By:
November 23, 2020

An intriguing media story that has sprung up since the election has been the modest rise of Newsmax — a conservative, very pro-Trump outlet that smells blood in the water that it can overtake Fox News as the go-to outlet for right-leaning viewers. The network has become a favorite of President Donald Trump’s Twitter feed as he touts its coverage, while occasionally taking shots that Fox News isn’t what it used to be — in his eyes, anyway.

So is there anything to all this? Is Newsmax actually making a dent? Well, this is true: Fox News’ ratings for certain time slots have dipped a bit since the election, while Newsmax has seen flashes of ratings success. For example, it had a night last week when more than a million people were watching. To be clear, that’s like a third of those who are watching Fox News on a typical night, but it’s quite the leap for a network that very recently was drawing fewer than 60,000 viewers a night.

Newsmax has become comfort food for staunch Trump supporters because it shamelessly promotes baseless conspiracy theories about election fraud. For the moment, Newsmax might be causing a bit of a headache for Fox News.

The New York Times’ Michael M. Grynbaum and John Koblin note that while Newsmax hasn’t overtaken Fox News in viewership, there are indirect ratings ramifications. For example, for the first time in 19 years, the morning show “Fox & Friends” drew a smaller weekly audience than MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” And you’ve likely seen Trump supporters chanting things like “Fox News sucks” during protests and marches.

Grynbaum and Koblin wrote, “The loss of viewers has set off alarm bells inside Fox News, said several people with ties to the network who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid straining relationships. A new slogan promoting its pro-Trump opinion hosts — ‘Standing Up For What’s Right’ — is now in heavy rotation.”

On his “Reliable Sources” show, CNN’s Brian Stelter said Fox News is “feeling pressure from the right, from Newsmax.” Stelter said he believes that’s why it aired Rudy Giuliani’s wacky press conference in its entirety last week.

“Newsmax’s ratings are going up, up, up,” Stelter said, “because they are providing an alternative reality for Trump fans. They claim the election is not over.”

Trump’s cheerleading for Newsmax raises some other questions, most notably whether he has his sights on either partnering with or buying Newsmax. There have long been rumors that Trump would be interested in owning a cable network to use as his personal megaphone and buying Newsmax would allow him to take over a cable outlet that is already up and running instead of starting one from scratch. Newsmax is available in a little more than 70 million households, but many cable subscribers have to hunt for it on their televisions.

Newsmax owner Christopher Ruddy has been quoted recently as saying he has had no discussions with Trump about Newsmax’s future, although he does admit that a Trump-hosted talk show would be “terrific.”

My two cents: Newsmax is really going to have to up its game in every way, particularly with technology and talent and strategy, if it wants to have staying power in the cable news game. It doesn’t have a credible news division, and its programming is built around talk shows with opinion hosts. Spouting off conspiracy theories about the election might attract a few viewers for now, but there’s an expiration date on that script.

To suggest that what we’ve seen from Newsmax in the past couple of weeks is a precursor to it becoming a major player feels like an overreaction. It’s a niche cable company that is having a moment with the one story that appeals to the most extreme Trump supporters.

In an interview with The Associated Press’ David Bauder, Nicole Hemmer, a Columbia University professor and author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics,” compared Newsmax’s rating surge to a temper tantrum by some Fox News viewers.

Eventually, it’s going to have to bring more to the table than conspiracy theories that have been dismissed about an election that has been decided.

For the first time, Fox News has a little competition for conservative viewers. But when the dust settles, I still believe that Fox News will maintain its viewers, while Newsmax will only draw a small cult-like (if that) following.

Now, could Trump joining Newsmax in some capacity be a game-changer? Sure. But I’ll believe that when I see it.

Embarrassing behavior

Rudy Giuliani, a lawyer for President Donald Trump, speaks during a news conference last week. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Even a President Trump ally — someone who helped him prep for the debates — is calling Trump’s legal team an “embarrassment.”

During an appearance on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie said, “The conduct of the president’s legal team has been a national embarrassment. The rearview mirror should be ripped off.”

A national embarrassment, and not only because Rudy Giuliani has now held two press conferences that have been just bonkers. The first was the one held at Four Seasons Total Landscaping (that is still hilarious) and then last week’s news conference that featured wild conspiracy theories, “My Cousin Vinny” references and some sort of dye or mascara running down Giuliani’s face.

According to the Washington Post’s Dan Zak and Josh Dawsey, as black streaks ran down Giuliani’s face, a Trump adviser texted a Post journalist, “Is he deteriorating in real time?”

On Fox News, Geraldo Rivera said, “I love the president, I wanted him to win this election. What I saw with Rudy Giuliani, who I’ve known for decades, was bizarre, was unfocused.”

The fall of Giuliani from America’s Mayor to ranting and raving conspiracy theorist has been stunning.

CNN talked to some of his former colleagues.

His former chief speechwriter, John Avlon, said, “It has been heart-wrenching to see him destroy his legacy.”

Ken Frydman, Giuliani’s 1993 mayoral campaign press secretary, said, “It saddens me every time I see him because I know what a strong, confident and competent person he was when I was working for him.”

As a prosecutor, Giuliani took on the mob and Wall Street. As mayor, he is credited with cleaning up New York City and showing much-needed leadership during the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001.

But a presidential bid in 2008 fell short and some claim he craves to reach the level of popularity he had right after 9/11 and the only way to remain relevant now is to hitch his wagon to Trump.

Avlon said, “All I can say for sure is that his judgment is not what it was. And that’s self-evident to the people who have known him and worked with him.”

Sidney Powell, right, with Jenna Ellis, left, attend a news conference about alleged voter fraud last week. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Speaking of Giuliani’s nutty press conference, another one of the main speakers was lawyer Sidney Powell, who started her portion of the news conference by saying, “What we are really dealing with here, and uncovering more by the day, is the massive influence of communist money through Venezuela, Cuba, and likely China in the interference with our elections here in the United States.”

Powell, who has been described as “hardcore QAnon,” then went on Newsmax and said, “We’ve got tons of evidence. It’s so much, it’s hard to pull it all together. Hopefully this week we will get it ready to file, and it will be biblical.”

Yet even Fox News’ Tucker Carlson has called out Powell for failing to provide any proof of her allegations of voter fraud.

Well, at some point, Powell must have gone over the edge because even the Trump legal team is putting distance between them and her. In a statement released Sunday, the Trump legal team of Rudy Giuliani and Jenna Ellis said, “Sidney Powell is practicing law on her own. She is not a member of the Trump Legal team. She is also not a lawyer for the President in his personal capacity.”

This statement came out even though Powell was involved in last week’s press conference and Ellis has often tweeted about Powell as if she were a part of the legal team.

Meanwhile, Powell appeared on Maria Bartiromo’s Fox Business show on Friday. That’s not a huge surprise seeing as how Bartiromo has turned full-blown Trump supporter and conspiracy theorist herself. But it will be curious to see if Powell is welcomed back on her show — or any Fox News or Fox Business show.

The Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey tweeted, “Trump told allies that Sidney Powell was too much, even for him, after Thursday. He sees the fight as uphill but fleeting and doesn’t see her as helpful anymore, per several advisers.”

‘An assault on our democracy’

NBC “Meet the Press” moderator Chuck Todd blasted President Trump for his failure to accept the result of the election. During Sunday’s show, Todd said, “In the days immediately following Joe Biden’s victory it was easy to dismiss President Trump’s reality denial as working his base or a tantrum or some sort of strategy for his post-presidency. But now his antics are looking less like a fit of pique than an assault on our democracy.”

Todd later said, “Mr. Trump’s efforts to turn a legitimate defeat into a fraudulent victory appear headed for failure, but he may succeed in undermining confidence in U.S. elections and in kneecapping the incoming administration and perhaps that’s the motive. But ask yourself: Is this the 1950s or the 1850s? The 1950s when we overcame our McCarthy-era crisis and eventually pulled together as a country or the 1850s when the nation broke apart?”

A bleak Thanksgiving for print ads

For this item, I turn it over to Poynter media business analyst Rick Edmonds.

When local print subscribers get their Thanksgiving newspaper, it will be the biggest weekday edition of the year.

But even in a generally disappointing year for advertising a drastic shrinking of the traditionally bulky package of ads, surrounding news copy and preprinted inserts has publishers alarmed.

“The pandemic has taken a toll on many newspaper advertisers and revenue is certainly down, including Black Friday sales events,” Dean Ridings, CEO of America’s Newspapers. “Retailers are aware that a rush to sales on a single day would likely create superspreader events, so Black Friday for 2020 will be a lot like the rest of this challenging year — rather bleak.”

The window for holiday shopping seems to widen every year with email and TV ads starting around Halloween so Thanksgiving and the day after may have lost their central place.

On the digital side, prospects are not much brighter. Gordon Borrell, who analyzes local digital and print ads, told me the small businesses he surveys say they are poised for an average 13-14% increase in their marketing spend next year. Newspapers are an exception though, likely to see a further 8% reduction from 2020.

Media tidbits

CNN’s Jeff Zucker. (Photo by Jason Mendez/Invision/AP, File)

  • Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo is reporting that CNN president Jeff Zucker will leave the network sometime during the first quarter of 2021. Sources told Pompeo that it wouldn’t happen before the inauguration and another source warned that Zucker’s departure is not a done deal. Zucker has more than a year left on his contract.
  • Ezra Klein, co-founder and editor-at-large of Vox.com, is leaving Vox to become a columnist and podcast host for The New York Times. Vox editor-in-chief Lauren Williams is also leaving and plans to start a nonprofit news outlet aimed at Black communities. That’s exciting news for Klein and Williams, but what does it mean for Vox? Melissa Bell, co-founder and now publisher of Vox, wrote a piece about what this means for Vox’s future.
  • Last Friday, in her first news conference in the White House briefing room since Oct. 1, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany refused to call on CNN’s Kaitlan Collins, saying, “I don’t call on activists.” Collins said, “I am not an activist, and you didn’t take questions since Oct. 1 and just took about five, Kayleigh. That’s not doing your job. Your taxpayer-funded job.” This was just another example of something I’ve been saying for months: McEnany is overmatched and underqualified for the job of White House press secretary.

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Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for Poynter.org. He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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