John Oliver returned for a second episode from the “void” – a blank white background in social isolation – with a takedown of OAN, or One America News, a far-right media network Trump has elevated from fringe outlet to attendee of his White House press briefings.
“When you hear the kinds of questions that they ask, you begin to see why Trump calls on them so much,” Oliver explained. For example, OAN correspondent Chanel Rion has praised the president for his approval rating, and defended his choice to repeatedly and inaccurately call the coronavirus the “Chinese virus” with a “question” that somehow invoked “Latin gangs” and “foreign state actors” in what Oliver labeled an “asshole sandwich”.
In short, Trump loves OAN, as he’s repeatedly said on Twitter – even, on occasion, praising them above his beloved Fox News. “Look, OAN is a relatively small organization, but you may well know someone who watches them,” said Oliver. “And they’re punching way above their weight right now.”
OAN is the brainchild of Robert Herring, a conservative millionaire from California who, according to Oliver, looks like a “sun-dried Jake Gyllenhaal”. And since its founding, the network has been a home for “extreme conservatism”. See: its hosts, such as Graham Ledger, who called the Black Lives Matter movement a “criminal organization”, being transgender “a mental problem”, and said Muslims shouldn’t enter the country. His starting line for every show is: “The doors to the newsroom are locked and the ‘pc police’ are not getting in.”
Then there’s Rion, who runs a word-appreciation website called “Welcome to Wordeby’s” whose “About” page reads: “If we don’t nurture and grow our WORD REALMS, we don’t nurture and grow our THOUGHT REALMS.”
“It’s hard to know how to describe a sentence like that,” said Oliver. “Thankfully, Wordeby’s has an entry on ‘fanfaronade,’ which means ‘empty, self-promoting language,’ and that seems to hit the nail right on the head.”
It’s not just far-right hosts and talking points, Oliver continued; the network has also promoted conspiracy theories, such as offering $100k for information in conspiracy target Seth Rich’s murder. Last year, they traveled with Trump sidekick Rudy Giuliani to Ukraine to film a series about his “investigations” in the country, and Rion recently hosted a special boosting a conspiracy theory that coronavirus was developed as a bioweapon in a lab in North Carolina.
“The whole selling point of OAN is that they are Fox News with even less shame, and even fewer scruples,” Oliver said. It’s also “prophetically thirsty” for the president’s attention, which means “you do kind of get what OAN and the president see in each other.”
It’s easy to dismiss OAN as little-watched and “borderline self-parody,” Oliver continued, but “the problem is, if we’re learning one thing right now, it’s that toxic things that start small can get big fast, and it’s dangerous to ignore them”.
Especially if the president is focusing on OAN at the expense of the pandemic; last week, he retweeted a video of OAN host Liz Wheeler supporting her book that she posted last August (“Liking someone’s post from seven months ago? Is the creepiest thing on earth,” said Oliver). And Rion was personally invited to continue attending briefings despite her restriction because of social distancing protocols. “And that is a problem,” said Oliver, “because in the best of times, you can laugh at an almost Anchorman-esque parody of right-wing news. But much like the problem with Anchorman 2, it’s just not the right time for Ron Burgundy right now.”
“OAN’s weird combination of far right-wing talking points and dirt-stupid reporting is incredibly dangerous at a time like this,” said Oliver, noting that host Ledger has explicitly called for people to defy the government’s advice on social distancing.
The point is, Oliver concluded, that “the kind of misinformation OAN is spewing right now could end up getting people killed. And sadly, their message is being actively spread by the White House, so it is more important than ever to be on the lookout for OAN’s bullshit and to make sure no one that you know is falling for it either.”