The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Newsmax tries to assuage furor of conservative hosts over vaccine mandate

On-air stars went from venting anger at their company’s policy to accusing ‘fake news’ of trying to turn viewers against the channel

Newsmax was on the big screen at a Donald Trump rally in Valdosta, Ga., in December. The conservative news channel has endured an uproar from its own on-air hosts after reports that it would impose a vaccine mandate. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Newsmax seemed to have a massive problem on its hands at the end of last week.

Over the past year, the conservative cable news channel has gained a substantial new audience by appealing to Donald Trump supporters who found Fox News insufficiently loyal in its coverage of the 2020 presidential election, more recently attempting to outflank conservative rivals by delivering a heavy dose of on-air skepticism about coronavirus vaccines and other measures to thwart the pandemic. Then, on Friday evening, the news broke that Newsmax would institute a vaccine mandate of its own.

Predictably, all hell broke loose. One prominent Newsmax host quickly told The Washington Post that he would not comply with the mandate. Another that same night delivered an on-air broadside denouncing vaccine mandates for supposedly “purging our society of freedom-loving patriots by scaring them into submission.” Steve Cortes, a former Trump campaign official who co-hosts Newsmax’s 9 p.m. show, went the furthest.

“I will not comply w/ any organization’s attempt to enforce Biden’s capricious & unscientific Medical Apartheid mandate,” he wrote on Twitter Friday night. “I will not be forced into the injection, nor will I disclose my vaccination status. No one should be pressured to choose between medical privacy & their job.”

The company attempted to set the record straight in an editorial on Sunday noting that “Newsmax has no vaccine mandate nor do we require it for employment.” The editorial framed the internal policy announcement as simply a matter of Newsmax having “informed our staff of the upcoming federal rule,” which will mandate vaccination or weekly testing for companies employing more than 100 individuals. The regulation was set to go into effect on Jan. 4 but is currently being held up by legal appeals.

“We will provide all employees with free on-site weekly testing if they choose to opt-out of a vaccination,” a spokesperson said.

Throughout the day on Monday, Newsmax anchors and hosts took turns trying to debunk the story of its vaccine mandate., which broke the story, has stood by it.

News anchor Rob Finnerty started the morning by telling viewers that Newsmax employees will not be compelled to get vaccinated and will not be terminated for declining to do so, praising his employer for not requiring vaccination like “so many other companies are doing across this great country.” (Washington Post employees are required to be vaccinated upon returning to the office.)

Former Fox News host Eric Bolling, who hosts the 4 p.m. hour on Newsmax, said the vaccine mandate story was an example of “fake news,” even though the original Mediaite story clearly noted that unvaccinated employees can opt for weekly tests.

“Anyone suggesting we have a vaccine mandate is grossly erroneous,” Bolling said. “Let’s move on, folks. There’s no story here. There’s no there there. Except for the fake news media, who will stop at nothing to silence the only true conservative voice left in cable news. Especially one growing like us.”

Host Chris Salcedo picked up the baton at the top of his 5 p.m. show on Monday, also smacking down the stories as “garbage” and “fake news.” “We refuse to let folks with an agenda define us,” he said. “Anyone who has been paying attention knows that Newsmax did not implement a mandate. … Why would left-wing and right-wing information sources be so committed to getting it so wrong about Newsmax?”

Newsmax hosts praised their employer for waiting until the federal government required either vaccination or weekly testing, contrasting the network’s approach to that of Fox News parent company Fox Corp., which preemptively announced in September that employees would have to either be vaccinated or tested daily.

“Newsmax had to be threatened with financial harm from our corrupt government, the Biden administration, before Newsmax even addressed mandates,” Salcedo boasted.

On his Monday night show, Grant Stinchfield — the host who had previously called the mandates an attempt to purge “freedom-loving patriots” — told viewers that Newsmax executives assured him that he and his team would not face termination for declining the vaccine. He claimed, without evidence, that rival news organizations had tried to “turn” Newsmax viewers against the channel. “Newsmax, like every American company today, is a victim of Joe Biden’s tyrannical approach to governing,” he said.

In fact, Newsmax appears to be adhering to the Biden administration’s new vaccine and testing policy. Mediaite reported that Newsmax even appears to have a corporate preference for vaccinations, with language in its staff memo last week specifying that as of Jan. 4, “all employees should be fully vaccinated,” according to a follow-up story adding more details on Monday. The company’s response suggests a balancing act to maintain its brand as a staunch opponent of government regulation while still technically adhering to such rules and conveying to media outlets that it supports vaccination.

“Newsmax has strongly encouraged both its employees and its viewers to get the vaccine, which is proven to be safe and effective,” a spokesperson said Monday, noting that the “overwhelming majority” of Newsmax employees are vaccinated — a group that includes Bolling, 6 p.m. co-host and former White House press secretary Sean Spicer, and 7 p.m. host Greg Kelly, who hosts the most-watched show on the network. (Chris Ruddy, the founder and chief executive of Newsmax, confirmed to The Post that he is vaccinated.)

Last week, the company took White House correspondent Emerald Robinson off the air after she suggested in a tweet that coronavirus vaccines are being used to track people. (“Read the last book of the New Testament to see how this ends,” she added.) Newsmax released multiple statements debunking the claim and is currently reviewing her social media posts, a spokesperson confirmed. In July, the company pushed back after an anchor said that vaccines are “against nature.”

Still, in its staff editorial, Newsmax stated that it is “exploring our own legal options” regarding the federal policy. Last week, conservative news site the Daily Wire sued the Biden administration over the vaccine policy.