The Hell of Working at Trump’s New Favorite Network

By Kevin.Poulsen@thedailybeast.com (Kevin Poulsen)
Photo Illustration by Kelly Caminero/The Daily Beast/Getty

Ernest Champell realized there was something unusual about One America News Network during his first day on the job as a writer, when the young staffer assigned to show him the ropes announced matter-of-factly, “Yeah, we like Russia here.”

Founded and helmed by 77-year-old circuit-board millionaire Robert Herring Sr., OANN launched in 2013 as an answer to the chatty, opinionated content of mainstream cable news channels—and a place for viewers too conservative for Fox News. Under Herring’s direction the network embraced Trumpism enthusiastically starting in 2016, and in recent months the once-obscure cable news channel has been basking in a surge of attention from Donald Trump.

Nearly all of OANN’s 24-hours of daily programming is centered at an anchordesk, with a polished TV anchor delivering headlines and introducing packaged segments in the time-honored manner of Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite. But there’s a twist: The segments, the interviews, the words the anchors are speaking and even the crawl at the bottom of the screen are a slurry of fake news mixed with genuine reporting; internet conspiracy theories blended with far-right rhetoric and drizzled with undiluted Kremlin propaganda.

If you don’t live in a world where Donald Trump’s inauguration drew record crowds, Roy Moore won the Alabama special election in a landslide, and Hillary Clinton has her political enemies assassinated, viewing OANN for a couple of hours is a surreal experience that inspires the same vague, uneasy dread you get from a David Lynch movie.

Working there is a million times worse.

“It was a really bad chapter in my life,” a former OANN anchor told the Daily Beast in an interview granted on condition of anonymity. “There were lots of afternoons where I would just sit in the car and cry. I didn't understand why they were doing what they were doing.”

The Daily Beast spoke with four former OANN employees—three anchors and a writer, all of whom were experienced journalists when they started at the network’s headquarters on the northern edge of San Diego, California. Some of them were at OANN long enough to remember a time when they found much to admire in the network’s news coverage, particularly its focus on the kind of international stories neglected by CNN and Fox News.

But over time, Herring asserted increasingly direct control over the newsroom’s coverage. The scripts landing on the anchor desk became more and more politically skewed, while Herring became correspondingly less tolerant of pushback.

Trump’s New Favorite Network Embraces Russian Propaganda

When interviewing conservatives, “they would tell me what questions I wasn’t allowed to ask,” said one anchor. "I'd ask anyway and they'd call me into the office and complain." And it became common for Herring to emerge from his upstairs office with some piece of news he’d picked up from a fringe website like Infowars or Gateway Pundit, insisting that OANN put it on the air.

A second former OANN anchor confirmed this account. “One of the things I did when I was there is go through all these conspiracies he was reading on crazy blog sites and tell him why we can't report it,” the second anchor told the Daily Beast.

“It was just an old guy with a bunch of conspiracy theory stories and we had to write it,” said a third former anchor.  “They were known as ‘H stories.’ If there was story that was unbelievably ridiculous, it was an H story.”

All three anchors eventually quit.

Not all of OANN’s issues involved on-the-air content. Jonathan Harris, a frequent guest on Fox News, filed a discrimination and harassment lawsuit last year against OANN, naming as co-defendants Herring and Graham Ledger, who hosts a political talk show on the network called The Daily Ledger.

Harris started at OANN in 2014. According to his lawsuit, his problems began in August 2016 when he was promoted to booking producer for Ledger’s show. Ledger “would regularly berate, demean and verbally abuse” Harris over his liberal politics and his “opinions and perspectives as an African-American male,” according to the allegations in Harris’ lawsuit. “On at least three separate occasions, Ledger made blatantly racist comments about people of ‘non-caucasian’ races,” the lawsuit alleges.

Fearing retaliation if he complained, Harris stayed silent, he alleges, until the situation  boiled over during an August 2017 story meeting. Ledger and the production staff began discussing future show topics, and Ledger suggested doing a segment “comparing the tearing down of confederate monuments by American demonstrators to the destruction of Christian religious monuments by members of the group ISIS.”

Harris, the only black man in the room, argued that the comparison was unfair and that “OANN’s viewers might find it inappropriate,” he claims. According to the lawsuit, Ledger immediately unloaded on Harris, berating him and screaming at him in front of the other three producers. After the meeting Harris typed out a formal complaint of harassment and discrimination and emailed it to Herring, according to the lawsuit, which alleges that Harris was fired shortly afterwards on a pretext.

Emails from The Daily Beast to an OANN executive and to a personal email address associated with Ledger went unanswered, but in a formal answer to the complaint, the defendants “deny generally and specifically each and every allegation contained” in Harris’ lawsuit. The trial is currently set for October.

Most of the complaints voiced by former OANN journalists return to Herring’s control over the news agenda.

Champell was working as a freelance video producer when he got into a random conversation with an OANN manager while grabbing a cup of coffee at a San Diego Starbucks.  That contact led to a job offer, he told the Daily Beast.

A glance at some of OANN’s content told Champell that it was a conservative-leaning operation. An avowed liberal, Champell voiced some concerns, but the manager told him not to worry. “He said, ‘When we do the news it's straight no-nonsense,’” said Champell. “I learned that was a lie within a week.”

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Champell arrived at a time when OANN had fully embraced fake news. "I was there when we were doing the Seth Rich story,” he said, referring to the slain Democratic National Committee staffer falsely accused by conspiracy mongers of hacking the DNC’s emails and giving them to WikiLeaks. “I was like, ‘This is fake! What are you doing? Why are you running this?’"  

At first Champell found the newsroom dynamic weirdly fascinating. "They would do hit jobs on politicians,” he said. “Herring would come into the newsroom and say, I want a negative piece about this person.” But Champell couldn’t stomach OANN’s support for Russian propaganda, he said, and he finally walked away after four months.

“If you noticed, the far right wing likes Russia,” he said. “Why? Because Russia's an all-white country that suppresses Muslims and all that kind of stuff. They wish America was like that, so it all makes sense."

“Mr. Herring just genuinely is kind of enamored of Putin,” another former staffer said.  “He thinks that Putin is a strong guy who does whatever he wants. Mr. Herring will get into the celebrity status of wealthy powerful men, and I think Putin is one of them."

That same drive explains why Herring insists that OANN stories lavish praise on Trump, and why OANN airs all of the president’s rallies live, said the former employee.

If OANN is all about getting Donald Trump’s attention, it’s finally working. After snubbing the network for two years in his frequent media-focused tweet storms, Trump is now mentioning the channel regularly. In a tweet on Monday, he congratulated the network “on the great job you are doing and the big ratings jump.”

"I bet that just makes Mr Herring so happy,” said the former worker. “That was the goal all along. He wanted to be mentioned by Donald Trump.”

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