On Wednesday, Newsmax—the demented far-right channel seemingly modeled after North Korean newscasts—was forced to air a groveling apology to Mike Lindell, the mustachioed martial law enthusiast and pillow salesman. Lindell, you see, had been rudely cut off by a Newsmax anchor the previous day while spouting insane conspiracies about voting machines switching votes from Donald Trump to Joe Biden in the 2020 election. Lindell’s interlocutor, anchor Bob Sellers—concerned about legal threats from the manufacturer of those voting machines—tried to get Lindell to talk about being suspended from Twitter, then read a lengthy prepared statement about how there was no evidence of fraud in the election. When Lindell attempted to keep talking about fraud, Sellers walked out. It was, all told, one of the funniest two minutes in the history of cable news, no small accomplishment.
Sellers was covering his network’s ass. But he was also offending one of Newsmax’s biggest sponsors and, it appears, a large chunk of its audience. “If you watched American Agenda yesterday, you may have seen something out of the ordinary happen during an interview with Mike Lindell, the CEO of MyPillow,” Sellers said the next day. “Mike thought that we were to talk about vote fraud in the recent election. It’s a topic we have covered extensively on Newsmax. I was frustrated that we couldn’t focus on the current, very pressing issue of free speech and cancel culture and, in hindsight, there is no question that I could have handled the end of the interview differently.”
Sellers’s reversal was revealing. After the election, with many of Trump’s most ardent followers abandoning Fox News, Newsmax seemed to be in a perfect position to scoop up his followers. Its ratings soared; Fox’s fell. But its full-throated backing of the president’s most insane lies has put it in an awkward position. It can back those lies to the hilt and get sued, or it can try to navigate some sort of middle ground, as it did with its bizarre apology to Lindell. (Simply abandoning the fraud story is, of course, not an option.)
The episode underscored the confounding spot the right-wing media finds itself in, thanks to the voter fraud conspiracy. Two weeks into Joe Biden’s first term, the conservative infotainment complex is in the midst of an identity crisis.
The situation at Fox is similarly fraught. The ratings leader for the last two decades, it descended to third place in January, a stunning fall. For the last 20 years, Fox has been able to maintain a split identity—a conservative-leaning hard news side and a frothing opinion side. The wall between the two has always been exaggerated, but it did nevertheless exist.
Over the last few months, however, that news side has become a liability, as Trump and his backers have raged about its decision to call states early for Joe Biden on election night and to decline to back their false claims of fraud. Trump’s supporters “want their ‘news’ to affirm them rather than inform them,” pollster Frank Luntz told The Washington Post.
Suddenly, Fox had competition from the right. Newsmax and One America News were jankier, low-rent. But what they lacked in polish they made up for in devotion to the president.
Fox has tried to suck up to its viewers by emulating its competitors. It has added more opinion programming and tried out Maria Bartiromo, who was Fox Business’s most vociferous backer of Trump’s quixotic effort to overturn the election, for an evening slot. The network has also laid off politics editor Chris Stirewalt, who played a significant role in the network’s controversial early calls for Biden on election night—a sacrifice to Fox’s critics. While there was hope in some corners that Fox News would choose moderation post-Trump, it’s clear that it’s only become more rabid.
In Newsmax and Fox News you see the perils of two post-Trump paths. Newsmax amassed a sizable audience quickly based on its willingness to follow the former president wherever he goes. That path has resulted in serious legal jeopardy and a surprisingly difficult choice between being sued and allowing one of its biggest sponsors to spout whatever crazy shit he thinks of. Moderating its coverage of a “stolen election” could prove costly.
Fox News, on the other hand, treated those claims with a bit more sensitivity and found itself, for the first time, chasing its rivals rather than leading the pack. That dip is immensely damaging to the network’s identity. “Fox’s brand—the story it promotes to competitors and advertisers—has been built in part on its two decades of cable ratings dominance and its following among the half of the country it says has been neglected by mainstream television news operation,” wrote Sarah Ellison and Jeremy Barr earlier this week.
At the same time, its decision to play footsie with conspiracies related to election software (as opposed to embracing them wholesale) has been damning in two ways. It has not only cost the network a share of its audience, it also invited legal action. On Thursday, the election technology company Smartmatic sued Fox News for $2.7 billion, arguing that “Fox joined the conspiracy to defame and disparage Smartmatic and its election technology and software,” an effort that led to the riot at the Capitol on January 6.
These crises are also occurring in a larger context: After the riot at the Capitol and Biden’s inauguration, ratings for cable news are seeing a post-Trump dip. Trump, in his own way, had always predicted this. “Another reason that I’m going to win another four years,” he said, during his first year in office, “is because newspapers, television, all forms of media will tank if I’m not there because, without me, their ratings are going down the tubes.” Weeks before the election, he made a similar prediction, warning, “Some day these Fake Media Companies are going to miss me, very badly!!!”
But Trump was almost always aiming these projections at outlets that covered him critically—The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN. The networks struggling the most without him are the ones that backed him the hardest.