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Why Newsmax is failing

The sudden rise and precipitous fall of Newsmax, explained by an expert.

Diamond and Silk have found a home at Newsmax after being fired by Fox News.
Newsmax

Former President Donald Trump gave a speech over the weekend, but you might not have known it even if you are a regular Fox News viewer. Instead, you would’ve had to turn to Newsmax, the right-wing cable news channel that’s sticking to its old-school strategy of being the Trumpiest channel on TV.

But with Trump now more than seven months removed from the White House, out-Trumping the competition isn’t proving to be the ratings hit these days that it was in December and January.

The wall-to-wall coverage of Trump’s speech on Saturday at a Turning Point event in Phoenix was a snapshot of how Newsmax is trying to stay relevant. While Fox News continued with its regularly scheduled programming, Newsmax carried all of Trump’s nearly two-hour speech live. Not only that, but Newsmax led into the speech with a segment that pushed the former president’s big lies about the 2020 election.

“We’re beyond the ‘conspiracy theory’ nonsense. We all know, we’re not stupid, we know something happened,” said host Rob Carson, who went on to cite long-debunked claims of election fraud in Arizona to make a case that Trump was somehow cheated out of the presidency.

This approach was a hit for Newsmax in December and January, when Trump supporters felt burned by Fox News in the wake of its early (but ultimately accurate) call of Arizona for Joe Biden. Those anti-Fox grievances were promoted by Trump, who helped Newsmax by live-tweeting the channel instead of Fox News (before his Twitter banishment, of course), and even helping Newsmax best Fox News in the ratings in the key demographic.

But Newsmax’s effort to out-Trump the competition has been less successful since Trump left the White House for Mar-a-Lago. Newsmax’s viewership is down more than 50 percent from January (from an average of about 300,000 viewers then to about 114,000 on July 18), and following a significant slump in December and January, Fox News has reestablished itself as not just the most-watched right-wing cable news network but the most-watched cable news network, period.

With Trump once again holding political rallies ahead of a likely 2024 presidential run, I thought it was timely to talk to Media Matters for America’s resident Newsmax expert, Jason Campbell, about Newsmax’s place in the broader right-wing media ecosystem. Suffice it to say he’s bearish on Newsmax’s prospects of ever filling CEO Chris Ruddy’s vow to “overtake” Fox News.

“The issue that I always come back to ... is that Newsmax is just not good,” Campbell told me. “It’s very dull, it’s very repetitive of conservative talking points I see everywhere else.”

So while Newsmax may be relevant enough to warrant occasional call-ins from Trump for extreme softball interviews, Campbell, whose areas of expertise also include Steven Crowder and Ben Shapiro, doesn’t foresee it becoming a major player heading into next year’s midterms — especially after it burned viewers with election fraud conspiracy theories that ended up not returning Trump to the White House for a second term after all.

“To steal a line from the movie Scarface, Newsmax had basically gotten high on its own supply, and their viewers were left holding nothing at the end of all that. I think that played a major role,” he told me.

A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.

Aaron Rupar

Newsmax’s ratings were down 50 percent from January to late June. As someone who has watched a lot of it, what do you think explains Newsmax’s inability to sustain the audience it had in the late days of the Trump presidency?

Jason Campbell

Fundamentally, what happened was on election night 2020, Fox News called the state of Arizona for Joe Biden, and they were ahead of a lot of other networks and outlets. Newsmax didn’t.

There was a huge sense of betrayal in the conservative base, and particularly among Trump voters, that Fox News did that. And it sort of put Newsmax in this position of being this standard-bearer in cable news for the Trump movement. And then as the months went on, that waned. And I think that what happened, fundamentally, is two things.

One, during the winter, Newsmax was just perpetually pushing a whole swath of conspiracy theories related to the election. They became a safe haven for President Trump’s big lie [that he had won the 2020 presidential election], and they were incredibly aggressive on pushing the point that President Trump would remain in office, that Joe Biden had not won the presidency.

And then, at noon on January 20 of 2021, Joe Biden was inaugurated as president, and Donald Trump went to Florida, and that was over. And I think that, to steal a line from the movie Scarface, Newsmax had basically gotten high on its own supply, and their viewers were left holding nothing at the end of all that. I think that played a major role.

The second big factor that I think happened is that at its most basic level, Newsmax is incredibly dull and incredibly boring. It’s not a particularly good news network, they don’t have nearly as big of a budget as Fox News does, and their hosts are just simply not as talented. It’s hard to sustain huge viewerships when you’re just not that good.

Aaron Rupar

Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy was saying in late June that he still thinks Newsmax is on track to overtake Fox News. There was a lot of reporting in December and January about Newsmax beating Fox News in a key demographic over an hour. Do you think Newsmax still represents a threat to Fox, or is it a deal where they had their moment in December and January thanks to a confluence of circumstances, and now that’s over? Could they cut back into Fox’s viewership heading into the midterms?

Jason Campbell

It’s an interesting question because the first surge they had after the election was so surprising and kind of came out of nowhere that it’s certainly possible for that to happen again. I would consider it to be unlikely. In a funny way, Chris Ruddy had made that prediction about the six months overtaking Fox News in December, and so that obviously didn’t happen. It is true that in December the Greg Kelly show did beat out Martha MacCallum one night, during the same hour — the 7 pm hour — which was a pretty remarkable accomplishment. Their ratings really, really spiked.

I think that Fox News responded to that. They saw it wasn’t happening in a vacuum, and Fox News made a lot of changes to their programming as well at the time, which might have stemmed off some of the issues they had on an internal level.

The issue that I always come back to is the one I made a bit ago, which is that Newsmax is just not good. It’s very dull, it’s very repetitive of conservative talking points I see everywhere else. They don’t even really take in much of a novel direction. Most of their lineup is Fox News flunkies, like Diamond and Silk, who were fired from Fox News last year; Trish Regan, who’s not a host, but she’s a very frequent guest — she was fired from Fox News; Victoria Toensing and Joe DiGenova, they don’t really appear on Fox News anymore, they go on Newsmax all the time; and Mark Halperin, obviously — he wasn’t at Fox News, but he’s now hosting a show during the weekend on Newsmax, and I see him every day as a contributor.

It’s just a lot of people who couldn’t make it at Fox News. They just don’t have any talent, and I don’t see much room for them to change that. It’s certainly possible that they could find a niche, but I think that they see themselves as the competitor to Fox News, and so they weigh themselves by the standard of Fox. That’s the image that they try to get across, and they consistently fail at doing so — minus that blip, which I’m now personally thinking was a relatively temporary surge that’s unlikely to happen again.

Aaron Rupar

One thing that occurred to me watching Newsmax over the weekend is that they’re still trying to position themselves as the Trumpiest network. They carried all of Trump’s speech live on Saturday, and Fox News didn’t carry any of it. I wonder if there’s a niche for them being even Tumpier than Fox.

Jason Campbell

I think it’s very fair to say that Newsmax is more Trumpy in a manifest way than Fox News is. The way that Newsmax talks about Fox News has been very interesting this year. During their ratings surge, there was frequent rhetoric coming from their hosts — Chris Salcedo one time said in early December that “dedicated Democrats” ran Fox News. They kept having all this rhetoric about how Fox News had betrayed Trump and, you know, people shouldn’t watch it because of that.

My personal favorite example of this is after Lou Dobbs’s Fox Business show was canceled in February, there was daily coverage — at least on several days in a row — of large segments dedicated to that particular story. One guest said that Lou Dobbs was too conservative for Fox News. There was speculation about whether Newsmax would hire Lou Dobbs. There was even a weird “man on the street” segment in April of a contributor to Newsmax walking around with a “where’s Lou?” sign. So they definitely tried to aestheticize themselves as the Trump-based network, and Fox as the betrayer of that.

I think a lot of it might have to do with what former President Trump does himself. During that ratings surge he was live-tweeting Newsmax — before he was removed from Twitter, he was live-tweeting Newsmax and OAN in a way that he was not for Fox News at the time. My colleague Matt Gertz really laid that out well. I think at his core, Trump is a TV guy who likes the big ratings, and would probably prefer Fox News over Newsmax since Newsmax doesn’t have the ratings.

Aaron Rupar

We all remember that viral clip from the winter of [MyPillow CEO] Mike Lindell getting kicked off Newsmax for lying about voting machines.

But one thing I noticed watching Newsmax over the weekend for Trump’s speech in Arizona is that it seemed like they were kinda leaning back into lies about the election. It seems like they’re staying away from the specific claims about voting machines that opened them up to litigation, but is that your impression, too — that as time has passed and we get further away from the election, Newsmax is more willing to indulge this false narrative that there was major election fraud?

Jason Campbell

The Dominion lawsuit that was filed against them in December finally got settled in April, and Newsmax had to issue a retraction [for on-air claims about Dominion voting machines manipulating votes for Biden] — which is sort of what sparked the famous moment where Bob Sellers walked off the studio when Mike Lindell was talking. And so they couldn’t talk about Dominion-related things, but they managed to pivot it to just generalized election fraud-related issues. I don’t think they’re significantly more heavy on that than I see virtually anywhere else. That’s not particularly novel or something they cover continuously — and it’s certainly dangerous for them to be doing that — but I see far more aggressive talking points about that on other platforms.

It might be kind of similar to their coverage of vaccines, which is also a mix of going out on a limb on some things — saying vaccines are dangerous and possibly will kill people — and then they’ll take a step back. They don’t really seem to have a consistent message.

Aaron Rupar

How is Newsmax covering Trump now that we’re more than six months removed from him leaving office?

Jason Campbell

I frequently laugh to myself while watching Newsmax that it’s very, very common — almost so common to the point of being ridiculous — that when someone on Newsmax references “the president,” it’s usually Donald Trump they’re talking about, not President Joe Biden.

To be fair to the network, there’s not as much of the “Donald Trump is the legitimate president”-type language, but it’s definitely signaled in a very tepid manner. It’s a network that’s entirely devoted to him, and I’ve never seen any serious dissension from him.

Aaron Rupar

I don’t know if you’ve noticed this as well, but it seems to me that Fox News has settled into a type of gadfly status with a renewed focus on attacking Democrats for being “woke” or for their alleged hypocrisy. Does Newsmax even acknowledge that Democrats are in power, or is it all Trump all the time?

Jason Campbell

They’ve definitely fallen in line with the rest of the conservative media apparatus with “Democrats are coming for you”-type rhetoric, and that Joe Biden is a communist and that’s the great threat. Usually it’s couched in a way where Donald Trump is the savior figure that had existed prior to all this, and there’s almost a nostalgic turning back to the Trump years as the good old times that have been destroyed by these Democrats.

They definitely play into the fearmongering about Democratic proposals that you see continuously on Fox News and other conservative programs, but they usually follow along with the talking points about it.

This is back to my original point about how Newsmax just is not particularly interesting or novel — they follow the rest of the conservative media ecosphere. When canceling Dr. Seuss is in vogue, that’s what they run with. When it’s canceling Aunt Jemima syrup, that’s what they run with. They follow along with the apparatus; they don’t particularly lead it.

And while Fox News oftentimes will serve as the place that talking points will filter to eventually, Newsmax doesn’t even place as an important vector along the line on that. So, for example, you’ll see sort of an extreme talking point begin lower down on the conservative media apparatus, and then it eventually filters its way up through online platforms, YouTube, podcasts. It might get to Newsmax, but if it gets to Newsmax before Fox News, it’s very briefly, and then eventually it’s on Fox News. So Newsmax doesn’t even play an important structural role in how talking points get filtered to conservative audiences.

Aaron Rupar

For your typical political news consumer, are there any reasons why it’s important to pay attention to Newsmax? Your last answer suggests maybe not.

Jason Campbell

It’s a hard question to answer because I’ve watched a lot of conservative media on a lot of different platforms over the last several years, and my initial instinct is to always think that it’s dangerous to allow outlets or specific figures to spew really dangerous talking points, misinformation, and conspiracy theories without, one, being challenged, and also, two, I think that ignoring can be dangerous. Things will surface and sort of take over that you hadn’t even known about.

On the other hand, there is so much conservative media out there, and as you know, conservative media is an incredibly competitive environment. There are a lot of platforms and a lot of people vying for the attention of the audience, and there’s only so much you can pay attention to. Sometimes, you need to see the networks as being what they are.

I would say at this moment, Newsmax is not that important of a network. The way they are important is insofar as just being another outlet of pushing the same misinformation, the same conspiracy theories, the same dangerous rhetoric as Fox News, as a series of podcasts, as a series of YouTube channels do. They should be checked on that ground, but in terms of being a major player in the conservative industry, I don’t really see that being the case right now. That may change, and it’s good to be prepared if that ever does happen, but I don’t see them having serious staying power.

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