NEW YORK — Now that his largely invisible network has suddenly been flooded by fans of President Donald Trump, Newsmax television personality Grant Stinchfield is puffing out his chest.
“They don’t know what to do with all of us,” Stinchfield said on the air Monday night. “We’re killing it here on Newsmax with a tactic they’ve never tried. It’s called the truth, the stone-cold truth, and once you get a taste of it, you will never tolerate being lied to again.”
In many cases, the opposite is true. Newsmax, the television arm of a conservative website, has reported falsely that Joe Biden is not the legitimate president-elect because of largely non-existent voter fraud. Its viewers are fed a diet of conspiracy theories to salve the wounds of an election loss — a tactic that’s misleading at best and damaging to democracy at worst.
Yet Newsmax’s burst, whether or not it lasts, has been astonishingly swift and could foreshadow the first serious threat to Fox News Channel’s dominance with conservative viewers in two decades.
“We’ve really cornered Fox from the right,” said Chris Ruddy, Newsmax founder and friend of Trump. “They’ve never had that.”
From the beginning of July to the week before Election Day, Newsmax averaged 58,000 viewers from 7 to 10 p.m. on weekdays. That jumped to 568,000 the week after the election, the Nielsen company said. In the same period, daytime viewership increased from 46,000 to 450,000.
For the same dates, Fox News averaged 3.6 million viewers in the evening, Nielsen said. Fox’s prime-time viewership during the two weeks after the election was up 50 per cent over last year.
“We love competition. We have always thrived on competition,” Fox Corp. CEO Lachlan Murdoch said on an Election Day earnings call.
Ruddy traced much of Newsmax’s increase to Trump supporters angered by Fox’s election night call that Democrat Joe Biden had won Arizona — ahead of any other news organization. While that call proved correct, for the president’s backers it was an ill-timed sign of insufficient loyalty from their favourite network.
Trump, who criticized Fox throughout the campaign, has driven the point home with repeated tweets suggesting his followers check out Newsmax or a smaller rival that also presses a conservative viewpoint, One America News Network.
“There’s a large part of the country that wants to have a voice, the same people who gave birth to what turned into a very robust Fox News,” said Michael Clemente, Newsmax’s CEO until last April and a former Fox News executive. “Now, more than ever, they want to be heard, and have influence equal to their peers on the coasts. Their loyalty is to that voice and not to any place or another.”
Unlike Fox, Newsmax’s news operation is largely non-existent. Most of the company’s reporters are attached to a website, which at midday Wednesday led with stories about Trump’s press secretary calling restrictions on Thanksgiving gatherings “Orwellian,” and the president’s latest false tweet claiming an election victory.
The television network is running a clever ad telling conservative viewers not to be “out-foxed,” but it was telling on Monday that both Newsmax and OANN spent considerable time discussing an interview that was conducted on Fox, where a Trump lawyer predicted her client would win by millions of votes.
Programming generally consists of news talk shows, and it’s not difficult to see where the loyalty lies.
“Donald Trump is the most powerful person in the world,” said Greg Kelly, a former personality at Fox’s New York affiliate who is Newsmax’s most polished broadcaster. “Not because he’s president, but because he’s loved by so many people.”
When Newsmax’s Chris Salcedo slipped and asked a question about Biden during an interview Monday with Trump aide Peter Navarro, he was quickly brushed off.
“As far as I’m concerned, President Trump is going to have a second term,” Navarro said.
Newsmax hasn’t declared Biden the president-elect, unlike other news organizations, including Fox. Its personalities spend considerable time echoing theories about voter irregularities that have either been disproven or unaccompanied by evidence.
Even though Ruddy concedes in an interview that Trump has an extremely narrow chance of overturning the results, he said it’s up to the states, not media organizations, to declare a winner.
But if the chances are really that small, why should a discussion about them dominate Newsmax’s airtime?
“I think that people that are not pro-Trump or don’t like him think we should get past it or they are tired of it,” he said. “But conservatives are quite anxious to hear about developments.”
He said he differs from Trump in believing the administration should be co-operating in a transition, even if the president holds out hope that the results could somehow be overturned.
“I would tell him if I speak to him that I think they should engage in a transition,” he said.
The spotlight on smaller rivals comes at an extraordinarily tumultuous time at Fox. There’s always been a tension between the news and opinion sides of the network, but this time it’s reflected in the ultimate “unspinnable” story of election results, said Nicole Hemmer, a Columbia University professor and author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.”
In some respects, the surge in Newsmax’s viewership represents a temper tantrum by some Fox viewers, she said.
For Newsmax, a big question is whether its programming is compelling enough to hold viewers who are clearly sampling. Besides Kelly, former Trump press secretary Sean Spicer is Newsmax’s best-known personality. Both their shows are aired twice a night; Ruddy said a new prime-time show will start next month and another is in the works.
“It’s going to be a challenge for (Newsmax) to grow their numbers in the way that Fox did because of the lack of a news operation,” Hemmer said.
The Wall Street Journal reported last weekend that Trump allies in Hicks Equity Partners had discussed acquiring and investing in Newsmax TV. Ruddy said it never materialized into anything. He said he’s not looking to sell, but will listen if an investor approaches with an open checkbook.
For conservative media, the overshadowing mystery is what Trump decides to do when he leaves office, whether he decides to start a media organization of his own or join an existing one.
Ruddy professes no insider knowledge, but said he doubts Trump would want to start his own company because it would cut him off from access to other media.
He doesn’t think Trump would be interested in doing a daily show. Perhaps weekly, he said, and Newsmax would be interested in having him.
Associated Press Television Writer Lynn Elber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
David Bauder, The Associated Press