The pro-Trump cable propaganda network One America News is headquartered in a sandy-colored building in the San Diego sun.
It doesn’t look like the epicenter of a collective delusion in which Trump remains president, the COVID-19 vaccine is deadly and “illegal aliens” are destroying the country.
But OAN, launched in 2013 by Louisiana-born technology magnate Robert Herring, is the latest chapter in San Diego’s history as a hotbed of white paranoid extremism. The network has become Trump’s favorite Big Lie megaphone about the “stolen” presidential election. In March, Pearson Sharp, one of its star correspondents, said in a report, “There’s still serious doubts about who’s actually president.” In another, he suggested COVID-19 vaccines are causing mass deaths. He has also said “hordes of illegal aliens” are “turning real Americans into second-class citizens,” and called Biden’s immigration policies “nation-killing.”
The diverse border city of San Diego has long been a magnet for white extremists. The Ku Klux Klan arrived a century ago to terrorize Mexicans. In 1980, the KKK’s Tom Metzger won a county district’s Democratic nomination. He lost the primary, but launched White Aryan Resistance, and a cable TV show.
In the 1990s, Gov. Pete Wilson,San Diego’s former mayor, normalized “invasion” rhetoric. More recently, Duncan Hunter, the congressman who pled guilty to stealing campaign funds and was pardoned by President Trump, spewed Islamophobia.
San Diego attracts these types. For those who dream of being white heroes at the edge of darkness, what better place than the literal frontier with brownness — so close to the “other side” and its hallucinated boogeymen, but in a comfortable coastal city?
With Navy and Marine bases, San Diego is also a hub for a military increasingly entangled with extremism, including the Oath Keepers, an insurrectionist militia of veterans and servicemen, and border vigilantes like the Minutemen.
Sharp, based in San Diego, recently told viewers “execution” was the way to deal with “all these people who are responsible for overthrowing the election.” He said: “What are the consequences for traitors who meddled with our sacred democratic process and tried to steal power by taking away the voices of the American people? What happens to them? Well, in the past, America had a very good solution for dealing with such traitors: execution.” He later denied advocating for executions, saying he was only commenting on their legality.
With his shaved head and boyish face, Sharp is the next generation version of Tucker Carlson, who spent his childhood in San Diego.
Sharp’s blog reveals his fixation on alternate universes. Before OAN gave him a job, he spent time as an expat in China and wrote a story he describes as autobiographical, musing: “I was Lord Jim; I was Charles Marlow; I was every white man who didn’t belong, who had no place or people, who fled to the wilderness and jungle because its tangled depths were less formidable than the civilised world in which he lived.”
Of teaching young Asian students, he describes feeling like a “dancing white monkey” staring at “those little inscrutable brown faces.”
His alienated white man persona resonates with a far-right audience. In one report, he told viewers that media coverage of white supremacy is “anti-white,” and spent several minutes showing Black people committing crimes.
Former OAN employees recall that Sharp’s stories were off-limits to fact-checking. Eddie McCoven, who left OAN this year, told me Sharp was founder Herring’s “pet.” Marty Golingan, fired after criticizing OAN in the New York Times, recalled that resisting Sharp was useless: “He would just tell on you to Mr. Herring.” In an email to me, Sharp characterized colleagues’ pushback as politically motivated.
OAN’s president Charles Herring stood by the station’s reporting, writing to me, “Open discussion and debate is critical to the on-going health of our democracy, and helps prevent one-sided narratives which may not reflect the truth.” He called the fact-checking process at OAN “robust,” stating it “includes management review.”
In 2019, Sharp posted a picture on Instagram of mostly brown faces at the DMV and called it a “dystopian vision of the future.” He “loved” a comment that said: “They’re all occupied on their cell phones and drugs. It’s time to strike!” He later deleted his Instagram account, and said in an email to me that he was commenting on DMV bureaucracy. He denies being racist. That view, he told me, “could not be further from the truth.”
Sharp’s career embodies the banality of white male supremacy, rooted in fevered consumption of fictions about white “heroes” and knights. (He loves tales about King Arthur). It’s also a reminder that extremism can’t spread without complicity by others.
Numerous OAN employees left after the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol, tired of perpetuating dangerous lies. Former producer Allysia Britton told me the newsroom was “mostly liberal,” but people stayed for a paycheck or because they couldn’t get hired elsewhere after OAN. She called OAN a “Venus’ flytrap,” saying, “You just get near it, and suddenly, you’re stuck.” Golingan said the prospect of losing a salary in an expensive city like San Diego made it scary to speak up.
OAN’s newsroom dynamics show that propagandists need collaborators, often people who disagree but comply for convenience. The enabling is disheartening, but also hints at how extremism can be thwarted. OAN is struggling to recover after its employee exodus, soliciting resumes on air and even Craigslist.
Meanwhile, another OAN reporter has been fundraising for the Arizona election “audit,” a reality TV spectacle buttressing Republicans’ war on voting rights. The network also airs a doomsday ticker, “The Cost of Illegal Immigration,” with misleading data from white-supremacist-funded think tanks.
In personal writings, Sharp, who considers himself “a writer, stuck in a journalists [sic] body,” has said, “if I could excise the news portion of my work, sort of like removing an atrophied limb or unnecessary pancreas, then I would, and be happier for it.”
The trouble is, he and his colleagues peddle white myths and fantasies — which demand simple foes — as news on TV. And their audiences believe them.