The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump expands his cable diet to Newsmax and OAN. They benefit, and so does he.

President Trump watches television after speaking to reporters at the White House on Nov. 20. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

To argue his baseless case for overturning the November election, President Trump turned to the “very powerful and very expensive screen” he had erected recently behind some bleachers at a regional airport in Valdosta, Ga.

Anchors for Newsmax and One America News, the two cable stations that Trump has been promoting recently, suddenly appeared in prerecorded clips that looked as authoritative as anything on television, regaling the crowd of Trump supporters with unverified or already debunked conspiracy theories about voter fraud.

On the video clips Trump played, the anchor for OAN, Pearson Sharp, used the phrases “fraudulent ballots” and “potential election fraud” interchangeably. Newsmax’s Grant Stinchfield ended his own speculation about closed circuit footage of a Georgia vote counting center with the phrase, “Now, there may or may not be an explanation for this.” (GOP election officials in Georgia have explained that the video showed nothing improper.)

But the fine print was immaterial. With his claims rejected by courts and dismissed by state officials, America’s most powerful cable news junkie has expanded his diet beyond Fox News, relying more on networks that are willing to parrot and feed his unfounded claims of an electoral conspiracy. Increasingly, they are serving as a vocal enabling squad for his efforts to subvert the election and threaten democracy.

His support, in person and via an increasing number of tweets, has bolstered these networks’ viewership and aided their upstart effort to compete with Fox News. In return, their viewers are adding to the pressure on elected Republicans in Congress and in the states to buy into Trump’s false claims and vote to undo the electoral college results.

As Trump’s newest allies have rushed to deliver the rants that both shape and reflect his arguments, the president’s longtime media backers remain part of the mix. Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh said last week that parts of the nation were “trending toward secession” — although he later said he didn’t favor that. Fox’s nighttime hosts, while occasionally inclined to more realistically assess the president’s odds of a second term, continue to echo his false accusations of fraud.

Trump’s embrace of the more conspiratorial voices has at times helped push the president to endorse and spread claims his advisers reject, raising questions about how Trump will handle himself after he leaves office, when he is widely expected to jockey for a continued public megaphone with fewer hindrances. Some loyalists defend Trump’s sharing of falsehoods.

“The president recognizes that the vast majority of the media is not willing to give him a fair shake, so he’s constantly looking for outlets that are going to be open to hearing all sides,” said Sean Spicer, Trump’s first White House press secretary, who now hosts his own show on Newsmax. “Generally speaking, conservatives have grown tired of folks in the media telling them what to think over and over.”

Behind the scenes, Trump has told others that pitting Newsmax and OAN against Fox News puts pressure on the larger network to cover him more favorably. He has also expressed concern in public and private about Fox News’s coverage in the final months of the campaign, when the network confirmed reports that Trump had been heard calling fallen military service members “suckers” and “losers,” and later declared Joe Biden the election winner, despite Trump’s protests. He has since complained about the amount of coverage the network has given to his legal team, including former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and attorney Jenna Ellis.

“He thinks it’s the big difference between 2020 and 2016,” Christopher Ruddy, the founder of Newsmax and a Trump confidant, said of the president’s anger with Fox News. “He is happy with the Hannitys and the Laura Ingrahams, but he has been disappointed with the overall coverage.”

Trump’s advisers, who largely overlooked Newsmax and OAN in the early days of the administration, now regularly try to book his supporters on Newsmax. Trump still watches Fox News more than anything else, aides say, though OAN has occasionally been spotted on the Air Force One televisions, such as on a flight Oct. 26.

The broadcasts, particularly on OAN, are often unsourced, riven with inaccuracies and conspiracist allegations. This summer, Trump falsely alleged that a 75-year-old antiwar protester who was pushed and injured in Buffalo “could be an ANTIFA provocateur” who appeared to be attempting to “scan police communications to black out equipment.” The false claims had been peddled in an unsourced OAN report, which Trump cited. The man, a longtime peace activist, was holding a cellphone.

“I watched, he fell harder than was pushed,” Trump tweeted. “Could be a set up?”

That pattern repeated itself Nov. 12, when Trump picked up on another OAN report about an unnamed “unaudited analysis” that falsely claimed as many as 435,000 votes had been switched in states using a particular voting system.

Less than 20 minutes after the OAN report aired, Trump tweeted in all caps: “REPORT: DOMINION DELETED 2.7 MILLION TRUMP VOTES NATIONWIDE,” citing OAN as his source.

There is no evidence that Dominion Voting Systems equipment malfunctioned or changed votes, and most of the president’s advisers have not embraced the Dominion conspiracy theory because they believe it is false and too fantastical. Even anchors on the opinion side of Fox News, like “Fox & Friends” host Steve Doocy, have dismissed it, as has Trump’s own administration.

The tweet was part of a larger shift in Trump’s media focus. Matthew Gertz, a monitor for the liberal group Media Matters who has documented Trump’s live-tweeting of television broadcasts, has quantified Trump’s wandering eye.

Between September 2018 and August 2020, he counted 1,206 times when Trump tweeted about information that had recently been broadcast on cable news, with 95 percent of the tweets referencing material on Fox News or Fox Business. Between Nov. 15 and Dec. 2, by contrast, Gertz said, Trump’s live-tweeting shifted, with 37 percent focused on OAN broadcasts, 10 percent on Newsmax broadcasts and the remaining 53 percent on Fox networks.

“He sees this stuff coming across a cable news network, and he tweets it, and things sort of go from there,” Gertz said. “There has definitely been a clear uptick in the Newsmax and the OAN content.”

For Trump supporters seeking a less subtle signal, the president has repeatedly offered instructions. “@FoxNews daytime is not watchable,” he tweeted on Dec. 6, a day after the Georgia rally. “Check out @OANN, @newsmax and others that are picking up the slack.”

The effect on viewership has been stark, according to both networks, though they continue to trail far behind the audience of Fox News, which finished October and November as the most-watched cable network in both day and prime-time total audience, according to Nielsen.

Charles Herring, the president of OAN, says his network, which is too small to be tracked by Nielsen, is experiencing “historic ratings.”

“The enhanced viewership is related to over 74 million Americans who feel that they have been disenfranchised by our election system,” he said in an email. “Denial of voting irregularities, including claims of an estimated 17,000 dead people voting in one state alone, is unacceptable for ensuring integrity in our voting process and cannot be ignored.”

Asked in a follow-up email the source of the claim of 17,000 dead people voting, Herring did not respond. There is no documented evidence of such fraud taking place on anything near that scale, nor is there evidence that over 74 million Americans — which would be all of those who voted for Trump — feel they have been disenfranchised.

Riding that dissatisfaction, Newsmax saw its viewership more than double in mid-November compared with the week of the election, as viewers sought out alternative story lines about the outcome, according to Nielsen. On Dec. 7, a Newsmax program scored slightly more viewers than a competing Fox program among the 25- to 54-year-old demographic favored by advertisers — for the first time ever.

But its viewership overall has remained far lower than that of Fox News, which attracts much higher cable subscription fees than its rivals. Newsmax’s Ruddy said he believes there is enough of a market for conservative news, on cable and through streaming, that multiple channels can thrive at once.

He also said he had offered Trump a weekly show on his network but does not expect the president to commit exclusively to any single branded outlet if his legal challenges of the election fail.

“He toys with the idea of having Trump TV,” said Ruddy, who describes his network as consistently supportive of Trump but still interested in finding evidence to back up the claims of fraud. “He would like to go back to the days when he was on all media and accepted by all media.”

A person familiar with the thinking at Fox News said the network is not concerned about its long-term ability to hold its audience because OAN and Newsmax lack the infrastructure of Fox News to cover the Biden administration.

“The election has exposed rifts between the hard right and reality. Trump has 25 or 30 million people who will believe really whatever he says,” said the individual, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter. “The concern probably is the short term — you could have a brief time where Trump really turns some people against us. Long term, I don’t think these competitors are positioned to really beat Fox.”