Watching Newsmax, the Fox News challenger: Like home shopping TV for dangerous far-right fantasies

On this TV catalog masquerading as a right-wing news outlet, the dull repetitiveness is stupefying—and intentional

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published December 13, 2020 3:30PM (EST)

Sean Spicer | Newsmax (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Sean Spicer | Newsmax (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Home shopping networks exist beyond the critic's purview. They just sort of do what they do with low production value, living or dying on the charms of their hosts. Plus, it's widely understood that despite announcers' assurances that what they're selling is solid and true, the real deal, much of what they're hawking is of questionable quality.

Absorbing hour after hour of Newsmax made me contemplate the great American appeal of home shopping consumerism and its strong attraction to the emotionally vulnerable, people seeking out that unknown item to fill some gap in their life they cannot name. Newsmax mimics that approach, only instead of dealing in sleeved blankets and cut-rate gemstones, it sells concentrated alarmism and far-right extremist fantasy.

What is it about this TV catalog masquerading as a right-wing news outlet that has hundreds of thousands of shoppers feverishly buying the most recent versions of its product? Simple: its unflagging support of Donald Trump's alternate universe. In Newsmax's America, as in Trump's, the pandemic is a hoax, Trump won the election, the Bidens are liars enabling widespread voter fraud and a second term for the 45th president is but one court case away.

Trump has been plugging Newsmax for some time now, giving the channel his heartiest endorsement after Fox News stopped consistently telling him what he wanted to hear whenever he wanted to hear it.

After Fox became the first network to call Arizona for President-elect Joe Biden on Nov. 3, Newsmax was ready to welcome defectors who refused to believe the result with open arms. According to a recent New York Times story on the channel, Newsmax's prime-time ratings averaged 58,000 before election day, but catapulted to 1.1 million for a recent hour hosted by Greg Kelly, one of the channel's popular voices.

Ever since it has been plying its viewers with the insistent lie that Democrats stole the election, that anyone who isn't for Trump is a corrupt radical. Saucing this departure from the truth has been its hosts' passionate insistence that Trump and Republicans still have a path to overturn election results that have been certified and re-certified for Biden several times over in multiple states.

Some version of this fantasy led the headlines of its primetime opinion shows last week, each with a unique take on the channel's excursions into a wonderland awash in baseless assertions and conspiracy theory.

Hosts Greg Kelly and Grant Stinchfield stoked the dying flames of false hope with various versions of pitch that nearly every other headline about the election's outcome is wrong, that other news outlets and the amorphous nemesis known as the radical liberal left don't want you to know "the truth." They want Donald Trump to prevail, and they believe he will. They can't explain how or why; belief is enough.

Trump and his Republican allies have lost 58 lawsuits attempting to change election results at statewide levels, with the most blistering rejection arriving from the Supreme Court on Friday night. The justices tossed out a bid by Texas' attorney general to sue Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, all battleground states Biden won. Newsmax's hosts were very enthusiastic about the Texas suit earlier in the week, making their refusal to admit defeat after the highest court's hammer shattered their dreams completely on brand.

"We have the order issued just a few minutes ago," Kelly told his viewers. "I'll read it for you but I want to emphasize before I do, we have the situation in Pennsylvania that has not been settled, we have Georgia that has not been settled, we have Michigan that has not been settled, independent of this lawsuit from Texas." All of this must be news to people living in those states who have a grasp on reality.

Kelly then read the Supreme Court's order verbatim: "Texas v. Pennsylvania, et al. The State of Texas's motion for leave to file a bill of complaint is denied for lack of standing under Article III of the Constitution. Texas has not demonstrated a judicially cognizable interest in the manner in which another State conducts its elections. All other pending motions are dismissed as moot."

"It's not over. It's not over," Kelly repeated to his viewers on Friday.

Many legal experts have been saying it — as in, the 2020 presidential election — is very much over. It has been over for many weeks now.  Joe Biden is not only the President-elect but, along with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, he's Time magazine's Person of the Year

People who would point to these inconvenient facts are not Newsmax shoppers. Newsmax shoppers want broken mirrors that reflect distorted, invalid reasons as to why they're not getting what they want and accuse half the nation of stealing their MAGA paradise out from under them. Fortunately for them the channel provides several models that achieve this. 

"The Kelly" reflecting device resembles a serious-minded newsman convinced that the Trump crusade to retake the White House has momentum despite escalating evidence to the contrary. Kelly previously served as a co-host on "Good Day New York" and weathered an allegation of sexual assault; he was never arrested or formally charged.

"The Stinchfield" assumes a more militaristic approach; since the host previously worked for NRATV, that tracks. The host refers to his fanbase as the Stinchfield Army and rallies them to a number of causes — the first being Trump, but he has other hobbies too. 

Variety being the spice of life, Stinchfield took time during one of his shows last week to perpetuate a debunked claim published in Johns Hopkins University's student-run newspaper (and later retracted) that claimed the COVID-19 pandemic is not responsible for any excess deaths in the United States in 2020.

I can't believe I have to spell this out but: That is demonstrably false. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention the death toll in this country is approaching 300,000. Director Robert Redfield said on Thursday that for the next 60 to 90 days, "we're going to have more deaths per day than we had at 9/11 or we had at Pearl Harbor." Do not expect Stinchfield to correct himself; I suspect that goes against his beliefs.

Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer, another Newsmax host (and a very bad one, which is saying something) is a known quantity. Lying is his schtick. So is being a living, breathing joke … until he slid into Newsmax's version of reality. Now he is a real live news boy for real people, a truth crusader who stays away from hard numbers but is fine with asking folks not to believe what they're seeing or the world as they experience it, away from their televisions.

In the time I spent with Newsmax I noticed few to no references to the nation's escalating COVID infection rates, but who needs that? Its hosts have an election to deny and, as of this week, new details about an investigation into Hunter Biden to drool over. Vaccines were discussed, but there was little to no coverage of the extent or severity of the pandemic's spread across the country.  

What's puzzling is that none of this aroused much in the way of emotion in me. To be clear, I don't expect purveyors of fact-based information to thrill or entertain, although quite a few take that role upon themselves. But Newsmax is not actual news. Much of it doesn't even approximate fact-based reporting, Fox News's stock-in-trade. This is a network with terrible production values and slapdash editing whose programs could easily be mistaken for parody shows within scripted series. Even the sets look like high-gloss Zoom backgrounds.

With that in mind I had hoped for some truly eyebrow-lifting sideshow hokum to aid the bamboozlement in going down easier. Anything would help explain why and how Monday evening's telecast of "Greg Kelly Reports" beat Fox's "The Story with Martha MacCallum" in the 25-to-54 target demographic, with the Newsmax host averaging 229,000 viewers to MacCallum's 203,000.

"It couldn't be entirely based on right-wing election delusion, could it?" I asked myself, only to discover upon further and very painful examination that yes, it is entirely just that — a reflection of feeling, interspersed with commercials hawking bedroom linens, memory-support supplements and opportunities to contribute to the GOP's post-election grift in multiple forms.

The dull repetitiveness and lack of subtlety has a stupefying effect, and that's precisely what makes its programs successful. One segment was nothing but a supercut of the 13 times Georgia Republican Senate candidate Kelly Loeffler referred to her Democratic opponent, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, as a radical liberal during the recent televised debate. "I play it like that to pound it into everyone's head that he is a radical liberal!" the host boomed, in case we didn't pick up what he was putting down.

Another segment featured slowed-down footage of Rahm Emanuel speaking ... about what? Who knows, since the audio was muted. Kelly simply wanted the viewer to notice his purported glee at shutting down the economy with COVID restrictions. I'm no fan of Emanuel, but this was ludicrous.

Newsmax reaches 75 million U.S. homes and is available on most major cable and satellite services. You can also watch it on demand on its website.

That its product line is redundant and limited in quantity may challenge its viability in the near future. Over the longer term, however, its narrow scope may strengthen Newsmax's potency as a disinformation source. Look at it as a running experiment that's testing the limits of the "illusion of truth" effect, which holds that repetition of a statement tends to make said statement be perceived as true even if it is not. This is how Fox persuaded millions of viewers that it is fair and balanced despite its obvious skew, and that was before its primetime lineup's slide into the land of outright nativism and prevarication.

Newsmax's narrowing of its focus to the election-fraud lie and little else, and the consistency with which it pounds out its refrain of false hope and anger, places it in a prime position to permanently siphon off the hardest core of Trump's faithful into its viewership ranks. This should frighten you.

Newsmax and its weirder cousin One America News are not harmless refuges for a few odd tinfoil-hat wearers. To get a sense of how dangerous their growing popularity is, turn your eyes toward Michigan, whose secretary of state contended with armed protesters amassing outside her home and harassing her family.

Look at the death threats election workers have contended with in Georgia, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — all states named by Kelly as places where the election has not been settled. (It has. Each of those states has certified its election results, and although Trump is still mounting legal challenges to the Wisconsin recount, its electors meet on Monday and Congress is expected to accept their votes for Biden.) 

Misinformation is poisoning the social fabric even in states that aren't battlegrounds. Last Wednesday in Washington state, a man walked into Spokane County Democrats' office threatening to detonate a bomb if the workers who were there didn't read and widely share his manifesto. He was later arrested, but not before setting a fire inside the office.

Newsmax's hosts didn't reference this while I was watching. But I did see Kelly praise Danny Presti, the Staten Island, New York, bar owner who violated the state's pandemic restrictions by staying open, and rammed into a sheriff's deputy with his car when the official attempted to arrest him. To Kelly, and therefore to his viewers, Presti is a hero. (Fox's Sean Hannity also draped laurels upon Presti — not the deputy he assaulted with his automobile.)

On Jan. 20, 2021, the Biden administration will officially begin. Whether Newsmax's hosts acknowledge that doesn't matter, because they can keep the fraud lie's drama churning for the next four years.

How this impacts Fox News' strategy and American society itself it is too early to say. Fox has expressed confidence in its wider reach, evidenced in the fact that it commands four times the viewership Newsmax musters on any given day. Fox, MSNBC, CNN and every other major mainstream news organization have deeper pockets and far more extensive connections and resources than their much smaller competition at Newsmax and OAN. For now, Fox is likely taking comfort in that.

Newsmax, meanwhile, continues to prove how lucrative selling dangerous stories far removed from reality can be. The channel's CEO, Christopher Ruddy, isn't shy about the fact that he's simply meeting demand with supply, packaging the affirmation of unsubstantiated belief as a product.

That the goods are bad for us, and dull at that, doesn't matter. People are buying, and business is booming.

Clarification: This article has been updated to clarify that Newsmax's 1.1 million audience was reached for one popular program. That number does not reflect average primetime viewership. 

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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