A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.
President Trump’s fans who don’t think Fox News is right-wing enough have another option on cable and satellite: Newsmax TV.
And something dramatic has happened in the past week: A big audience has sought out Newsmax TV for the first time.
Those two facts are connected. Some Trump loyalists are raging against Fox and changing the channel to Newsmax instead.
On Newsmax, voter fraud innuendo is everywhere. Conspiracy theory chatter is constant. And perhaps most importantly, Joe Biden is not the president-elect. The channel is tapping into a real vein of rage on the right.
And Trump is encouraging it by retweeting Twitter users who are trashing Fox and promoting Newsmax.
What the ratings show
While Newsmax is still relatively small, this is the most robust right-wing TV challenge to Fox that I have ever seen. Over the summer, when I started to keep an eye on Newsmax’s Nielsen ratings, the channel was averaging about 25,000 viewers at any given time – a tiny number by any TV news standard. As the election was approaching, the audience ticked up, but it was still just a fly on the Fox elephant’s back. In the final week of October, Newsmax was averaging just 65,000 viewers at any given time.
Then came the election. Newsmax averaged 182,000 viewers during the election week that ended on Sunday. And it is growing even more this week. On Monday the channel averaged 347,000 viewers. On Tuesday, 437,000 viewers. Evening shows like “Spicer & Co” and “Greg Kelly Reports” are reaching 700,000 and 800,000 viewers. These shows struggled to hit 100,000 before the election! Something has clearly changed.
There are two theories: First, that Fox’s early projection about Biden winning Arizona enraged Trump loyalists, causing some to flip over to Newsmax, at least temporarily. Second, that Fox’s portrayal of Biden as president-elect caused even more angst, and sending even more viewers in Newsmax’s direction.
Over the weekend Newsmax pointedly said it had not called the race – which was a meaningless claim since the channel doesn’t have a decision desk. But the channel’s hosts keep repeating this claim anyway, and it is sticking.
If Fox is merely dabbling in election denialism, Newsmax is doubling down on it. Trump campaign adviser Jason Miller was explicit on Kelly’s show Wednesday night: “We gotta stop Joe Biden from becoming the next president.”
Trump is evidently watching. On Twitter he is sharing videos from Newsmax’s coverage, and the Trump campaign is supplying guests to the channel.
Newsmax’s PR campaign
When I interviewed Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy on CNN last Sunday, I called out his channel’s indulgence of voter fraud nonsense. I also asked if his business strategy is to tack further to the right than Fox. That’s certainly what it looks like. Newsmax has been publishing stories about its ratings gains and saying that “Fox News viewers appear to be deserting the network in droves.” Other stories have been about “backlash against Fox News.”
My two cents: Fox News still has a near-monopoly position. Its ratings are not noticeably suffering as a result of Newsmax’s ratings spike. While Newsmax averaged 437,000 viewers on Tuesday, Fox averaged 1.86 million. But there has clearly been a disruption in the pro-Trump TV universe. Newsmax is capitalizing. And Trump is funneling his fans to the channel. Will the ratings bump last?
Supply and demand
Taking a big picture view, Newsmax’s sudden gains are about demand meeting supply. There is a demand for content that swears Biden is not president-elect; that Trump is not a loser; that Trump might even win a second term. Al Schmidt, the Republican city commissioner of Philadelphia, touched on the demand side when he told CNN’s John Berman: “One thing I can’t comprehend is how hungry people are to consume lies and to consume information that is not true.”
Think of Newsmax as the supply side. Kelly told his viewers that Trump’s America has an “uphill fight on our hands” but he projected optimism as he touted the president and bashed the media. Jay Rosen tweeted on Wednesday: “What we talk about when we talk about disinformation is normally the supply, and how to limit it. Not the demand, and what to make of it.”
This is a demand issue right now. In the same way that some Trump loyalists are discovering Newsmax, some are also downloading Parler, the “Twitter-like app that describes itself as the world’s ‘premier free speech social network,’” the New York Times’ Mike Isaac and Kellen Browning wrote Wednesday. We are witnessing a further “fracturing of the information ecosystem,” caused by conservatives who can’t or don’t believe that more Americans voted for Biden than Trump.
Sinister right-wing storylines
To understand the demand side, and the desire for resentment-news, I listened to all three hours of “The Rush Limbaugh Show” on Wednesday, even though guest host Todd Herman was in for Limbaugh, who is receiving cancer treatments. I wanted to hear what listeners of the country’s most popular conservative radio show were hearing. My primary takeaway: There is no backing away from this voter fraud cliff. Some of the pro-Trump media’s most trusted commentators have already jumped and others are right on the edge.
Herman, a morning host in Seattle, knew to compliment his listeners just like Limbaugh does. “You’re an expert at pattern recognition,” he said repeatedly, urging them to “look at the patterns.” His overarching message was that the anecdotes and insinuations swirling throughout right-wing social media are a pattern: “There was fraud.” Listeners called in with concerns and conspiracy theories. Every segment reinforced their fears. One minute Herman said dead people were allowed to vote; the next minute he said media outlets (including CNN) were “colluding” with Biden; the next minute he said GOP leaders weren’t fighting back hard enough. And he said he fears unrest or worse: “If this doesn’t go through the full legal process, I’m afraid this country will come apart.” If you’re only watching mainstream news, you’re missing these sinister right-wing storylines.
The first few stages of grief
As I told Don Lemon on CNN, the five stages of grief are on full display in the pro-Trump universe. The first two stages, denial and anger, are the most perceptible. There are some signs of bargaining and depression too. So far, there aren’t many signs of the final stage, acceptance.
Trump still has some ratings power
Here is a new sign that he still has sway among his Fox base. Lately Tucker Carlson at 8pm has been beating Sean Hannity at 9pm, but on Tuesday Trump tweeted that “ballot Corruption will be exposed tonight at 9:00pmE on @SeanHannity.” Look at the resulting ratings spike: Carlson had 903,000 viewers in the 25-54 demo, Hannity jumped up to 1.35 million, and Laura Ingraham had 904,000. Trump’s tweet seemed to make a big difference.