The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why these Fox News loyalists have changed the channel to Newsmax

Newsmax has made inroads by capitalizing on conservative frustration with Fox News. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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On the morning after Election Day, Greg and Jenny Brethen, loyal viewers of Fox News who watched the channel religiously for almost 20 years, turned on their go-to morning show, “Fox & Friends,” and thought they saw something fishy.

The Tennessee couple sensed that their favorite Fox personalities, weekday co-host Brian Kilmeade and weekend co-host Pete Hegseth, who appeared in a segment, were holding back. “Like they were both instructed to keep their mouth shut, that’s how I felt,” Jenny said.

The previous evening, the nonpartisan Fox News Decision Desk was the first network prognosticator to call the state of Arizona for Joe Biden, a call that to some was early — but ultimately held up. On Nov. 7, the network called the election for the former vice president, although Hegseth won’t call him the president-elect and Kilmeade has qualified his presidency with an uncertain “if.”

Fox News was unequivocal on Nov. 7 about President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, but some hosts and guests were eager to spin it. (Video: The Washington Post)

Whatever it was, Greg said the couple “felt duped.” At that moment, they decided to stop watching Fox News forever and look for an alternative. After hearing about the conservative upstart Newsmax during a pro-Trump rally, they chose to give the channel a shot.

“We’re permanently switched,” Jenny, 46, said in a recent phone interview. “We’re not going back. Once you do something like that, you’re done in our book.”

Jenny, who said she now watches Newsmax from the time she gets up to the time she goes to bed, was among the 15 longtime Fox News loyalists who spoke with The Post in depth about why they have flipped the channel to Newsmax in recent weeks and months.

Their stories lend texture to what has been a quantifiable shift in the number of people who watch Newsmax, a much-smaller, would-be competitor network that has seen a dramatic uptick in viewers in the weeks since the election by capitalizing on conservative frustration with Fox, and, some say, a desire from President Trump’s fans to keep alive the flailing narrative that he will ultimately serve a second term, despite Biden’s coming inauguration.

Although Trump has criticized Fox’s news division and encouraged his followers to flip the channel to Newsmax or One America News, the majority of those interviewed, all Trump supporters, said they learned of Newsmax from word-of-mouth or from online research.

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“I jumped on it and haven’t looked back,” said 40-year-old technical engineer Jeremy Arant, who was introduced to Newsmax by his friends after the election.

Newsmax stunned industry observers when host Greg Kelly’s 7 p.m. show beat Fox’s 7 p.m. show, hosted by anchor Martha MacCallum, among viewers between the age of 25 and 54 on Dec. 7 — though it has not repeated the feat. Still, comparing the month before the election and a post-election period, between Nov. 9 and Dec. 17, Kelly’s show has experienced a 486 percent increase in viewership (up an average of 667,000 viewers), while McCallum’s show has declined by 44 percent, or down an average of about 1.4 million total viewers, according to Nielsen data. McCallum’s “The Story” program still has a big lead over “Greg Kelly Reports,” however.

Comparing Newsmax’s weekday performance between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. to Fox’s, though, Newsmax has experienced a 497 percent viewership increase — during the post-election period, but excluding Thanksgiving — while Fox has experienced a 38 percent decline. (In the most recently measurable week, however, Newsmax was down from its post-election ratings highs in mid-November.)

While Fox called the election for Biden shortly after the rest of the mainstream media did so, Newsmax waited 37 additional days, only adopting the president-elect moniker after the electoral college confirmed his victory on Dec. 14. But Kelly, who has emerged as Newsmax’s biggest star, a bomb-thrower in the mold of Fox News star Sean Hannity, doesn’t agree with the decision. Kelly acknowledged that some of his colleagues have referred to Biden as president-elect, but said recently, “I personally feel they’re wrong.”

“The night of the election completely did it. I haven’t turned on Fox News since,” said Jami Salamida, 43, a paralegal who lives in West Virginia. She watched Fox for two decades and now said she watches between eight and 10 hours of Newsmax each day.

While Fox’s coverage of the presidential election was a flash point for many of the network’s defectors, for some it was merely the latest and most pivotal grievance they have had with the network’s programming.

“The cherry on the cake was when they called the results of Arizona,” said 60-year-old Donna Cumella, who works in IT in New York.

Several viewers expressed frustration with Fox News anchor Chris Wallace’s performance as moderator of the first presidential debate between Trump and Biden on Sept. 29. “That was the big red flag,” Greg Brethen said.

Sharon Allan, a retired dental hygienist who lives in Florida, said she sensed a leftward tilt in Fox’s content starting in late September and early October. “It was like all of a sudden. A lot of my friends, we all started noticing it at the same time,” she said. “It was a shift, like they had been bought out. They like were being told to only report certain things in a certain way. It was like, ‘Wow, am I looking at Fox?’ ”

Allan, who doesn’t believe that Biden won the election, called Fox’s Arizona call “shocking.”

Several of the Fox skeptics guessed that a change in the network’s corporate management could have contributed to the shift they perceived, but many seemed confused about who is running the company and what, if anything, has changed. Six viewers who spoke with The Post mentioned a transfer of power to “the sons,” whom they said were “liberal.” One person said she heard that “the dad who owns it passed away,” a reference to Rupert Murdoch, 89, who is alive and remains chairman of parent company Fox Corp.

While Murdoch’s son, James, and daughter-in-law, Kathryn, have embraced liberal causes and politicians, including Biden, they have no control over Fox News. James ceased his role as chief executive of the network’s then-parent company, 21st Century Fox, in March 2019, and almost completely cut his ties to his family’s media dynasty by stepping down from the News Corp. board of directors this summer, citing in a letter “disagreements over certain editorial content published by the Company’s news outlets and certain other strategic decisions.” And Murdoch’s other son, Lachlan, who now runs Fox Corp., is not known to have liberal leanings.

For the viewers who have pivoted away from Fox, the one personality that many say they have a hard time totally quitting is prime-time host Tucker Carlson.

Their reasons vary. “I still like a little bit of Tucker because I think he’s a smart guy,” said 37-year-old Ricky Moxley, who works in industrial manufacturing in South Carolina.

“I will find myself allowing myself to watch Tucker because I think Tucker calls out what’s going on,” Salamida said. “That’s my problem: with the people at Fox pretending that nothing is wrong” with the election process. (There is no evidence of widespread election fraud that would change the results of the election.) Allan, the retired dental hygienist, thinks Carlson should be president one day.

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But even the most devoted Newsmax converts say the channel’s programming leaves something to be desired, particularly when compared with the glitz and polish of the massively profitable and high-budgeted Fox News.

“I don’t think the programming is set up right,” Salamida said. “They’re basically just playing the same couple of shows all day long.”

She “absolutely loves” Kelly and said, “When I watch his show, I honestly feel like I’m getting 100 percent of the truth from him.” But, she added, “When I’m tired of watching the third repeat, it’s really hard to not turn on Fox and see what they’re doing.”

“It’s boring, a little bit, but I’m dedicated,” said Michelle Walker, 52, who works in medical billing and lives in South Carolina. “I’ll keep watching it until it gets better.”

In particular, she likes and watches Newsmax hosts Grant Stinchfield and Sean Spicer, the former White House press secretary, but thinks Kelly panders too much for her taste. “I’m a Trump supporter, but I don’t want to hear how great my opinion is,” she said.

Newsmax has been in the process of ramping up its programming. It recently expanded its morning show, “Wake Up America,” by an hour, and added a 10 p.m. show from former Fox News anchor Rob Schmitt.

Chris Ruddy, who founded and runs Newsmax, told The Post that his network will be adding an original show at 9 p.m. each night, launching early next year. He described the concept as “a woman-centric show, something like [ABC’s] ‘The View’ for women.” He added, “We’re looking at a number of personalities for that, but we haven’t signed anyone for that. But we think we’re close.”

Asked about Newsmax’s rise in the ratings, Ruddy said: “We have some really strong personalities that are very knowledgeable but also very affable and pleasant and I think they’re really resonating. I think we’re going to continue building out those personalities.”

Perhaps more significant to Fox’s longtime prospects, some of Newsmax’s most passionate new watchers say they hope to influence the cable television wars. “My goal is to get everybody I know to quit watching Fox and to move to Newsmax,” Walker said.

‘This is the reality’: Newsmax and One America grapple uneasily with Biden’s electoral college victory

“I don’t hate Fox News, but when I switched to Newsmax, I felt more appreciated for my viewership,” said Nicholas Stanek, 31, who lives in Arizona and works as a roofing estimator. “Part of me just doesn’t want to give Fox News the ratings.”

Cindi Markham, 60, a pastor in Michigan, has taken an activist approach to getting her point across about Fox. “If boycotting them would hurt them in the sense of financially, maybe that’s the only way we can get them to make a change,” she said, adding she thinks the network invites on too much liberal opinion and has turned against the president.

Overall, Fox News’s audience remains massive. The network finished 2020 as the most-watched network in all of basic cable, not just cable news, and trumpeted a 45 percent increase — compared with 2019 — in total viewership for its prime-time shows. (CNN enjoyed an 85 percent increase.)

And many of those who have switched the channel seem to be struggling with it. Wavering a bit. Getting through each day without the same cast of characters, they are feeling an absence.

“It is disappointing and it is depressing,” said Walker, who used to watch Fox throughout the day. “It was almost like Fox was a part of my family.”

“It’s sad, because it’s like losing a friend,” said Jennie Spohn, 55, Markham’s sister-in-law, who works in construction in Michigan. “We loved Fox News. We stood up for Fox News. We stood by their side.”

And although Spohn digs Newsmax and watches upstart digital networks like Right Side Broadcasting Network, particularly to catch the president’s political rallies, she said, almost mournfully, “I don’t think there will ever be a love affair like we had with Fox News for years.”

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