Comment: Trump’s new favorite, OAN, was never ‘news’ at all

A Reuters’ investigation finds AT&T funding and a push from the top to defend Trump without question.

By Margaret Sullivan / The Washington Post

The whitewashing and denialism of the Jan. 6 insurrection started at One America News on that very same day.

As President Trump tried to overturn the legitimate results of the presidential election — inciting a deadly riot along the way — the cable channel’s brass were sending an all-too-clear message to their team about how to cover this horrifying event.

“Please DO NOT say ‘Trump Supporters Storm Capitol. …’ Simply call them demonstrators or protestors. … DO NOT CALL IT A RIOT!!!” came the impassioned email directive from a news director to the staff.

The next day, OAN’s top boss, founder Robert Herring Sr., ordered producers to get in line behind the president, as he floated the conspiracy theory that it wasn’t Trump supporters breaking those windows and storming those barricades; that it was the leftist movement antifa instead.

“We want to report all the things Antifa did yesterday. I don’t think it was Trump people but let’s investigate,” the 80-year-old chief executive wrote in an email.

There was simply nothing to support this far-fetched theory: The FBI has found no evidence of antifa involvement, and almost all of the hundreds of suspects charged have been well-documented Trump supporters; some are members of white-supremacy or other far-right extremist groups.

When Reuters, the global news agency, published its two-part investigation last week of OAN, the most startling finding was that AT&T indirectly provided 90 percent of the channel’s revenue, after letting it be known that it was eager to host a new conservative cable network.

Yes, the world’s largest communications company played a major role in creating and sustaining the far-right channel that spins wacky ideas, promotes fraudulent covid-19 cures and, in its fervor, makes the pro-Trump market leader, Fox News, look almost reasonable. (AT&T has challenged aspects of Reuters’ reporting and said that the company, through its offshoot, DirecTV, provides “viewpoints across the political spectrum.”)

But just as noteworthy as AT&T’s involvement was the way Reuters’s John Shiffman pulled back the curtain on how the San Diego-based network operates, relying in part on court documents.

What they showed is that OAN is dedicated not to the “news,” which is part of its name, but to propaganda, directed from the top.

“If there was any story involving Trump, we had to only focus on either the positive information or basically create positive information,” Marissa Gonzales, an former OAN producer who resigned last year, told Reuters. “It was never, never the full truth.”

That’s what was going on in the background. It adds valuable — if appalling — perspective to what we already knew about OAN.

We knew that Trump appreciates the blind loyalty, promoting the channel more than 100 times on his Twitter feed, often as he complained about Fox News’s failure to back him fully and at all times. We knew that Herring was far from shy about his partiality, tweeting in early January: “If anyone thinks we will throw the best President America has had, in my 79 years, under the bus, you are wrong.”

And we knew that OAN let two of its on-air personalities raise more than $600,000 to help fund a private “audit” of the presidential vote in Arizona. One of them even worked part-time for the Trump recount effort’s legal team.

It’s no wonder the voting machine company Dominion is suing OAN for defamation, for spreading and endorsing false reports that it helped steal the 2020 election from Trump. Dominion’s suit describes the problem succinctly: “OAN helped create and cultivate an alternative reality where up is down (and) pigs have wings.”

But OAN maintains that this all falls under protected free speech or opinion, including a series of pseudo-documentaries about unproven election fraud that MyPillow chief executive and Trump loyalist Mike Lindell paid to put on the air. A federal judge over the summer suggested the courts may not accept that defense, as he allowed a number of Dominion’s related defamation suits, including one against Lindell, to go forward.

Trump’s relentless misinformation campaign, aided by his loyal media allies, has clearly gotten through to millions of Americans. Although there is no basis in fact, no evidence to support it, a Reuters/Ipsos poll found in April that about half of Republicans believe the siege was either a nonviolent protest or caused by left-wing forces “trying to make Trump look bad.” A majority of Republicans believe Trump’s lie that widespread voter fraud robbed him of a second presidential term.

OAN’s television reach may not be vast: Most Americans won’t encounter it when they turn on their TV. But its website’s offerings very well may show up in their social media feeds. Typical of these was a three-paragraph article Friday, featuring Trump’s official statement slamming the “Unselect Committee of Partisan Democrats,” under this headline: “Report: President Trump Fights Democrat-Led ‘Probes’ Into Jan. 6 Protest.”

In terms of spreading misinformation and helping Trump deny the devastating realities of the Jan. 6 insurrection, OAN is punching way above its weight.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper. Follow her on Twitter @sulliview.

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