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The enduring allure of conspiracies
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Jan. 5, 2021, noon
Business Models

Trump’s presidency is ending. Is the reign of Newsmax and OAN just beginning?

“The audience is not loyal to Fox. It wants to get its fix of identity-confirming news. It will go where it can get it, and avoid where it can’t get it.”

There is nothing more beguiling than a lame duck One America News Network (OAN) segment. Everything about it feels slightly ersatz. The anchors sit in dreamlike green screen sets, hair perfectly coiffed, as they update the nation on the proceedings of the biggest crime in American history — namely, Joe Biden’s hijacking of our democratic process. That has been the lead story and singular talking point on the network since the election was called. The President’s unconceded defeat left a generation of vengeful boomers in its wake, and OAN is here to soak up all the bandwidth that their voter fraud sophistry can buy.

And so, on the Monday before Thanksgiving, OAN airs a half-hour documentary that delves into the Dominion Voting Machine conspiracy theory that speculates that the Canadian company illicitly swung millions of ballots towards Joe Biden. Toward the end, host Chanel Rion speculates that Eric Coomer, a former Dominion executive, is one of the masterminds of a global sedition plot against the president evidenced by, among other things, his apparent fondness for the hip-hop groups Dead Prez and Body Count.

Newsmax TV, the yin to OAN’s yang, boasts a truly impressive roster of flunkies from the halcyon Donald days, most of whom entertain the idea that the Democrats have spent months scheming a deep-state coup under the cover of the pandemic policy response. Tune in every week for vintage MAGA Twitter success stories Diamond and Silk — who are entrusted with their own cable talk show called Diamond and Silk Crystal Clear — and watch as they argue that mask mandates at elementary schools are “dehumanizing” our children. Former press secretary Sean Spicer is heavily in the mix as well; he appears on Newsmax every weekday at 6 p.m. — Sebastian Gorka and Dinish D’Souza are two of his most recent guests.

Both Newsmax and OAN are sequestered in the nether realms of cable news. On DirectTV, you can find both channels in the mid-300s, which is fitting for the C-level luminaries of the Trump metaverse. The commercial strategy for these networks bank on the anger and self-delusion of the newly bereaved MAGA class. The hope is that they will be willing to search long and hard for any channel inclined to tell them what that they already believe. So far, that gambit appears to be paying off.

According to The New York Times, Newsmax TV topped out around 50,000 viewers throughout the six years since its founding in 2014. After the election, that number jumped to a record 1.1 million. The chief reason for that spike? Fox News. The network called the presidential race for Joe Biden on Nov. 7, at the same time as CNN, MSNBC, and ABC. That decision instantly drew the ire of Trump, who, by all accounts, felt betrayed by his own media arm. For weeks Newsmax and OAN refused to proclaim the winner of the election due to “ongoing litigation,” attempting to curry favor from the incensed administration (though in December, following Trump’s Supreme Court failure, a Newsmax anchor did refer to Biden as the victor of the election, and libel lawsuits may end up limiting what Newsmax and OAN can get away with.) The outgoing president has been a willing partner; since his defeat, Trump has made several tweets promoting the virtuousness of his new favorite networks, while condemning Fox for its shocking insubordination.

“[Fox] forgot what made them successful, what got them here. They forgot the Golden Goose,” reads one of those Trump tweets, from Nov. 13, which is proving to be more prescient by the day. OAN and Newsmax have rejoiced in Trump’s blessing, and seem surprisingly bullish on taking the fight directly to the Big Five. “Now that Fox has joined the mainstream media in censoring factual reporting,” writes the OANN account on Nov. 11, “the most powerful people in the world count on One America News to deliver the truth to YOU.” In December, Newsmax narrowly overtook Fox News in one ratings segment for the first time. Still, Fox closed out the year as 2020’s most-watched cable channel by far.

All of this puts Fox in a fascinating predicament. The network drifted in Trump’s rise to power to much fortune and influence; Fox News closed out 2020 as the This was a gruesome spectacle to watch from the outside, and the concerns about Fox’s reactionary sycophancy and its impact on the brain tissue of our loved ones is well-documented, but traditionally, the Murdoch empire defended the ongoing mutations of its jaundiced personalities by claiming a hallowed schism between its news and opinion divisions — reporters do their job, Tucker Carlson does his. Now, though, it sometimes seems as if Fox is nearing the bottom of its capacity for disinformation. The news desk has proven broadly unwilling to entertain Trump’s voter fraud claims — their anchors refer to Biden as the “president-elect,” and their producers have cut away from some of the sitting president’s faulty, litigious news conferences. The opinion section has been generally friendlier to conspiracy, as expected, but lately, it seems like even Carlson doesn’t have much patience for the charade anymore.

That wouldn’t have been a problem in 2012, when Fox was strictly contending with CNN or NBC. But in 2020, amidst a widely inflated and increasingly demented conservative television sector, they’re now going toe-to-toe with a slew of networks that have no ancestral obligations to objective truth. That’s a difficult problem to solve within the confines of a media company: Maybe the golden goose is really gone.

“It’s highly unlikely OANN or Newsmax will grow large enough to compete with Fox. But they can pull enough viewers to cause Fox to slip in ratings compared to MSNBC and CNN, something we’re already seeing happen,” says Nicole Hemmer, who studies the history of conservative media at Columbia University. “That’s something Fox executives have to be concerned about, because their status comes from how they measure up to those two networks.”

The slippage that Hemmer refers to has been minimal to this point. Fox’s daytime ratings have dropped 32 percent since the end of the election, which could be chalked up to political fatigue or a sense of audience burnout following the defeat of a partisan broadcaster’s preferred candidate, rather than a vengeful axe to grind. (Time Magazine notes that MSNBC’s ratings tanked after Clinton lost four years ago.) That said, evidence suggests that Fox flags behind the pack whenever their reporting bona fides turn them against Trump.

Yochai Benkler is a professor at Harvard Law School who has studied the ebbs and flows of right-wing media for decades. According to the research in his book Network Propaganda, the fervor for Fox News deteriorated during the early months of 2016, as the Republican party was engulfed in a contentious primary and the Murdoch Estate hadn’t yet formally backed a candidate. “They got attacked viciously by Breitbart and Trump, and our data showed clearly that, at least online, attention to Fox declined and became less central to the right wing media ecosystem,” says Benkler. “It was only with their adoption of the full-throated Trump support that they really came back.”

Fox learned its lesson; it simply isn’t good business to resist Trump. A number of conservative publications found that out the hard way while they stood on the sidelines. Benkler cites The Weekly Standard, founded by the Republican mainstay and prominent never-Trumper Bill Kristol, which ceased publication in late 2018. It was one of the rare casualties in an otherwise boom time for right wing media, and its demise illuminated an important axiom about the people who make up this insurgent new right. “The audience is not loyal to Fox,” continues Benkler. “It wants to get its fix of identity-confirming news. It will go where it can get it, and avoid where it can’t get it.”

Fox, of course, has proven more than willing to meet that demand in the past. Hemmer suggests that the channel’s programming might grow more mythic and conspiratorial if company executives are spooked by the numbers. “We should expect that trend to continue both in the opinion hour and in the commentators that show up in panels on more news-dedicated programs,” she says.

But OAN and Newsmax have already proven more brazen in plucking out the MAGA fanatics who have no reputation left to lose, and that can be a dangerous weapon. Benny Johnson is a journalist who was fired for ethics violations on two separate occasions. He spent the intervening years after his ousting maneuvering his way to the top of the Trump fealty Twitter hierarchy, and most recently, you can find him signal-boosting claims that Hillary Clinton used Dominion-derived fraudulence to illicitly subdue Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary. In September, Newsmax offered Johnson a job. Now, The Benny Report airs every Saturday at 6:30 p.m..

Hemmer notes that a significant portion of Fox viewership is still tied up in moderates and liberals (according to Pew Research, 10 percent of its base categorizes themselves as “liberal Democrats”) and that the network “relies on its news operation” for credibility with that audience. A character like Johnson doesn’t fit into that portfolio, but he’s an ideal match for a shop like Newsmax. Does that matter? Who knows. The information marketplace that’s been so brutally disfigured from four years of Trump that it’s difficult to determine how important relative integrity is to a network’s influence. We might not know the answer until it’s too late.

Johnson isn’t the only one. Both OAN and Newsmax have stacked the schedule with specious distortion stars. Jack Posobiec, who initially became famous for extolling the proto-QAnon “pizzagate” conspiracy, has been an OAN correspondent since 2018. Heather Childers, a Fox host who was taken off the air by the network after showing up to work visibly sick with Covid-19, now cohosts Newsmax’s American Agenda. It’s disorienting to watch these figures secure a primetime role on cable television. It makes you wonder if Trump has permanently sundered the supposed firewall guarding public competence; if a reality show star can be president, then surely a conspiracy theorist can read the news on television, right? The expectations have been dramatically lowered, and now, the wildest maniacs on the web are slowly osmotizing towards the mainstream.

“I think we’re definitely seeing a world where what we think of as weird Facebook posts, forum posts, or Infowars stories are getting higher production values and circulating in more expensive media, which makes them look more credible,” says Will Sommer, who covers politics for The Daily Beast and writes a newsletter on right-wing media. “OAN, for example, regularly produces segments on conspiracy theories pulled straight from anonymous internet posters.”

Benkler pushes back on that notion. He believes the rot at the core of the right-wing media sphere has percolated for much longer than the lifespans of this current crop of Twitter malcontents. Specifically, he names Rush Limbaugh and his talk radio generation, who initially pioneered the sneering, fuck-your-feelings demeanor that was quickly normalized into an abating media industry. “The craziness didn’t start on social media and migrate to TV,” says Benkler. “It started on radio and TV and migrated online.”

He’s not wrong. Nationally syndicated far-right radio host Michael Savage repeatedly advocates for nuclear assaults on areas that fall into the borderlands of American empire. In 2008, he put the Taliban-occupied areas of Pakistan in his crosshairs. We have attributable precedent for conspiracy, untruth, and viciousness to be a fundamental piece of the conservative airwaves for decades. There is no horror quite like the sight of something that has been very wrong, for a very long time.

As for Fox, Hemmer imagines that the network may rebound quickly. The viewership’s lingering resentment could quickly atrophy away as Ingraham, Carlson, and Hannity put a fresh new president in their sights. “Once they shift over to full-time anti-Biden programming, the rift could heal,” she says. That’s one of the core adages of cable news: Nothing juices ratings quite like the opposition in power. Simultaneously, we will watch OAN and Newsmax explore the outlying horizons of their self-propagating secondary timeline — one full of increasingly arcane voter fraud investigations headlined by the most craven and desperate of the remaining Trump vigilantes, eager to cash one final check before the walls close in for good. The future of the news may depend on how many Americans go down the rabbit hole with them.

“There are all sorts of political and financial incentives for this conspiracy and propaganda media to grow, and so much of it gets picked up not just on social media but by Republican politicians, that I have very little reason to think the trends we have seen over the past several years will reverse themselves,” finishes Hemmer. “Can it get better? Maybe. But it will get worse first.”

Luke Winkie is a journalist and former pizza maker based in New York City. He previously wrote for Nieman Lab about Study Hall.

POSTED     Jan. 5, 2021, noon
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