OAN’s shady involvement with a conspiracy theory-based Arizona election “audit”
OAN is covering the Maricopa County audit with exclusive “unfettered access,” as two OAN reporters raise money for it and try to spread the absurd process to other states
After right-wing media spent months raising conspiracy theories and posing already-answered questions about the 2020 election, the Arizona Senate ordered a nonbinding, supposedly nonpartisan “audit” of Maricopa County’s ballots, which were long ago certified by the state Supreme Court. And the pro-Trump conspiracy theory channel One America News is unusually involved in the process.
OAN’s involvement in this conspiracy theory-fueled audit is deep and unethical. For one thing, instead of allowing multiple networks to air the audit process directly, the Arizona Senate is letting OAN run an exclusive livestream of nine cameras set up in the facility. Additionally, one of OAN’s main audit reporters is helping funding the operation.
Arizona’s former Secretary of State Ken Bennett, also the Senate’s liaison to the audit and an occasional OAN guest, said the network “offered to do the livestream and make it available to everyone.” Journalists attempting to report on the audit said that they were forced to participate as election observers and couldn’t take photos, videos, or even notes with pen and paper, though the auditors eventually allowed pool reports. However, OAN and other far-right outlets, like Gateway Pundit, enjoy “unfettered access” that legitimate outlets do not.
About $150,000 of the cost of the audit was raised by Voices & Votes, a 501(c)4 led by OAN's Christina Bobb, who also volunteered for Trump’s post-election legal team while she was an OAN host and previously worked on border control policy for his administration. (Another $150,000 was paid by the Arizona Senate, and millions more were paid by an array of right-wing groups and figures, including MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell.) Bobb, who hosted an OAN special accusing the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors of “cover[ing] up the Arizona election heist,” also uses her reports on the audit and her weekly show to solicit donations for Voices & Votes.
OAN White House correspondent Chanel Rion has joined Bobb at her (c)4 as chief marketing officer. Rion is also the founder of multiple seemingly abandoned media ventures and the self-described author of a young-adult novel series, Mystery by Design, which may not exist. Rion is engaged to Voices & Votes’ chief operations officer, Courtland Sykes, a Navy veteran and cartoonishly sexist 2018 GOP candidate for U.S. Senate in Missouri. Sykes’ failed Senate run is not mentioned in his Voices & Votes biography, nor is his and Rion’s engagement discussed in their write-ups.
OAN’s coverage of the audit speculates that “Arizona residents seem to believe they will find fraud” proving that “Arizona was stolen” from former President Donald Trump. OAN has spread these theories about Arizona and other states practically since the election, denying the legitimacy of President Joe Biden’s win and parroting debunked claims about election software companies like Smartmatic and Dominion Voting Systems, both of which have filed multiple defamation lawsuits and are considering filing more. OAN denies that it is accusing Dominion Voting Systems of any wrongdoing, even as it continues to host people who encourage and spread recklessly false claims that the election was stolen, the audit will prove it, and we must “hold Dominion accountable.”
Besides directly promoting the audit itself, OAN has frequently played host to Arizona GOP Chairwoman Kelli Ward, who told OAN on May 2 that she’s grateful to have “real news about this audit” on the ground. Ward said that “we need [this audit] as a state, we need it as a country” to “make sure that [the ballots] are OK, that there aren't any suspicious ballots in there. … Were they real voters? Were they ghost voters? Were they dead people who were voting? This is the whole kitchen sink, really.”
OAN's Bobb asked Ward if the Arizona audit is “a launching point, maybe, for other audits around the country.” Ward agreed with her characterization, saying it is “the tip of the spear” and calling for Republican Gov. Doug Ducey to provide security against “antifa and BLM” or media sabotage, including the National Guard “if it came to that.” Security is currently being provided by the “quasi-law enforcement” organization Arizona Rangers, which has also raised over $160,000 for itself since joining the effort.
Much like OAN, many people involved with the audit have also pushed conspiracy theories that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. Attorney L. Lin Wood, who has contributed $50,000 to Voices & Votes for the audit fund, is a QAnon conspiracy theorist who filed a suit seeking to overturn the Georgia election. MyPillow’s Lindell, whose exact contributions are unknown, has aired at least three movies on OAN alleging nationwide fraud and is being sued by Dominion (Lindell is also countersuing Dominion). Cyber Ninjas, an auditing firm hired by the Arizona Senate to coordinate the effort, is led by Doug Logan, who pushed debunked fraud allegations on Twitter with the #StopTheSteal hashtag. One account he interacted with was that of former 8kun administrator Ron Watkins, another conspiracy theorist believed by some to be “Q,” the central figure of the QAnon conspiracy theory. Though Watkins doesn’t appear to be formally involved, in far-right online circles he is hyping invented fears of a coordinated “BLM or antifa” attack on the audit.
The point of this circus is to make Arizona “the first domino to fall,” encouraging other states to start a long chain of election audits to fuel further baseless claims of widespread voter fraud, one of right-wing media’s oldest and most lucrative lies. Voices & Votes’ website lays out a vague plan to raise awareness of election fraud nationwide and to protect elections from “cancel culture.” Although some actors involved, like Lindell, proudly proclaim that Trump will be president again “by August” once the fraud is proved, for others -- like the attention-starved One America News -- it could also be another deeply cynical grift.