President Donald Trump began his Monday morning by posting a tweet thanking his favorite TV show, Fox & Friends, for a “great show this morning.” Four minutes later, the president posted another tweet congratulating a lesser-known right-wing news network — One America News Network.
“Also, congratulations to @OANN on the great job you are doing and the big ratings jump (“thank you President Trump”)!” he wrote. (It’s unclear what evidence, if any, Trump has that OANN has experienced a “big ratings jump.”)
OANN’s platform is nowhere near as large as Fox News — the network is available via DirecTV and Verizon’s Fios but not most cable packages, and its ratings are reportedly beneath the Tennis Channel — but it is even more doggedly loyal to the president. Trump is increasingly taking notice.
Trump certainly enjoys lots of positive coverage on Fox News, but his recent promotion of OANN is a good reminder that, in an era of ever-segmenting audiences eager to find a point of view they agree with, there’s still a free market of competition for Trump’s media loyalty.
What is OANN?
Herring Broadcasting announced the launch of OANN at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), with president Charles Herring promising that it’d be a “reliable, credible, fact-based” outlet that would “provide a platform where more voices can be heard, voices that are ignored, libertarian and conservative voices.”
But during the 2016 presidential election cycle, the network went all in for Trump. According to the Washington Post, Charles’s father, Robert Herring — owner of Herring Broadcasting — went as far as to ban OANN employees from covering any polls that didn’t show Trump in the lead. In turn, Trump repeatedly promoted OANN’s Trump-favorable polling.
Emails obtained by the Post indicate that shortly after Trump announced his candidacy, OANN executive producer Lindsay Oakley directed staff to “ALWAYS take the trump speeches live in their entirety,” adding that “Trump is being treated unfairly by the mainstream media and we need to provide the other side. . . . Not to mention we have loyal viewers that tune in specifically to see the Trump speeches live because no one else carries them. We also see some of our highest ratings during the Trump speeches.”
Indeed, during the campaign, OANN pushed conspiracy theories about the email hacks of Democratic politicians and operatives that suggested they were an inside job; downplayed a hot mic recording of Trump bragging about groping women; and ran a special about Hillary Clinton titled, “Betrayal at Benghazi: The Cost of Hillary Clinton’s Dereliction and Greed.”
OANN has been just as loyal to Trump since he took office. Its anchors frame news stories with introductions like, “the president keeps another promise, slashing regulations to a historic low,” the network employed former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski as a contributor for a time, and in March went as far as to cite the fringe conspiracy website Gateway Pundit as a source for a story aimed at establishing that the Obama-era Department of Justice “took steps to infiltrate Trump’s campaign with spies in December 2015.”
In return, OANN apparently expects Trump to help promote the network, as he routinely does for Fox News. At a rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in March, Trump gave a speech in which he thanked a number of his supporters in the media, but didn’t mention OANN. The network responded with a salty, since-deleted tweet in which it lamented that Trump omitted “a single mention of One America News — one of his GREATEST supporters ... @OANN calls bullshit.”
A couple of weeks later, Fox News rankled Trump by hosting a Bernie Sanders town hall event. Since that unusual rift developed, Trump has explicitly promoted OANN’s content five times on Twitter. Starting from a bit earlier, in mid-March, Trump mentioned OANN seven times in tweets. Those were the first mentions since before the inauguration.
Trump’s recent promotion of OANN hasn’t come at Fox News’s expense. But it does indicate that Trump is looking these days to amplify other outlets that cover him favorably, and reliably reinforce his talking points.
OANN amplifies right-wing conspiracy theories
One of the five times Trump has promoted OANN on Twitter over the past month was in reference to a segment featuring a discredited conspiracy theorist named Larry Johnson who reiterated an unfounded idea first pushed two years ago about the Obama administration “spying” on Trump’s campaign.
“Former CIA analyst Larry Johnson accuses United Kingdom Intelligence of helping Obama Administration Spy on the 2016 Trump Presidential Campaign.” @OANN WOW! It is now just a question of time before the truth comes out, and when it does, it will be a beauty!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 24, 2019
Johnson, the former CIA officer featured on OANN and cited by Trump, has a long history of spreading baseless conspiracy theories about prominent Democrats, and there is still no credible evidence that anyone associated with Trump was improperly surveilled during the 2016 election. FISA warrants were taken out against onetime Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page after he left the campaign, but the warrant applications went through standard processes and were authorized by four judges appointed by Republican presidents.
That tweet wasn’t the first time Trump spread fake news that originated with OANN. In October 2017, Trump — alluding to an OANN piece — tweeted, “Just out report: ‘United Kingdom crime rises 13% annually amid spread of Radical Islamic terror.’ Not good, we must keep America safe!” But the UK Office for National Statistics made clear that the crime data they compiled and released drew no connection between a rise in crime and “Radical Islamic terror,” other than to note that the murder rate was slightly higher because of deaths related to terror attacks in London and Manchester.
“The simple answer is that our statistical release bulletin yesterday made no link between terrorism and violent crime,” a UK Office for National Statistics spokesperson said about Trump’s tweet, in a statement.
Around that same time, OANN repeatedly attacked the credibility of women who came forward to accuse Republican US Senate candidate Roy Moore of sexual misconduct. More recently, OANN has come under scrutiny for pushing conspiracy theories about Planned Parenthood and uncritically spreading Russian disinformation about humanitarian workers in Syria.
Fake news or not, Trump will take whatever help he can get
For Trump, however, concerns about the accuracy of stories he’s spreading take a backseat to whether or not they are helpful to him. And OANN has demonstrated above and beyond anything else that it’s all about being helpful to Trump.
Trump’s latest tweet promoting OANN on Monday prompted CNN media reporter Brian Stelter to wonder if the president might be trying to build a rivalry between the network and Fox News.
In the past couple of months, Trump has tweeted about Fox-wannabe OANN 7 times — after going two years without tagging the channel once. Makes you wonder: Does he think he can play Fox and OANN off each other?— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) May 13, 2019
It’s worth noting that Fox News is still America’s highest-rated cable news network. OANN, suffice it to say, is nowhere near that level. So in the short run, Fox News doesn’t have to worry about OANN chipping away at its audience.
But also notable is that Trump’s promotion of OANN escalated right after he lashed out at Fox News for giving a platform to one of his Democratic rivals. Whether that’s a coincidence or meant to be a shot across the bow at Fox, what is clear is that Trump is doing what he can to lift OANN from the fringes to the mainstream.