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My two days watching Newsmax, the network waging war on Fox News from the right

The 24-hour channel has refused to call the election for Biden because it believes Trump still has a chance to win.

Newsmax host Greg Kelly discusses why Joe Biden won’t win the presidency. Note how the network has Trump’s vote total on the left in the graphic at the bottom of the screen, even though he trails.
Newsmax via YouTube
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

On Newsmax, the 2020 election is still undecided. To hear Newsmax tell it, not only has President-elect Joe Biden not definitively clinched the presidency, but incumbent Donald Trump is quite close to having victory in the bag.

The 24-hour news network that aims to run to Fox News’s right does something subtle to make it seem as though Trump has all but won. Along the bottom of the screen, it perpetually runs an election results tracker. When close Senate races pop up in the tracker, the Democratic candidate, highlighted within a blue box, appears on the left when they won — just as you’d expect when keeping track of scores: We traditionally list the winner of something first.

But when the results of the major battleground states pop up, Trump is always listed first, even when he’s trailing behind Joe Biden, sometimes by a huge margin. This is true when the network shows the current tally in Michigan, where Biden leads Trump by about 150,000 votes, and where other major outlets named Biden the winner several days ago. It’s true even when the network shows the results in the national popular vote, where Biden leads Trump by more than 5 million votes.

Newsmax reports up-to-date vote totals. It doesn’t overtly suggest that Trump is leading in the states he has clearly lost, even in terms of percentage of the total vote. But by always listing Trump first, the network creates the perception that Trump is in control of this race, even when you look more closely at the raw numbers. He’s gonna win this thing! Just you wait!

And that’s notable because Newsmax is one of the only news networks with significant reach that hasn’t called the election for Joe Biden. (One America News has also equivocated.)

The network is gambling that it can win a larger audience of Trump fans by parroting the Trump campaign argument that the election isn’t settled until the Electoral College meets in December, and anything can happen until then, and anyway, there was a ton of fraud, didn’t you know? (I contacted Newsmax on Monday to ask for their reasoning for not calling the election and have yet to hear back. But all of the reasons I just cited are ones it has presented on air.)

And at a time when the president has lost affection for Fox News, it just might work.

You probably get Newsmax in your home. You just might not know it.

Newsmax (or, as it’s more properly known, Newsmax TV) launched in 2014, and it now reaches 75 million homes in the US on nearly all major cable and satellite platforms. (It also streams live on YouTube.) In channel guides, it usually lurks just beyond the CNN/Fox News/MSNBC trifecta, patiently waiting for you to find it. That doesn’t necessarily mean a lot of people are watching, although viewership has risen for Newsmax’s election coverage.

The channel is a product of Newsmax Media, whose flagship publication is the magazine Newsmax. Despite the name, Newsmax — in both its print and televised forms — features even less traditional news than Fox News or MSNBC. It’s almost all commentary, and it’s almost all pro-Trump.

The editorial view that whatever Trump is up to equals “news” is taken to absurd extremes. One of the network’s afternoon programs — the exceedingly strange Howie Carr Show — included a mention of the network’s daily curation of tweets that will make conservatives feel good (or at least outraged at Democrats). Why check out Twitter when you have producer Grace Curley of The Howie Carr Show pick out only the tweets you want to see?

So far as I can tell, Newsmax doesn’t go full arch-conservative. The network doesn’t give airtime to QAnon paranoiacs, at least that I’ve seen. But over the last few days, it has spent lots of time arguing that other media outlets jumped the gun in calling the election for Biden and that Trump still has a path to win this thing.

The network’s lineup of pundits is mostly made up of minor conservative talk radio hosts. Carr, for instance, hosts a right-wing radio show in the Boston area, and his one-hour Newsmax show is a sort of distilled version of that.

Aesthetically, The Howie Carr Show may speak to Newsmax’s biggest challenge in catching up to Fox News, which is that it’s ugly as hell. Carr sits in front of an American flag background, staring not at the camera in front of him but just off to its side, while Curley says things to him off-camera and he reacts. It’s one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen on TV, only a couple of steps above public-access television but with just high enough production values to make you wonder why it’s not better than it is.

Outside of Carr and a handful of other talk radio figures, Newsmax has a handful of hosts who are known to folks outside the conservative media bubble. Former Trump press secretary Sean Spicer has a show. Game Change co-author Mark Halperin, who lost his jobs at NBC News, MSNBC, and Showtime in 2017 after multiple allegations of sexual harassment, has occasionally dropped by Newsmax to offer his take on how Trump can still win. Halperin also hosts a series where he holds video-conferencing “focus groups.” Footage from that show is excerpted in Newsmax’s other programming to feature the group’s most pro-Trump participants, seemingly with the goal of letting the network’s Trump-friendly viewership feel like there are more people like them out there.

It’s grim television, honestly — ugly to watch, even beyond its “cult of Trump” trappings, because it’s so clunky in its composition and aesthetics, like a Daily Show parody of a 24-hour news network. At least Fox News is compelling — very high-gloss and well-crafted, with all its swooshing graphics and attention-grabbing noise that make you want to keep tuning in.

Yet Newsmax is making a bid that aesthetics don’t matter. No, what matters to its target audience is adherence to a party line.

There’s room to Fox News’s right, believe it or not. And Newsmax has competition, too.

The obvious territory to explore in the cable news sphere would seem to be on the left. MSNBC is nominally to the left of centrist CNN, but only a bit, particularly compared to Fox News’s rightward tilt. So in theory, an overtly leftist cable news channel seems like a niche to be filled. But the up-for-grabs audience of democratic socialists, social justice advocates, and other assorted leftists doesn’t really watch cable news; this demographic skews young and toward websites, social media, and podcasts.

In contrast, the right-leaning audience watches lots of cable news because it skews older. And within that sphere, Fox News’s coverage of the 2020 election has become a point of contention, particularly when it comes to the network’s call of Arizona for Joe Biden on election night. Though the call appears to have since been borne out, with many other networks following suit, it seems at odds with just how close the state’s vote totals have turned out to be. The president himself has been angered by this dynamic, according to a Washington Post article on election week.

And Fox News’s incredulity at the idea that Trump could still win the election is only furthering the sense that the network is not sufficiently in Trump’s corner and, thus, can’t be trusted by true conservatives. The result is that, if Newsmax has a larger point in this post-election week, it seems to be that Fox News is over, and Newsmax is the future.

Carr’s show takes callers, and in listening to what they have to say, this message has come through loud and clear. One caller who made it to air on Monday spoke at length about how bad Fox News had gotten and how much more he loves Newsmax now. (Monday was apparently the caller’s first day of watching Newsmax.) The caller said he longed for a Trump TV network; Carr mused that if Trump were to lose the election — as if that hasn’t already happened — he might end up with a show on Newsmax.

The race to win over the Trump diehards is the true battle Newsmax finds itself in. The network is unlikely to overtake Fox News in the ratings, but if it can chip away at the Fox News viewership, it could easily become a credible alternative among an audience who simply wants to hear more about how Trump is doing, with occasional check-ins on stock prices. (Covid-19 was barely mentioned at all in the Newsmax coverage I watched.)

But Newsmax is not the only competitor in this space — One America News (OAN) and BlazeTV being the others — and Newsmax’s bet that not calling the election for Biden will curry favor among Trump fans is a smart ploy from this point of view. If Trump really does want to do a cable news talk show, OAN would seem to be an obvious choice to broadcast it (as the president has mentioned how much he likes it now), but Newsmax could come from behind with its dedication to selling the Trump party line as much as possible. (For its part, OAN put up a Reuters article on Saturday saying Biden had won, but it has since pulled that article from its website.)

Giving credence to the idea that Biden stole the election and Trump is the true winner is dangerous, particularly if doing so creates a sizable number of people who believe Biden is an illegitimate president. At best, it will only further polarize an already deeply polarized country; at worst ... well, it’s not pleasant to imagine.

I’m confident that Newsmax’s response to this argument would be something like, “Well, you thought Trump was an illegitimate president all these years!” But that would leave out the context that Trump clearly lost the popular vote in 2016 — a divide that exposed the growing rift between a majority of the country’s voters and the handful of voters who live in swing states and, by extension, matter most.

Or the network might gesture to occasional mainstream media coverage as a point in its favor. On Tuesday morning, the network trumpeted a Fast Company headline reading “Newsmax could end up being the Fox News of the post-Trump era,” not mentioning that by the network’s standard, the idea of a “post-Trump era” is still uncertain.

But on Newsmax, it doesn’t really matter if Trump wins or loses: Either way, the winner will be Newsmax.

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