Newsmax Rises On Wave Of Resentment Toward Media — Especially Fox News
Updated at 3:03 p.m.
Right now, Newsmax TV is trying to outfox Fox News.
No media outlet has done more to bolster President Trump over the past four years than Fox News. Yet the acknowledgment by Fox's reporters, anchors and even many opinion hosts that Democratic nominee Joe Biden won the election has provided an opening for the network's much smaller rival to peel off Trump's fans.
"It was an organic thing across social media and elsewhere," Newsmax founder and CEO Christopher Ruddy said in an interview. He said the message was: "Take a look at Newsmax. Their coverage is more fair."
"More fair" meaning more willing to deny political reality.
Trump is touting Newsmax on social media. He has ladled his Twitter feed with healthy servings of resentment toward Fox News. Fox was the first network to project that Biden had won the key state of Arizona, signaling Trump would likely lose; his anger was further stoked by its recognition of Biden as the president-elect. Contrast that with Newsmax: Nearly a month after Election Day, it has not formally designated Biden as the winner of the national race despite multiple recounts and decisive outcomes in numerous courtrooms.
On Saturday, Trump tweeted that Fox News was "virtually unwatchable." Earlier, he retweeted the Hollywood-actor-turned-conspiracy-theorist Randy Quaid reading aloud the president's tweets claiming Fox's daytime ratings had collapsed and blaming it for Trump's reversal of fortunes in the 2020 elections.
There has been a lot of talk about Trump TV and whether the soon-to-be-former president might join forces with Newsmax or some combination of other far-right platforms. Ruddy says that's unlikely, but he's happy that the president is shining light on his upstart network.
As the campaign season crested into election night and beyond, and Trump refused to concede, more than 1 million people tuned into Greg Kelly's Newsmax show. That's 10 times the audience the former Fox host drew earlier in the year, though it has declined somewhat. Other Newsmax hosts have seen similarly steep ascents. Fox News declined comment for this story. And its ratings remain far larger, still dwarfing Newsmax.
Yet Fox has been hurt by the Trump blasts and the Newsmax surge. And officials there have certainly noticed. According to CNN, Fox has told its producers to warn guests they should not appear on Newsmax if they want airtime on Fox as well. A Fox spokesperson said there was no directive about guest bookings.
Trump appeared Sunday morning on Maria Bartiromo's Fox News program; she has evolved from a financial journalist to a muscular source of support and consolation for the president. Nonetheless, online he keeps promoting Newsmax and its even smaller right-wing rival OANN, the One America News Network, a home for conspiracy theorists and conspiracy theories. (OANN's president, Charles Herring, did not respond to questions he asked NPR to pose in writing; its White House correspondent, Chanel Rion, did not reply to a request for comment.)
Newsmax is missing few opportunities to siphon alienated Trump fans away from Fox. On the air, its personalities include former Trump White House spokesman Sean Spicer, former National Rifle Association TV host Grant Stinchfield and former BuzzFeed and Independent Journal Review wunderkind, serial plagiarist and conspiracy theorist Benny Johnson, who has all but lifted his on-air persona from Fox's Tucker Carlson, the current ratings king of cable news.
Kelly has ramped up the rhetoric in his current incarnation as a Newsmax star, bashing Biden, bolstering Trump and mocking his former employer, too.
"Fox does seem to be going through something of an identity crisis," he told viewers recently. "They're not very supportive of the president these days — they seem to be bending over backward to hurt him."
And if you thought Fox gave a lot of airtime to Trump advocates making unfounded claims, at least its hosts and journalists sometimes push back. Fox News reporter Eric Shawn, who hosts on weekends, unraveled many of Trump's claims in the Bartiromo interview a few hours after it aired Sunday. Newsmax has doubled down on conspiracy theories and unsubstantiated assertions, with appearances from the president's repeatedly defeated attorney Rudy Giuliani, rogue Trump lawyer Sidney Powell and pro-Trump personalities Diamond and Silk. The duo are former stars of Fox Nation, Fox News' streaming service for those who want their opinions even more purely conservative. And they have made the false and outrageous claim that COVID-19 was unleashed to hurt Trump at the polls.
"Really, it is just an audio-visual extension of Trump Twitter," said Kurt Bardella, a former Republican congressional staffer and spokesman for Breitbart News turned anti-Trump activist. He says Newsmax believes cynicism sells.
"There's no question that this is 100% opportunistic," Bardella said in an interview. "I don't believe that the majority of people who are part of Newsmax actually believe what they're saying. They just see it as an opportunity to get an audience so that they can make more money."
Newsmax's Ruddy — a longtime friend of Trump's — says he's sympathetic to the president's repeatedly disproved claims of widespread election fraud but doesn't actually endorse them. Rather, he said, he wants to encourage a free flow of ideas that can't be found elsewhere.
"I don't want to start censoring opinions of people on Newsmax, like I wouldn't expect NBC to start censoring people that come on MSNBC," Ruddy said.
Newsmax has become the fourth-highest-rated cable news channel, at least for now, well behind Fox, MSNBC and CNN but above the two major business networks, Fox Business and CNBC. And Fox's own ratings — while still high — have fallen from stratospheric heights.
For all that, Bardella had a warning for Ruddy: Enjoy your moment. You're not preparing for a world after Trump.
"[Ruddy] is acting purely as a capitalist at this point," Bardella said. "And I do think that it's a shortsighted approach, because there is a limitation to how many people are going to be willing to change their behavior, if only because Donald Trump says so."
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.