Earlier this year, I edited an essay about immigration from a writer who began the piece by talking about news reports she’d seen about families crossing into the U.S. at the Texas border.

When I took out the name of the cable news network she had watched, the writer protested. She said she wanted people to know that she was watching a “fair and balanced” network, one without partisan bias.

The network wasn’t Fox, but NewsNation.

NewsNation isn’t as new as people might think, and some critics say it’s not as unbiased as it says. A rebranding of Nexstar Media Group’s WGN, the network was launched more than two years ago. But NewsNation pushed its way into the national conversation in a big way Wednesday when it hosted the fourth GOP presidential primary debate in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

As high as the stakes were for the candidates, they were equally high for the network, which bills itself as news for the “moderate majority.” Would the debate be NewsNation’s 15 minutes of fame, or provide the forward thrust the network needs to seriously compete with Fox, MSNBC and CNN?

While that’s not a question that can be answered this week, response on X was largely positive for a network that many people had not tuned into until the debate. And the network has its highest ratings ever, with 1.59 million viewers.

A.J. Bauer, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama who studies conservative media, said in advance of the debate, “I don’t see NewsNation usurping Fox, and I don’t see its hosting of a Republican primary debate as being particularly appealing to centrist liberals either.” But during the debate, he posted on X that NewsNation was the night’s only “winner” and that the network “is establishing itself as a legitimate news outlet.”

And Democratic strategist Max Burns credited NewsNation for what he said was “the best GOP debate of the four.”

The night had some technical glitches — for example, Ron DeSantis’s audio was wobbly at the beginning of his answer to the first question. Reporters covering the event had numerous problems, including power strips that cut in and out, and a video feed that shut off 10 minutes before the debate ended, leaving the press unable to watch the candidates’ closing statements. (It’s unclear, however, if the University of Alabama was responsible for those problems, or NewsNation.)

Still, I found the overall presentation of the debate excellent, including its stirring football-centric opening that was entirely appropriate in Crimson Tide country. The production value was as good as any of the debates on so-called legacy networks. And as another journalist told me today, “I think the fact most people aren’t talking about the moderators today but instead what the candidates said speaks volumes.”

True, not everyone agreed. Former Bush strategist Matthew Dowd said on X that he would not watch NewsNation again, saying, “It is as if someone asked AI to design a Fox News that was more amateurish and could get employees on the cheap discarded by other networks, and out popped NewsNation.”

And there were indeed many familiar faces for those watching NewsNation Wednesday night, including Megyn Kelly (formerly of Fox), Chris Cuomo (fired by CNN in 2021) and Elizabeth Vargas (formerly of ABC, among other networks). NewsNation’s political editor, Chris Stirewalt, previously worked for Fox, as did Geraldo Rivera and Bill O’Reilly, who provided post-debate analysis.

So, yes, in some ways, the debate coverage might have felt Foxish, but it was, after all, a Republican primary debate.

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NewsNation says it aims to provide news for all of America, not just those on the left or the right. An analysis of the network in advance of the debate published on the website of The Poynter Institute, said “NewsNation doesn’t straddle the line so much as it leans a little right.”

That’s not a bad thing. Much conservative media, in its understandable desire to compensate for decades of left-leaning news, alienates not just liberals but moderates. If NewsNation could lean a little right in the way The Wall Street Journal does, it could find — and retain — a devoted audience. That, of course, will not happen overnight. And while NewsNation hit a personal best for ratings, the GOP did not.

The first two debates, broadcast by Fox and its affiliates, drew 12.8 and 9.5 million viewers respectively. The third, broadcast by NBC, had 7.5 million viewers.

Wednesday’s debate had a total of just under 4.1 million viewers, according to The Hollywood Reporter; that includes both viewers on NewsNation and a simulcast on The CW, another Nexstar property. (Not counted is the number of people who listened live on SiriusXM.)

According to The Hollywood Reporter, “The 1.59 million viewers for NewsNation is more than 10 times its typical primetime tune-in; in November, the channel’s highest-rated primetime show — ‘Cuomo,’ anchored by former CNN host Chris Cuomo — averaged 149,000 viewers. The debate also set a new high for NewsNation in the key news demographic of adults 25-54, 350,000 of whom watched Wednesday’s telecast.”

But the network has a ways to go. As The Associated Press reported, citing Nielsen ratings, “NewsNation averaged 99,000 viewers in prime time in November, compared to Fox News Channel’s 1.73 million, MSNBC’s 1.14 million, CNN’s 540,000 and Newsmax’s 207,000.”

To be truly competitive, NewsNation will not only have to keep its debate night viewers, but build on them to credibly challenge cable news powerhouse Fox — and even Newsmax.