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It seems Newsmax TV—the decade-old, also-ran, right-wing cable channel hoping to compete with Fox News—may have finally found a way to boost its dismal ratings.
In recent months, Newsmax chief Chris Ruddy has gone on a hiring spree, snapping up a bevy of former Fox News personalities, Trumpworld castaways, and right-wing media hangers-on to reshape and fill out the channel’s lineup. Furthermore, the network has made it a point to embrace disgraced TV hosts or heretofore unemployable pundits mired in scandal.
The formula seemingly combines right-wing media star power with the outrageous Trump sycophancy of low-grade competitor One America News. In the process, Newsmax has seen a ratings boost, thanks in part to its weeknight primetime anchor Greg Kelly, a former Fox & Friends co-host and New York City local news fixture once accused of rape who has now rehabbed his career as a pro-Trump firebrand.
His show, Greg Kelly Reports, which debuted at the beginning of the year, has been a key force in boosting the conservative channel’s viewership, with his 7 p.m. timeslot’s audience increasing more than 30 percent from this time last year. Kelly’s average of 60,000 nightly viewers is still dwarfed by his direct Fox News competition in Martha MacCallum, who nets an average 2.4 million viewers, but his ratings boost has potentially placed Newsmax TV in a position to compete with a more well-established cable outlet like the Fox Business Network, Fox News’ lower-rated sister channel.
Kelly has drawn attention to himself and his Newsmax show through his over-the-top Trump sycophancy, inflammatory and at-times cruel rhetoric, and penchant for peddling disinformation or insane conspiracy theories. Just this week, for instance, he falsely claimed that Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden was faking his well-known stutter, calling it a “phony little campaign gambit for sympathy.” He also hosted Trump personal attorney Rudy Giuliani for a segment luridly claiming, without evidence, that Hunter Biden has “numerous pictures of underage girls” on his purported laptop.
And following the president’s coronavirus diagnosis, Kelly openly suggested there may have been a deep-state plot to infect Republicans with COVID-19, calling it “a little bit suspicious” that a number of conservative figures became infected following the superspreader Rose Garden ceremony for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett. “I mean, isn’t there at least the possibility of sabotage? Is there? Could there be? I’m not the only one wondering about it,” he said, just asking questions.
“Greg Kelly is a seasoned and respected journalist,” a Newsmax spokesperson told The Daily Beast. “While he may make speculative comments from time to time, [his] commentaries are much more balanced and restrained than some of the language and claims being made by hosts at CNN, MSNBC and Fox.”
But it is the obsequiousness to Trump that really sets Kelly’s show apart. In the middle of Trump’s hospitalization with coronavirus, for example, he stopped mid-broadcast to bow his head and pray for the president’s recovery.
Days after Trump returned to the White House, Kelly was finally rewarded with a rambling phone interview with the big man himself.
While Kelly may be Newsmax TV’s shiny centerpiece, and the focal point of the network’s local radio ads targeting conservatives, Ruddy—who often portrays himself to media outlets as a Trump confidant and insider—has surrounded his star with a who’s who of Trump flunkies and D-list MAGA celebrities.
Former White House press secretary and one-time Dancing With the Stars contestant Sean Spicer has foregone his occasional Hannity appearances for a full-time gig as Kelly’s lead-in, hosting Spicer and Co. at 6 p.m. ET. Among Spicer’s frequent guests is ex-Fox Business Network host Trish Regan, who was pushed out this past spring after she said that coronavirus was an “impeachment scam” to oust Trump from the White House.
Following Kelly at 8 p.m. is Grant Stinchfield, who is best-known for helping launch the now-defunct, scandal-plagued, and little-watched NRATV, where he honed his skills for red-meat right-wing commentary and attack-dog tactics. Since joining Newsmax’s primetime lineup this summer, Stinchfield has hit the ground running, blaming Breonna Taylor for her own death and at one point coming to the defense of unhinged and dangerous conspiracy theory QAnon.
And filling out the primetime slate is Rob Schmitt, who until this summer co-hosted Fox & Friends First and ably supplied generic Fox-friendly conservative views. After toiling in the early mornings for the Fox mothership, Schmitt and Ruddy announced last month that he would be taking his talents over to Newsmax. “Rob has the kind of journalistic credentials and positive reputation we look for here at Newsmax and our viewers will be well-served by his honest reporting,” the Newsmax chief said at the time.
The network’s weekend programming, however, is where Newsmax makes its most overt appeal to extremely online MAGA fans with a roster cobbled together from a variety of misfit right-wing firebrands with career baggage.
Benny Johnson, a serial plagiarist who abandoned his notorious career as a clickbait writer to become a “meme lord” for right-wing student group TPUSA, now hosts a Saturday program titled The Benny Report. Johnson’s most recent prior media gig was as a writer for The Daily Caller, where he landed after being fired by BuzzFeed over at least 40 instances of plagiarism and then ousted from conservative news site Independent Journal Review following a series of incidents including publishing baseless conspiracies and, naturally, more plagiarism.
MAGA vlogging stars Diamond & Silk came to Newsmax TV’s weekends months after Fox News cut ties with the pro-Trump sisters after they came under fire for pushing bonkers disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic (for example, claiming the virus was being “deliberately spread” by “deep-state snakes,” potentially via 5G technology). The pair were regular contributors to Fox News’ digital streaming platform Fox Nation for more than a year and, in announcing their move to Newsmax this summer, implored viewers to “ditch and switch” from Fox News while alleging that the network “ordered a hit” on them.
And then there’s Michelle Malkin. Once a right-wing media superstar and a fixture on Fox News for more than a decade before she leaned hard into supporting the “groyper” movement and white nationalists last year, she now hosts a Saturday evening show for Newsmax. The program’s title, Sovereign Nation, underscores how Malkin, always an anti-immigration hardliner, has repositioned herself as a leading voice of the xenophobic fever swamp. (She was fired from the Young America’s Foundation in Nov. 2019 over her support for Holocaust denier and anti-Semitic internet personality Nick Fuentes.)
Besides these new hires from the far reaches of the MAGAsphere, Newsmax has also become a safe haven for media stars whose scandals and controversies have made them personae non gratae elsewhere.
Mark Halperin, previously an influential Beltway political pundit at MSNBC and Bloomberg before an alleged history of sexual misconduct was revealed in 2017, has been utilized by the network to run voter focus groups, appearing on Spicer’s program and hosting his own Sunday show called Mark Halperin’s Focus Group.
Halperin, whose attempted comeback as a mainstream pundit last year was scuttled amid widespread criticism, has been running the focus-group shows for a few months now. When asked by the Washington Post in August about Halperin’s appearances, considering his past allegations, Ruddy said it was only temporary.
“Mark Halperin has been posting or doing a focus group Zoom video on YouTube or his website,” the Newsmax boss explained. “We thought we would test it on the weekends and see how the political talk did. There is no long-term agreement to run the show—just some test shows.”
Two-plus months later, and the “test shows” have continued to run on Sundays. A Newsmax spokesman told The Daily Beast that “we continue to air Focus Group, a program that is developed and owned by Mr. Halperin. We have not made any final determination on the program.”
Furthermore, Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz has seen his frequent Fox News guest spots dry up in the wake of his connection to the Jeffrey Epstein sex-trafficking scandal, especially following Ghislaine Maxwell’s arrest and a damning Netflix documentary. Dershowitz has vehemently maintained his innocence against the Epstein-linked allegations, but he has seemingly found a home at Newsmax, making regular on-air appearances, billed as a legal analyst, and writing op-eds for the outlet’s website.
At one point, Ruddy’s quixotic quest to compete head-to-head with the top-rated cable giant included embracing disgraced former Fox News star Bill O’Reilly. After he was infamously fired by Fox over multiple sexual-harassment allegations and settlements, Newsmax began to regularly feature him as an on-air commentator and briefly simulcast his No Spin News podcast.
O’Reilly, however, was never an actual employee of the network, and he now has moved his show to another streaming outlet.
But Ruddy at one point had his eyes on other former big-name Fox hosts like Megyn Kelly, and the Newsmax chief enlisted ex-Fox News executives to assist him in his quest. Last year, Ruddy hired Michael Clemente—who exited Fox News in 2016 shortly after Roger Ailes’ ouster—to serve as Newsmax TV’s CEO.
Clemente, however, stepped down a few months later to serve in a “consultancy role.” Ruddy also at one point hired former O’Reilly executive producer David Tabacoff—who fled Fox after Bill’s ouster—to act as a consultant in 2019. Clemente and Tabacoff have since stopped their consulting work for the network.
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