Republican Senate President Karen Fann seems to actually believe that One America News Network (OAN), a blatantly pro-Trump media outlet that promotes wild conspiracy theories, is a legitimate news source.
She certainly knows its power to help promote the so-called election "audit" she and fellow state GOP leaders are still conducting at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix.
During an interview with CNN last week, Fann stubbornly stuck to her talking points about the audit, which has been derided as a conspiracy theory-laden partisan farce by local and national critics. The audit was simply an attempt to test the "integrity" of the election system, she claimed, and the public had complete transparency because it was being live-streamed.
CNN reporter Kyung Lah pointed out that OAN runs the livestream.
"Are you saying that OAN is not a credible news source? Are you saying that?" Fann asked.
"Yes," Lah responded with a not-so-thinly-veiled air of exasperation.
The exchange illuminates the prominent role played by OAN in the ongoing election audit, and the rising influence of fringe conservative media outlets generally in Arizona Republican politics.
OAN has had on-the-ground access to the audit since it began and regularly lands interviews with Arizona Republican lawmakers — including Fann. Even Republican Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who publicly rebuffed election-related conspiracy theories shortly last November, recently went on Newsmax, another pro-Trump media outlet, to praise the audit. Fann refused to take questions from Phoenix New Times.
"What we’re seeing is really a kind of a return to the partisan publications of the early 1800s, when political parties literally owned the printing presses and the outlets were nothing more than propaganda organs for a particular political faction," said Mark Feldstein, a former long-time reporter and current professor of broadcast journalism at the University of Maryland. "We’re used to seeing Republican politicians, federal and local, work hand in glove with Fox News. Now they’re just expanding the crazy to OAN, Newsmax."
"These right-wing outlets that spew falsehoods are hurting democracy," he added. "When you rile up half the country to believe an election, a perfectly legitimate election, was stolen, and you attempt to delegitimize a duly-elected president, and when you are sympathetic to an insurrectionist mob that seeks to overthrow democracy, you’ve kind of crossed over from being anything resembling a normal journalistic outlet to something that is dangerous."
OAN's history of shamelessly spreading right-wing conspiracy theories is well-documented. Since the November election, the San Diego outlet, which was started in 2013, has capitalized on conspiracy theories adopted by Trump supporters that the election was stolen from the former president. After Fox News called Arizona for Biden early — a move that outraged many Trump supporters — the outlet said that Fox News had "joined the mainstream media in censoring factual reporting" and urged viewers to turn to OAN. The outlet has promoted the false theory that anti-fascist activists were behind the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. And in February, OAN aired a two hour-long film produced by Mike Lindell, the fiercely pro-Trump CEO of MyPillow, that spewed baseless election-related conspiracy theories.
Another example is OAN's breathless coverage of the ongoing election audit in Maricopa County, freely indulging in election-fraud conspiracies and essentially propping up the whole circus. Christina Bobb, OAN's primary reporter covering the audit, has been publicly fundraising for the audit both on Twitter and on-air. She's unabashedly partisan in her coverage of the audit, stating during an April 25 broadcast that "Joe Biden is not a legitimate president" and that the the Arizona election audit will "unravel the Democrats' schemes from 2020."
"We do have a lot of Arizona Republicans that have gone on this quote-on-quote 'network,' and that’s not something certainly that I intend to do," said Maricopa County Supervisor Bill Gates, a lifelong Republican who has joined other county officials in calling for the audit to be shut down. "People who want to spread the big lie, I think people feel that they can go on OAN and spread that and no one is going to ask them the tough questions."
He added that many of the recent audit-related moves made by Fann and other senate Republicans, such as threatening to have the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors arrested or letting Republican lawmakers from Pennsylvania tour the audit proceedings, are just "political theater" manufactured for conservative media outlets like OAN.
"Primarily, they were just there speaking to OAN," Gates said, referring to the Pennsylvania lawmakers who came to Phoenix. "This is all about people trying to do what is easy right now and I think a lot of Republican politicians think the easy thing to do is to feed into this."
Newly released records also shed more light on OAN's blatant collaboration with the backers of the Arizona election audit. Emails sent to and authored by Fann were obtained by New Times through a request for public records under Arizona law after American Oversight, a Washington D.C.-based government watchdog group, successfully sued the Arizona Senate for access to records.
In emails dated December 2020, Bobb sent Fann a list of "witnesses" of supposed voter fraud in Arizona, and stating that Rudy Giuliani had asked her to "send over declarations" to Fann regarding supposed misconduct in the 2020 election.
Neither Bobb, nor OAN executive vice presidents of content distribution Bo LaMotte and Anna Schick, responded to New Times' requests for comment. Ken Bennett, the Senate liaison for the audit, also didn't respond to a request for comment on OAN's involvement in audit proceedings.
Paul Bentz, vice president of research and strategy at HighGround, a Phoenix-based polling and consulting firm, said that Republican elected officials in the state are increasingly turning to fringe conservative outlets like OAN and Newsmax to reach die-hard Trump supporters who have been turned off by Fox News' coverage of the 2020 election. This is especially true for Republican lawmakers who are in safe seats whose only electoral threat is a primary challenge from the right, he said.
"OAN gives them an opportunity to expand their base by appealing to similar Republicans and conservatives like their primary voting audience," he said. "Each one of these local elected officials is used to speaking to a precinct committee meeting or a small group of loyal conservative supporters and this gives them that same demographic on a much broader scale. I’m sure it’s reaping benefits to them in the form of national support and notoriety and positive feedback."
"Fox, in some ways, disenfranchised the base not just in Arizona but nationwide," said Robert Graham, a former chair of the Arizona GOP. "They called a lot of election stuff early. That just blew people’s minds. And through the fraud accusations, people just hunkered down. Newsmax, they surpassed Fox in terms of ratings. They became a very relevant media outlet within the base of Republican Party."
Even after Fox News' fateful decision to correctly call Arizona for Joe Biden on election night, the outlet still captures the lion's share of the conservative audience. A survey released by the Pew Research Center on March 23, 2021 shows that 43 percent of Republicans get their news from Fox News, while 21 percent go to Newsmax and another 7 percent tune into OAN. Additionally, the survey also found that a majority of Newsmax and OAN viewers still watch Fox News.
But Graham argues that outlets like OAN and Newsmax will only continue to rise in popularity among conservatives.
"I think Newsmax and OAN have the potential to displace Fox, to become the alternative," he said. "It connects with the base but it also gets the message beyond our state borders as well."
Outside of conservative echo chambers, the audit and cacophony of voices trying to delegitimize the 2020 election don't appear to be popular. Recent polling conducted by HighGround shows that over 60 percent of independent Arizona voters, who are key to any candidates' political fortunes in the state, oppose the audit. But the same poll found that a hefty 76 percent of Republicans back the audit. And that's who matter to Arizona Republicans, even though Fann recently acknowledged in an email to a constituent that "Biden won" the 2020 election.
"At the end of the day, these are safe Republicans in safe districts catering to people who drive their electoral chances," Bentz said. "The irony of course is they say that all these mainstream outlets are mouthpieces for their opponents or for liberals, but they literally run to the one outlet who is unabashedly doing what they accuse all the others of doing."