in an email.
In August of 2015, when Trump said Fox News debate moderator Megyn Kelly “had blood coming out of her eyes” and “blood coming out of her wherever” after she questioned him, Pocock said Robert Herring assigned him the story. “Mr. H got mad that I said Trump ‘attacked Megyn Kelly,’ suggesting that was an unfair representation because ‘she had gone after him during that debate’ and therefore wasn’t a victim,” Pocock recalled.
Pocock told me other dictates soon popped up. “We were told through our executive producer to avoid stories slamming Russia (because H’s wife was from Russia, not election interference), stories about unarmed black people being killed by police, and negative stories about Trump or Tesla—because Mr. H. owned stock and several Tesla cars, and was worried that negative press from OAN would bring down its value,” Pocock said. A current anchor also recalled hearing the network was not to cover Tesla negatively because Herring owned company stock and owns a Tesla, which Herring drives to work. Another current OAN employee didn’t know whether Herring owned Tesla stock, but also learned during training that “Tesla is on our list of ‘pro’ coverage topics.”
Morale at the station began to sink, Pocock remembers. Those who stayed became close. “There was a sense that we were in the trenches together, trying to make conservative-leaning though factual news coverage,” he said. “Most employees thought the idea behind OAN was great—constantly refreshing programming purely focused on the news of the day, something like a Twitter newsfeed on your TV, during a time that CNN, FOX and MSNBC were pivoting to round tables and talking heads—but that it was horribly mismanaged.”
For example, Pocock said the network required three sources to support a story, but that rule became inconsistently applied. “Conservative stories would pass muster with two sources, while much higher standards would be applied to left-leaning ones,” Pocock recalls. Pocock said he was once reprimanded by Herring after suggesting InfoWars, a radio show and website widely recognized as peddling false conspiracy theories, wasn’t an accurate source. He said he was told to keep his “liberal beliefs at the door.” When he returned from the meeting with Herring, coworkers were surprised to see him: They told him they thought he would be fired.
The four employees I spoke to who are currently at OAN say that unlike Pocock, they knew they were joining a network with a reputation for being Trumpian when they were hired. For the three anchors, working for OAN was a way to skip the traditional broadcast journalism path of toiling away for a local affiliate for years before getting a national audience.
“It’s a little bit harder to break into those markets since they’re a little bit more established, and they have their own affiliates throughout the country,” said Alex Salvi, who hosts the 10 p.m. slot “After Hours with Alex Salvi.” “So I saw an opportunity there that I thought I should capitalize on.”
In part, the ideological bent of the San Diego newsroom is due to age and political geography. “Because the headquarters is in San Diego, all the employees tend to be a lot more progressive,” said Salvi, who added that the newsroom skews quite young. Salvi, a 28-year-old with a law degree from Valparaiso University Law School and a graduate journalism degree from the University of Southern California, occupies a role as OAN’s Brian Stelter, covering the nexus of politics and media. “There are your hardcore conservatives, but it’s safe to assume that the majority of us are all pretty liberal.”
Salvi confided in me that while at Valparaiso, he crafted several blogs as the editor-in-chief of the school’s law blog that were critical of then-Gov. Mike Pence’s response to the Scott County HIV outbreak. He interned for Democratic Rep. Mike Quigley in Chicago. On a recent weekend off, he returned to Chicago to follow the protests there, though didn’t use his reporting on the network.
And Salvi’s on-air coverage isn’t exclusively focused on toeing the party line and minimizing the novel coronavirus. He has debated Liz Wheeler, the conservative millennial firebrand who helms “Tipping Point” during the 9 p.m. hour, about the effectiveness of lockdown measures (he argued social distancing has been effective) and their differing coronavirus coverage. Salvi has also criticized Sean Hannity’s coronavirus coverage.
Salvi has a liberal background, but he doesn’t criticize OAN, which is perhaps why the network has fashioned Salvi into something of a spokesperson, an emissary to traditional media organizations such as CNN, where he has appeared on Stelter’s “Reliable Sources” to defend the channel. When I asked the network to interview an OAN personality for this story, it was Salvi who gave me a call. Rion’s obsequious questioning at the White House? “She is speaking about a lot of the questions that we’ve heard that a lot of our viewers want to hear covered,” Salvi told me, though he conceded he would word some of her questions in the briefing room differently.
When I asked him if he felt concerned about his future career prospects after OAN—if others in the broader journalism community might peg him as talent on the president’s favorite network—he demurred. “One American News has never had a sit down interview with President Trump, the same way that CNN has never had a sit-down interview with President Trump, and that’s not something that I think a lot of people would suspect to hear when they hear about ‘the President’s favorite network,’” he said. “They think that we constantly have access to them and are sitting down with them all the time and having in-depth interviews but I don’t think that’s the case. … President Trump is giving credit to us for our coverage, but I think then that this is used to not only weaponize against him, but also weaponized against us.”
When I asked network president Charles Herring about the network’s relationship with the president—Herring contacted me directly after I filled out the site’s “contact us” form—he told me that Trump has been watching the network since before his 2015 presidential bid. They met in early 2015, when Trump told Herring he was a fan of the network. Trump watched OAN in his New York residence, Herring said, through his Verizon FiOS TV bundle.
As for the coverage that seemed to favor Republican bookings, Herring wrote in an email that “OAN interviews and features leading Democrat newsmakers on a regular basis. OAN would like to interview presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden.” (He cited no examples of recent Democrats interviewed.)
Watching OAN, it’s easy to see the symbiotic relationship between the president and the network. The network earns Trump’s attention with its doting coverage. When Trump gives it to them—in a tweet that returns the favor, for example—it is often in the context of goading Fox to follow suit. “I think that the president does use us a little bit as a leverage against Fox News at times where he’s not happy with their coverage,” Salvi said.
Founder Robert Herring seems to embrace this competitive dynamic. “Mr. President, why are you still watching Fox News?” Herring tweeted this week. He also teased a poll “in favor” of the president (conducted by OAN) on Twitter, after news broke that Trump issued a cease and desist letter to CNN for its polling that found Trump underwater. But in that promised report, Rouz omitted the poll’s findings that were bad for the president, according to the Washington Post, and the network eventually scrubbed it from its website.
“The president supports it because it blindly promotes him,” one former OAN producer said, “and it blindly supports the president because that’s what makes it money and gives it unique viewership.”
The three other current OAN employees I spoke to, all of whom declined to be named, were much less sanguine than Salvi. They have always known a portion of the network’s journalism was overwhelmingly pro-Trump, but soldiered on, swapping gripes over drinks at the bar. During Covid and nationwide protests, though, that frustration has given way to group texts about their growing problems with the network’s coverage, which they believe has become more conspiracy-laden and lopsided. It doesn’t help that mainstream outlets have been covering every misstep.
“Once [our coronavirus coverage] started getting criticized by CNN and other outlets,” one anchor said “we all kind of just started to feel down about working here because it made us feel like all the work we were personally doing didn’t matter because all the attention on that started to drown out everything else.” This anchor was referring to Rouz’s now-deleted May 7 segment in which the coronavirus was depicted as a population control effort by China and George Soros. OAN pulled the segment after CNN and other outlets panned it.
Then came George Floyd’s death, and the riots and protests that followed. The memo on how to cover the unrest was unusually heavy-handed, the anchor told me. “We do sometimes get certain emails about certain stories we don’t want to cover, but they’re never really about pushing out a certain narrative—this was the first one in that regard,” this person said.
“We could obviously be more critical of the administration’s handling of (the protests and coronavirus) and it’s not so much that we’re praising his approach, we’re just leaving that aspect alone a little bit,” another anchor told me.
Another said journalists there live in fear of getting a story pulled or reprimanded by “Mr. H.” “We could be doing more, but our producers are working with what they have and are allowed to do. … We can’t push too far without fearing our boss will tell us to pull a story.”
The employees told me they shake their heads at what they consider the network’s out-of-touch and hagiographic segments. On the 12th day of protests, OAN aired a special 30-minute “investigative” report called “Trump: A History of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion,” hosted by Richard Pollock and a group called Black Millennials Supporting Trump. The report featured Trump’s work on criminal justice reform and a segment about how he gave Jennifer Hudson an apartment in Trump International Hotel Chicago when members of her family were murdered in 2008; it pointed out that Trump once helped Jesse Jackson secure office space for his Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. Not mentioned is the fact that 74 percent of non-white voters disapprove of the president. Nor was Trump’s record on demanding to see evidence of the first black president’s birth certificate or his refusal to apologize to the Central Park Five, who were exonerated of assaulting a jogger in 1989.
“Leave it to OAN,” an anchor texted me after learning of the documentary.
As much as Herring appears to police OAN’s coverage, though, one anchor said he also takes advantage of the presence of liberals at his network to some degree. “We do kind of secretly have a fear of being retaliated against for being liberal, but Mr. H typically [and in private] uses the argument that having liberal employees means that the news isn’t biased—despite the fact we’re not supposed to really run anything pro-liberal/Democrat,” that anchor said.
Soon, however, Herring may see an exodus of the kind of reporters that give him plausible deniability—and that keep his network moving.
Two anchors told me employees were dusting off their broadcast reels and polishing their cover letters.
During a pandemic, others don’t see an exit strategy. “For most of us, we are choosing between our journalistic integrity and whether or not we pay the rent,” says a current OAN employee. “Ultimately the guy who signs your paycheck calls the shots.”