At last month's Conservative Political Action Conference, a 22-year-old woman named Tomi Lahren walked out on the stage and generated the most memorable sound bite from the conference—perhaps second only to Phil Robertson's speech.
In her speech, Lahren—who hosts a right-leaning talk show on the little-known cable channel One America News Network—said there is a misconception among young voters that the GOP is populated by "old, rich, white males," and turned that criticism on the Left.
"Let's look at the top three Democrats for 2016," Lahren said. "You've got Hillary, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden. Old, rich, white, and if the pantsuit fits ... male too?"
Lahren graduated from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in 2014 with degrees in journalism and political science. When she was looking for journalism internships, she Googled "conservative news outlets" and stumbled upon One America News. Soon, she was taking a day off classes to drive down to San Diego and do a screen test for the network. Two weeks after graduating, Lahren moved to San Diego to start work on her show, On Point.
After Lahren's CPAC speech, left-leaning websites picked up her "pantsuit" quote, leading to negative feedback and more publicity than the network's received from mainstream outlets in years.
"Most of the comments that I'm getting are that I'm Barbie; that I'm a bimbo; that I look like a porn star; that the Koch brothers must have paid me to go on that stage; that I'm just auditioning for Fox News," Lahren told National Journal. "If you're not ruffling feathers at CPAC, I don't think you're doing a very good job."
One America News, which launched patriotically on July 4, 2013, is something of an anomaly in the cable news universe. First of all, it's based in San Diego, California. The channel's news coverage is intended to be straight down the middle, even though its talk shows are pretty staunchly conservative. The network does not cover sports or pop culture news. Like Lahren, many of its news anchors and reporters are young. And for now, it airs no commercials. The network may want to emulate Fox's success, but it's taking a very different path to get there.
Robert and Charles Herring, the network's founders, envisioned it as an antidote to fluff-filled cable "news" shows. Charles Herring, the network's president, boasts that the channel broadcasts 21 hours of straight news a day.
"What we've noticed in the marketplace is, it's very hard to turn on your TV and find news around the clock. You get a lot of talk shows, a lot of debates, but just finding credible news is really difficult," Herring told National Journal. "The fundamental difference between us, MSNBC, CNN and Fox is we are dedicated to [being] a credible source of news."
In this way, watching an hour of a One America News broadcast can feel like freebasing CNN: it's a series of 2- or 3-minute packages, many of which draw footage from Reuters or The Associated Press, interspersed with an anchor to provide a segue, then it's on to the next news package.
One America News is accessible in 15 million out of 100 million potential U.S. households, and it needs to double its viewership to start attracting national advertisers. In the meantime, the network has chosen not to rely on the low-rent, direct-response ads you see on less popular networks or late at night—ads for Cash for Gold, Head-On, or sundry weight-loss scams.
While its ratings come nowhere close to the three cable news titans—Fox, CNN and MSNBC—One America News outperforms Fusion, Bloomberg and Al Jazeera combined, according to first quarter ratings on total hours viewed. It is making its influence felt in other ways too, including by sponsoring this year's CPAC and interviewing nearly all the potential Republican presidential candidates who spoke there, including Sen. Marco Rubio, Gov. Scott Walker, Sen. Rand Paul, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina.
One challenge facing a still-fledgling channel like One America News is appealing to a younger demographic. While it employs many young reporters and news anchors, TV news audiences—especially daytime news audiences—still skew older. But making a claim on that market could help set it apart from its competitors. In 2014, the median age of Fox viewers was 68, compared to MSNBC and CNN's 60. Like their cohort in general, young conservatives are shifting to the Internet to get their news.
Compared to the dozens of successful conservative news sites that have sprung up recently, such as The Washington Free Beacon or The Daily Caller, conservative TV outlets have been slow to catch up. Herring says his network is working to remedy that.
One America News isn't alone. NewsMax TV, which penned a distribution deal with Verizon FiOS in February, has been trying to elbow its way into the conservative cable news game as well. BuzzFeed's Andrew Kaczynski has made something of a cottage industry of watching Newsmax TV and blogging about what people like Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, and Ron Paul say on the channel.
But unlike across-the-board partisan outlets like Newsmax, One America News is intent on retaining a firewall between news and opinion. In its Washington bureau—a basement office across the street from the Capitol—a list of reporters' beats hung from a wall.
"We're trying to return news back to just news, and really distinguishing that divide between opinion and hard news," Amanda House, the Washington bureau chief, told National Journal. "We have a ton of people who watch us that have no right-leaning tendencies whatsoever."
Still, this distinction can lead to cognitive dissonance. Compare this somberly reported package about the funeral of Michael Brown with this spoof in which a 911 responder refuses to dispatch police officers to a man's house until she learns the race, age, sexual orientation, and gender of the perpetrator. The former video has 57 views; the latter has more than 430,000 views.
The force of One America's commentary can help explain that gap. While the channel may want to be known for its straight reporting, it's gained more attention from its stalwart conservative personalities. It would be easy to typecast Lahren as just another ditzy conservative pundit. At first glance she inhabits the same mold as Fox News' Megyn Kelly—as forthright about her conservatism as she is about her hair coloring. But Lahren rejects that comparison, though she is a fan of Kelly's.
"I'm not trying to be the younger, blonder version of anyone," she said. "I'm trying to be Tomi."
While Lahren says she loves Fox, she wants to reach beyond the network's hard-right audience to reach millennials and independents.
"When I bring people on my show, I'm not going to bring the right-wingers on that just reinforce what I have to say, and I'm not going to bring on the liberals so that I can talk over them or interrupt them, because to me that doesn't educate anyone or inform anyone," Lahren said.
Rick Amato, another one of the network's three talk show hosts, sees his role at One America News a bit differently.
"If we can continue to grow, we can step up right beside Fox News and support them and what they're doing," Amato told National Journal. "We're trying to hit the Left right between the eyes, punch them twice for every one punch they throw to the Right."