The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An inside look at One America News, the insurgent TV network taking ‘pro-Trump’ to new heights

ONE-TIME USE: Marcos Ramos Celis for The Washington Post (Marcos Ramos Celis for The Washington Post)

One America News is an obscure TV channel struggling to emerge from the cellar of the cable ratings, but it is nonetheless one of President Trump’s favorite media outlets. It’s not hard to see why: On One America newscasts, the Trump administration is a juggernaut of progress, a shining success with a daily drumbeat of achievements.

One America — a tiny father-and-sons operation that often delivers four times as many stories per hour as its competitors — promises “straight news, no opinion,” promoting itself as the antidote to the Big Three cable news networks’ focus on punditry and the one big story of the moment.

But since its inception in 2013, and especially since Trump began his march to the White House, One America’s owner, Robert Herring Sr., a millionaire who made his money printing circuit boards, has directed his channel to push Trump’s candidacy, scuttle stories about police shootings, encourage antiabortion stories, minimize coverage of Russian aggression, and steer away from the new president’s troubles, according to more than a dozen current and former producers, writers and anchors, as well as internal emails from Herring and his top news executives.

OAN, based in San Diego, made its first splash in the opening weeks of the Trump campaign, when the channel became the first to carry Trump’s campaign speeches live and in full — a decision followed quickly by the owner’s directive that other candidates’ rallies not be given the same treatment, according to internal emails.

Since then, OAN has become a reliably sympathetic voice of the administration’s goals and actions. Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, has a deal to appear regularly on the channel. The network’s White House reporter, Trey Yingst, has become an administration favorite who was called on at the daily news briefings 27 times in Trump’s first 100 days in office. On Friday, OAN won a seat in the White House briefing room, albeit in the back row and shared with the BBC.

In a volatile TV news landscape where the longtime ratings leader, Fox News, is suffering through a period of internal turmoil, One America has tried to elbow itself into the big leagues, publicly wooing former Fox star Bill O'Reilly to join OAN. Although O'Reilly didn't take the bait and the channel is available in only about 30 million homes, a far cry from Fox News's 90 million, One America is growing — in viewer numbers, in influence in Republican circles, and as a potential alternative for conservatives and libertarians who believe Fox's commitment to a right-wing perspective is weakening.

“We’re a no-fluff, very fast-paced live news service meant to inform,” said Charles Herring, Robert’s son and president of Herring Broadcasting, which owns One America. “News anchors are not allowed to express opinions. They simply deliver the news and we leave it up to the viewers to decide. It’s not our family’s mission to determine the news.”

Nonetheless, Robert Herring has repeatedly shaped the news on OAN. During the campaign, for example, he banned stories about polls that showed anyone other than Trump in the lead, according to emails and interviews with OAN journalists.

Early one morning in March 2016, Herring emailed producers with a directive, two hours before former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney was to denounce Trump as “very, very not smart”: “Do not carry the Romney speech live,” Herring wrote. “Romney has no standing. . . . He is a loser. We will let the people decide.”

Robert Herring did not respond to several requests for an interview. Charles Herring spoke to The Washington Post, but would not allow a reporter to visit OAN's newsroom and would not make news executives available. "Senior staff personal opinions are irrelevant," Herring said in an email to The Post. More than a dozen current and former OAN anchors, writers and producers spoke about their experiences at the channel, in many cases on condition of anonymity because they had signed nondisclosure agreements.

OAN’s journalists include conservatives, moderates and liberals, but employees across the political spectrum said they often chafed at the restrictions that came down from “Mr. H,” as they called Robert Herring.

“The owner of the company became the de facto news director,” said a former OAN producer who quit because the coverage of Trump had become “too slanted.” “He has a ton of influence over every aspect of the newscast. He has stories written on his whim.”

“We started out with the premise of news straight down the middle,” said Cassie Leuffen, an anchor at OAN from its birth through the 2016 election. “But the bias does reveal itself in the story selection. The owner really felt this was what was needed. He saw the popularity of Trump before almost anybody, and Trump became our bread and butter.”

Christopher Wood, one of OAN’s first news writers, recalled, “We’d have staff meetings on Wednesdays, and Mr. H. would say he wanted more stories from Breitbart, the Drudge Report and other conservative sites. It was his way or no way.”

In 2000, Robert Herring Sr., who is 76, sold the family’s business, Herco Technology, for $122 million. He retired and met a woman in Russia who became his third wife. An insomniac, Herring spent much of his nights watching TV. After a while, he decided to dive into the business himself.

In 2004, he launched Wealth TV, a cable channel now known as AWE (A Wealth of Entertainment), featuring shows such as "Dream Cruises," "Private Islands" and "Marijuana Miracle Cure." Charles Herring called Wealth TV "a vicarious living channel," and the bulk of its fare focuses on luxury travel. But Robert Herring also used his channel as something of a soapbox. In 2004, Wealth TV ran a two-hour special on the right-to-die case of Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman who had spent half her life in a vegetative state. On the show, Herring offered $1 million to Schiavo's husband if he would halt his effort to remove her from life support. (Schiavo died in 2005 after her feeding tube was removed.)

Along with the travel shows, Wealth TV aired a few short newscasts. “My father is a news junkie, and we saw that the 30-minute newscasts we had on Wealth TV were actually generating an audience,” Charles said. “We looked at MSNBC and Fox and I kept thinking that Rachel Maddow and Bill O’Reilly had the same format — one person spending an hour beating three or four subjects to death. CNN was moving in the same direction, away from hard news. There was a lane for us to hit the news down the center and lean right.”

In 2013, the family created its second channel, One America News. Robert Herring’s idea was to provide something that had gone missing from the cable news landscape — a basic headline service covering national and international news. Herring, long an active donor to political campaigns, had no journalism experience.

The channel he created is a rapid-fire cavalcade of headlines. Most stories run well under a minute. Almost all of the reports are read by the anchors over video footage provided by the Reuters, Associated Press and Euronews services, as well as by RT, the Kremlin-funded news outlet that a U.S. intelligence report calls “Russia’s state-run propaganda machine.”

OAN has only four correspondents of its own, based mainly in Washington. Earlier this month, in 16 consecutive stories, those reporters interviewed only conservative lawmakers and experts — a sharp contrast from Fox and MSNBC, which, despite their overt political leanings, routinely include the other side in their reports.

OAN breaks its cycle of half-hour newscasts only for two hours of evening opinion shows — The Daily Ledger with Graham Ledger and Tipping Point with Liz Wheeler — both of which are guns-blazing nightly tributes to Trump. Ledger is a tough guy who takes no prisoners. Talking about people coming into the country from majority-Muslim countries, he says, “If they won’t take a bite out of a pulled pork sandwich, we probably won’t let them in the country.” Wheeler leans more on clever snark and verbal eyerolls: “How many innocent people have Islamophobes killed this week? Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

Charles Herring said the shows are the only part of OAN that “leans right,” a direction he said is based not on his family’s political views, but on “survey data.”

The Herrings have a history of donating to conservative politicians, but they have given to Democrats, too, even to Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential bid, according to campaign finance records. Both Charles and Robert Sr. have said they voted for Barack Obama for president in 2008.

For the past several years, OAN has been a corporate sponsor of CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, one of the nation’s premier gatherings of right-wing politicians and supporters. “One America News has your back,” OAN anchor Patrick Hussion told CPAC in a 2015 speech. Charles Herring said OAN sponsored CPAC “to get our name known in the Washington, D.C. area to get better guests. I don’t think we’ll be doing that in the future.”

OAN newscasts often couch the day’s events in language that reflects the owner’s point of view. One night last month, anchorman Mike Dinow introduced a story about health care like this: “In another sure sign Obamacare is on the way out . . . .” A few minutes later, Dinow started a story with this line: “The president keeps another promise, slashing regulations to a historic low.”

In addition to its newscasts, OAN airs occasional documentaries, mainly on topics popular on Breitbart and other sites that specialize in right-wing agitation. In the last weeks of the fall campaign, the channel ran a special titled “Betrayal at Benghazi: The Cost of Hillary Clinton’s Dereliction and Greed.”

“I thought that was very informative,” Charles Herring said, “and people could decide what they believe.”

OAN was an exciting, attractive place for budding journalists right out of college. Here, they could skip the traditional first step of toiling in the hinterlands and move directly into work on big national stories.

Most One America employees were young and inexperienced. They worked hard for low pay. Four OAN writers and producers said they were paid as little as $12 an hour, or $25,000 a year, and three anchors said they were paid as little as $52,000, well below the scale at national networks, though more in line with what’s paid at local TV news operations in smaller markets.

“When I started, I was making less than I did when I was 15 in a summer job,” said one former anchor. But the experience was invaluable — at least until the owner started massaging the news.

Robert Herring often asked job candidates about their political views, according to seven current and former employees. “He’d flat out ask, ‘Who did you vote for? Are you a Bernie supporter? Are you for abortion?’” one anchor said. “It’s not like you wouldn’t get hired if you were liberal. But when it came to decisions about what stories we did, he made it clear he wanted the conservative ones.”

In the channel’s first couple of years, OAN writers, producers and anchors said they were mostly left alone to determine the content of the newscasts. After Trump announced his candidacy, things changed.

“We should ALWAYS take the trump speeches live in their entirety,” executive producer Lindsay Oakley wrote to her staff early in the campaign. “I don’t want producers’ personal feelings getting in the way of the news content we provide. 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.”

Oakley did not respond to requests for comment. Her email warned producers that failing to put Trump speeches on the air “will result in a written warning/write-up from here on out.”

OAN employees recounted receiving reprimands signed by Robert Herring or being called into his office to be dressed down for “insubordination” when they ran stories he disapproved of.

“Please please please avoid ferguson stories!!!” Oakley wrote after OAN aired a report on Ferguson, Mo.’s battle with the Justice Department over reforms to the city’s police and court systems following an officer’s shooting of an unarmed black man. A story that aired three times on the channel “made police look bad and Mr. H. has told all of us not to do that. Please just avoid ferguson stories all together.”

Early hire Christopher Wood said he was fired in October 2015 after he decided to lead off a newscast with excerpts from an interview that the family of Michael Brown, the victim in the Ferguson shooting, gave to another network. “That was my downfall,” Wood said. “I got a very, very angry email from Mr. H. saying he wanted the story pulled and we weren’t to run it again.”

OAN staffers complained to Herring when the channel produced and aired a promotional spot that depicted a black police dispatcher refusing to send help to a white caller whose house was under attack. When employees called the spot racially incendiary, Herring agreed to take it off the air, but it remains on OAN's YouTube channel, where it has attracted more than a million viewings.

Herring pushed stories about Planned Parenthood’s purported promotion of abortion that he’d seen on CNS News, a conservative site. He passed on to OAN producers a report that Hillary Clinton was ending her campaign because of “a brain tumor found during my recent colonoscopy,” but Herring warned producers not to run the story “until you fact check twice.”

Herring often said OAN’s purpose was to give viewers the news they needed to make educated choices. But he increasingly directed the newsroom to cover stories that reflected his personal views, employees said. For example, producers said, Herring ordered that OAN minimize coverage of Pope Francis’s U.S. visit in 2015 because the pope had urged comprehensive action against climate change.

Toward the end of last fall's campaign, Herring grew more open about his political leanings. He tweeted a pro-Trump logo promoting OAN's Encore online service, which streamed Trump's speeches on demand. Producers said Herring repeatedly urged against running stories critical of Russia. (Herring's online streaming company, KlowdTV, features a package offering just Herring's own channels and RT. Another package adds Glenn Beck's The Blaze and Newsmax.)

“Wouldn’t it be better if we started working with Russia, than to keep blaming them for everything,” Herring tweeted in October. “Lift sanctions, no NATO on their borders.”

Orders to cater to the owner’s desires weighed heavily on many OAN journalists. Several said they left because of the channel’s slant. In a parting email last year, producer Kyle Warnke said he was leaving because he was “disappointed in our bloated coverage of Donald Trump. It’s obvious why we cling to him: He brings in eyeballs and he’s clearly friendly to our station. But we’re not treating him like we treat the other candidates in the 2016 race, even his Republican rivals.”

Charles Herring won’t say how much, if any, profit OAN makes. He said the family company has been in the black since 2009. “We don’t make a lot of money, but we have a lot of fun,” he said.

Herring said the family has invested “hundreds of millions” in One America, but its prime-time audience remains only about one-seventh that of Fox News, according to ComScore ratings. OAN airs few commercials; the Herrings are skeptical of advertising as a prime revenue source, relying instead on subscriber fees that cable systems pay content providers for their programming.

To observers on the right and left alike, OAN’s chief goal seems to be to press the conservative cause. “Obviously, they’re not in it for the money, because they’re bleeding money,” said Armstrong Williams, the conservative commentator and TV station owner, who gave the Herrings advice as they were launching OAN. “They’re believers; they care about balancing the media. I saw them as good guys, a little green, without a full idea of what this was going to cost. It’s amazing they’re still up and running.”

Wood, one of the channel’s first writers, said OAN is Robert Herring’s “way to hobnob with political figures and maybe have some political influence. This is one man’s hobby.”