US right-wing media is in a civil war after Trump’s defeat

What is real anymore?
What is real anymore?
Image: Reuters/Elijah Nouvelage
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Donald Trump spent his whole morning today retweeting random Twitter users who are fed up with Fox News.

“Fox has been completely unfair and untruthful,” one user said, earning a shout from the soon-to-be former US president to his 89 million Twitter followers. “Moving to Newsmax.”

“Newsmax was the big winner election night. Fox lost many loyal viewers to them and have now discovered a new conservative home,” another tweeted.

Trump’s retweetstorm underscores the current state of right-wing media consumption in the US: one of infighting and discord that’s rare for a political group normally united by its hatred for “mainstream” media. But now, following Trump’s loss in the 2020 US presidential election, they’re targeting one of their own—and it’s entirely of the president’s doing.

Because Fox News was among the first media organizations to call Arizona for Joe Biden last week (the state has since been called by other decision desks), right-wing viewers are deserting the conservative cable news network for alternative channels, like Newsmax and One America News Network (OANN), two networks that have seen their profiles magnified in recent days because of Trump. While Fox’s news division has acknowledged Biden’s victory, Newsmax and OANN still deny it.

Beyond Trump’s retweets, there are independent reports of Fox News viewers claiming they have switched their allegiance to Newsmax. But there is some data to suggest the defections are real, too.

Though Fox News ratings haven’t meaningfully dropped, Newsmax’s have drastically increased, CNN chief media correspondent Brian Stelter noted. In October, it averaged about 65,000 viewers at any minute. During the election, it spiked to 182,000. But after the election, it skyrocketed even further. The channel averaged 437,000 viewers on Nov. 10.

Google searches for “Newsmax” have spiked in the last week. And the network’s Twitter account has grown rapidly over that same period, after hardly growing at all throughout October:

Newsmax had the 10th best-performing Facebook link in the US on Nov. 9 (Fox had none in the top 10), and then the fourth best on Nov. 10 (again beating Fox News).

Now the lesser-known network is bragging about how it beat Fox Business (a separate channel from Fox News) in TV ratings in the days following the election. It’s also leaning into the conflict, directly antagonizing Fox News in its own tweets:

Newsmax has been a consistent, if modest presence in right-wing circles for years. After launching as a website in 1998, it added a cable news network in 2014, which is now available in about 75 million US homes. (Fox is in 87 million.) But it’s yet to break through and become a true competitor to Fox in terms of audience share. Fox, of course, is backed by the vast Fox Corporation empire, led by Rupert Murdoch and his son Lachlan.

Even before the election, Newsmax was cozying up to Trump in ways that might make even the president’s toadies at Fox News blush. Its CEO and Trump confidant, Christopher Ruddy, has hired a slew of political operatives in Trump’s orbit to host shows on the network, including his former press secretary Sean Spicer and his former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who in August was indicted for money laundering and wire fraud.

Former US presidential candidate and Trump surrogate Herman Cain was also supposed to host a show on Newsmax, but he died from Covid-19 before it could start airing.

Though Fox News’ live TV audience is still much larger than that of Newsmax, the latter has a head start on streaming. Its flagship 24-hour news network is available for free without a cable TV subscription on most streaming platforms, including Roku, Amazon Fire TV, and Apple TV. Fox’s app is available on those apps as well, but it requires a cable login to access content. Fox’s standalone streaming app, Fox Nation, which launched in 2018, had between 200,000 and 300,000 paid subscribers as of last year, according to the research firm Parks Associates. (Fox said that estimate is not up to date, but has not provided a more accurate figure.) Newsmax says its YouTube live stream had more than 70,000 viewers at any given minute during election night.

Lachlan Murdoch, Fox’s CEO, tried to reassure investors on an earnings call this month that he wasn’t worried about Newsmax, OANN, or a Trump-branded TV network cutting into its stranglehold of right-wing viewers. “We love competition,” he said. “We have always thrived with competition.”

The irony of this war is that while Fox’s news division may have acknowledged Trump’s defeat, its talking heads like Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham—the personalities Fox News viewers really tune in to see—continue to spout pro-Trump conspiracy theories about nonexistent voter fraud, even as the network as a whole is criticized by right-wing groups for not standing by the president. While Trump wages a war on Fox, Fox is apparently fighting itself, too.

Now Trump is planning to “wreck” Fox, according to Axios. The news outlet reported today he is considering launching a digital media company specifically to thwart the network. Media observers have also floated the possibility that, rather than start a company from scratch, Trump could either buy Newsmax or license his name to it, turning it into “Trump TV.” That’d allow the outgoing president to commandeer a potential rival to Fox without really lifting a finger.

It’s possible—likely, even—that once the dust settles on the election and Trump leaves office, those upset with Fox will let bygones be bygones and restore their loyalty to the network. Serving as the primary opposition platform to the Biden administration would likely prove to be a boon for Fox’s ratings and advertising revenues, as it was when the network systematically attacked Barack Obama for his eight years as US president. And when Trump does inevitably fade from the daily news cycle, there may not be anyone else to carry on his grudge with the longtime conservative news network.

But it’s clear the aftermath of the election has created fractures in the right-wing media landscape that, perhaps for the first time, threaten Fox’s media monopoly. If Trump’s army of supporter remain angry at Fox long after the election, it may have to reinvent itself in order to attract new audiences that don’t overlap with Newsmax, OANN, or other diehard right-wing competitors.

It could retreat to the less Trumpian middle in an effort to bring back moderates and the “Never Trump” Republicans. Or it could try moving even further right, and become an unabashed safe haven for QAnon conspiracy theorists and white supremacists (more so than it already is). In any event, its reward for four years of undying fealty to Trump—like most of those who pledged allegiance to him at the expense of democracy—was to be attacked, betrayed, and blamed for the president’s problems. Newsmax should start watching its back.