Recently, when I spoke to comedian and Trump lip-syncher extraordinaire Sarah Cooper, she admitted to watching Fox News. "Watching Fox, which is a bunch of people who are on paper smart and knowledgeable, defend a mad man, to me that is both a scary and fun thing to watch," she said.
I kept this in mind before I spoke to Tim Miller, a gay Republican writer for The Bulwark and Rolling Stone, and cofounder of Republican Voters Against Trump. Last Friday, Miller penned a wild column for The Bulwark about his 24 hours watching Newsmax, a.k.a. conspiracy central. As a warmup to our conversation, I watched Fox News early Sunday morning while working out at the gym.
Besides listening to retired NFL quarterback Brett Favre talk about football and COVID (I noticed the NFL's medical adviser on a competing network) and being harangued with blurbs about discounts on a retail site by redeeming a Fox News coupon code on the chyron banner, I had enough of my foray and figured I'd just let Miller fill me in on the stupidity I'm missing that lies beneath Fox.
Among some of the most dreadful things Miller reported on in his Bulwark column is that washed-up, whacked-out, and white-dentured political consultant Dick Morris has Trump's phone number and is encouraging the president to bring state legislators to the White House and tell them to reject their states' popular votes. Essentially, he admitted on Newsmax to pitching a coup to Trump. This is the same guy who in 1996 thought it was a good idea to brag to a hooker about U.S. state secrets and his relationship with President Bill Clinton.
Newsmax appears to be obsessed with another former president, Barack Obama. The all-white Newsmax "news" team wants you to know about the horror Obama caused when he wrongly filled out an NCAA bracket, and when he wore a tan suit as president. What a shock to the system!
I was surprised to learn that former WNYW (New York City's Fox affiliate) news anchor Greg Kelly is a Newsmax host now. My, how the mighty of Manhattan have fallen. But it makes sense because the biggest Manhattan loser, Rudy Giuliani, is Newsmax's biggest star, and he hasn't been this excited since his bedroom scene in Borat 2.
If Mayor Mascara wasn't available to endlessly ramble about the "rigged" election, most of Newsmax's time slots, it seems, would be filled with commercials telling you how popular Newsmax is. It has "real news for real people." Donald Trump says, "Newsmax, you like Newsmax, I like it too." Or repeatedly hearing from Newsmax founder Chris Ruddy, who says the network has "an editorial policy of being supportive of the president." Ruddy launched the Newsmax website in 1998, and it's since spawned a print magazine and the referenced cable news network, which he claims 20 percent of all Americans watch. While those numbers appear specious, National Public Radio reports Newsmax is now the fourth most-watched cable news network.
Newsmax's hapless star personality, Giuliani, is now sidelined with COVID, which makes one think his beamed-in beat may switch from coup to corona. Considering that Newsmax lacks a coronavirus expert, that leaves Remdesivir Rudy to speak about the pandemic, because, well, he has the virus, and it seems no one else is available on this sprawling network to talk about the biggest and most tragic news story this day, this week, this month, and this year.
Not until 52 minutes into one hour does someone on Newmax mention COVID-19, and that's during an interview with some woman named Emerald Robinson, who is the White House correspondent for Newsmax (Helen Thomas is turning in her grave!). Robinson actually tweeted the following sequence last Friday:
"If masks work, why do we need social distancing? If social distancing works, why do we need masks? If either works, why do we need lockdowns? If ANY of them work, why do we need new vaccines? Think about it."
OK, Dr. Robinson (joking, obviously, she is not a doctor), we're thinking about your logic and how it is frighteningly farcical.
Most of the guests and hosts on this "news channel" are people you and I have never heard about and know little if anything about, and are people who know little or nothing about the truth. They have been broadcasting and hiding in basements - until now.
But all of this is not funny. It's serious, and Miller was quick to point that out. "Writing for The Bulwark (a moderate conservative news and opinion website), I want to do a better job of monitoring far-right media, because too often everyone focuses on what's happening on Fox and Breitbart," Miller said during our weekend phone call. "However, there is a really dangerous ecosystem growing under the radar that a lot of folks in D.C. and elsewhere aren't familiar with. When I read The New York Times'Ben Smith column that said a million people were tuning in to Newsmax during primary time, I was stunned that they had so many viewers, and I had to find out what the attraction was."
And it seems the attraction is dark news delivered by disgruntled drudges, with most of them lately telling their viewers that the presidential election results can somehow be overturned so Dear Leader Trump can rule for (at least) one more term. The hosts and guests at Newsmax, Miller explained, are a combination of grifters, hacks, and has-beens who are past their primes (e.g., Alan Dershowitz) and being attracted to the media outlet like moths to a flame. "There is a proliferation of these dark sites, like OANN and YouTube channels that focus on these dark and dangerous conspiracy theories and people desperate to be paid to talk about them."
According to Miller, this Frankenstein monster, created by Trump and others, is growing and engulfing the Republican Party. And these outlets are not going to disappear anytime soon. "You don't just give people all these hyped-up conspiracy theories that are akin to a drug and then the next day start giving them soda pop," Miller advised. "Viewers are still going to want to hear about this conspiratorial nonsense, and the media outlets feeding this fire recognize a significant business opportunity."
And it's an ominous confluence of raging rhetoric and return on investment. "When I was watching the follow-up coverage to the Trump rally in Georgia Saturday night, they were interviewing people in the crowd who were calling for a revolution, a coup, and labeling Democrats as Satanists. We used to call these people cranks in Republican Party politics, and there used to be one or two in a crowd. But it's different now. The crank numbers are growing, and they feel like something has been stolen from them."
"The thing that was most striking during all the hours I spent watching Newsmax was how often and how relentless the guests and hosts were calling on state legislatures to overturn the election, which is so illegal," Miller explained. "Yet, in a given hour two to three people would suggest this multiple times. So what viewers are hearing is a consistent drum beat. No wonder these cranks are calling for a coup or civil war. I worry that all it takes is one unstable person acting out. If people keep hearing that the election was stolen by Satanic communists, they want to do something because they feel robbed."
And with what Miller saw at one point, Newsmax is only feeding a fire that could turn violent and deadly. "What was most shocking to me was within a 15-minute period there were two references to violence and murder. The first was when one Newsmax host, Howie Carr, talked about the JFK assassination, and said that the last time the election was stolen by the Democrats was in 1960, and he said that you saw what happened to Kennedy, so Democrats better be careful."
Then, according to Miller, minutes later one of Trump's deranged attorneys, Joe DiGenova, appeared on Carr's show, and at the end of a lengthy diatribe, said that Chris Krebs (the former Homeland Security official who said the 2020 election was the safest in American history) should be shot. "This is incendiary and threatening. It's really dangerous and it needs to stop," Miller warned.
Miller's words were haunting, but he was only repeating what he heard and witnessed, and we should all be cautioned that networks like Newsmax and their ilk present an existential threat to our democracy and to American lives. We may laugh at those who spew this nonsense or may think that something like Newsmax is in the far reaches or dark corners of our society. However, that's not the case, and the growth of these outlets is no laughing matter.