Editor’s note: The death of Rush Limbaugh, the growth of Newsmax and charges of censorship by Amazon and other book sellers are among the forces shaking up conservative media companies. In this three-part series, the Deseret News examines the challenges facing radio, television and book publishing, and how those challenges might affect the companies and you: the reader, listener and viewer.

For a while, it looked like the dominance of Fox News could be a casualty of the 2020 election. 

The conservative-leaning network’s ratings dipped after months of complaints by former President Donald Trump and anger stemming from its election-night coverage. This was a change so momentous that even people in Europe took note. A headline in the UK’s Independent read: “‘We are lost’: Fox News suffers worst ratings in 20 years.”

The unexpected decline in ratings was a fresh headache for the network Rupert Murdoch started in 1996, which had finally put behind it the publicity stemming from the 2019 film “Bombshell,” which was a partially fictionalized account of sexual harassment within the company. And there was another, bigger headache to come. Last month, the company was sued for defamation by election technology company Smartmatic, which is seeking more than $2 billion in damages in a lawsuit that Fox has asked the court to dismiss.

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Even absent schadenfreude, it seems a particularly good time to be Christopher Ruddy. 

The founder of Fox competitor Newsmax, Ruddy has been tilling the ground of cable news since 2014, when he added television to the offerings of the media company he started in 1998. Last fall, Ruddy’s efforts were fertilized by his longtime friend Donald Trump, who, unhappy with Fox’s election coverage, started encouraging his supporters to check out Newsmax and another Fox challenger, the One America News Network, known as OAN.

But it may be technology, not politics, that ultimately decides the winner in the matchup between Newsmax and Fox. As in talk radio, the audience is graying, and Newsmax and OAN could have a technological advantage because they came of age during a time of transition that is affecting all forms of conservative media.

“Fox has an old-school infrastructure. OAN and Newsmax are probably teaching a lot of people who were resisting watching news on their computer to do it, just like grandchildren convinced a lot of older people to finally get an email address or get on Facebook back in the day,” said Robert Thompson, professor of radio, television and film at the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.

But Fox also has a solid advantage in its longevity and success stemming from a business model that caused other cable news channels to pivot. That leaves its competitors, both on the left and the right, mulling a perennial problem: how do you outfox Fox?

If Newsmax figures it out, the story will have an especially fascinating beginning, since Murdoch, chairman of Fox Corporation, gave Newsmax’s Ruddy his first job as a reporter.

‘Real news for real people’

Ruddy, 56, was on his way to lunch at Mar-a-Lago, the historic Palm Beach club that Trump owns, when he spoke with the Deseret News. Breaking ranks with some conservatives and libertarians who refuse to wear masks during the pandemic, he asked the valet for a mask when exiting his car.

Ruddy also breaks ranks with some conservatives because he’s friendly with former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Although Ruddy made a name for himself early in his career by questioning the circumstances of Clinton friend Vince Foster’s death —  an investigation that turned into a book — he later donated money to the Clinton Foundation and arranged for Bill Clinton to speak at the funeral of Ruddy’s former boss Richard Mellon Scaife.

Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy speaks during a dinner meeting with President Donald Trump and other business leaders, Aug. 7, 2018, at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J. | Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press

Ruddy has spoken respectfully of Bill Clinton, even likening him to Nelson Mandela in a 2014 article in Politico.

“Think about the outrageous things that were said about him, including by me, and he was able to overcome that and reach out to his critics and his adversaries and make them his friends and work together on the things we agree with,” Ruddy said. “It’s on the level of Nelson Mandela — that type of higher thinking and ability to forgive and forget, and it’s an example of how people who have partisan and ideological differences can work together for the common good.”

A native New Yorker who now lives in West Palm Beach, Ruddy lacks the bluster of his friend Trump, and also the former president’s disdain for the mainstream media.

Despite a recent New York Times column that derided him as “the king of Trump TV,” Ruddy said, “My experience with the New York Times has always been pretty good. Their journalists tend to be super smart. They aren’t as liberal as people think they are, and they usually make an effort to be fair and not overly sensational. They do seem interested in truth, even though they have a liberal perspective.”

Ruddy’s company, however, is building its brand by reinforcing the widespread belief that the media are disdainful of conservatives and report what Trump repeatedly calls “fake news.”

The motto of Newsmax TV is “real news for real people.”

“That’s what we’re trying to be,” Ruddy said. “We’re here to represent the interest of the American people and the taxpayers of this country. We want to be a voice for them. And I think we’re doing a pretty good job of it.”

For evidence, he can point to recent wins in viewership. As CNN reported in December 2020, Newsmax briefly beat Fox in the valuable demographic of 25- to 54-year-olds, when “Greg Kelly Reports” bested “The Story with Martha MacCallum” on a Monday night.

“The margin was narrow — Kelly averaged 229,000 viewers in the demo and MacCallum averaged 203,000 — but it is still a milestone in the cable news industry,” CNN reported.

That CNN, the first network in the 24-hour news business, reports on the ratings of two of its rivals shows just how important conservative viewers are in the industry.

CNN, which launched 24-hour news in 1980, had the field to itself until 1996 when both MSNBC and Fox launched. Within five years, Fox was the dominant network, thanks to a business strategy that other networks soon emulated.

Fox News Republicans

Personalities had always been part of a TV station’s brand, said Thompson, of Syracuse University. It was not just “CBS News” but “CBS News with Dan Rather.” But Fox took that strategy and put it on steroids.

“CNN had Larry King, but (the network) wasn’t personality driven. It was basically the news. Fox figured out they didn’t need to get 30 million people to watch; they didn’t need 10 million people to watch. A 24-hour news channel was a comparatively small slice of the population, and if they could get 2 or 3 million people who really, really liked them, they could become No. 1 in the field,” Thompson said.

They did so by building programming around personalities like Bill O’Reilly and Megyn Kelly, who would attract viewers even when there was no breaking news. “CNN would always get boosted when there was was breaking news, but then it would go into a trough again. Fox figured out how to keep people watching,” Thompson said.

“The other thing is, they identified that core audience and gave them exactly what they wanted, and they turned out to be right.”

What they wanted in the past few years was Donald Trump. 

In fact, Trump support was so deep among Fox News viewers that the Public Religion Research Institute examined the differences between Republicans and a subset dubbed “Fox News Republicans.”  Support for Trump was highest among the 40% of Republicans who said they trusted Fox News more than any other source.

Ninety-seven percent of “Fox News Republicans” approved of Trump’s performance as president, compared to 78% of other Republicans.

Which makes it all the more interesting that some Trump supporters are now defecting to Newsmax.

Are you a Republican, or a Fox News Republican? Survey says there’s a difference

In December, The Washington Post interviewed former Fox watchers who switched to Newsmax because they were upset when Fox called Arizona for Biden on election night, before two other networks. One of the 15 former Fox viewers that the Post’s Jeremy Barr spoke to said they “felt duped.”

“Their stories lend texture to what has been a quantifiable shift in the number of people who watch Newsmax,” Barr wrote.

But Fox, which declined to speak with the Deseret News for this article, continues to churn out news releases showing its continued, across-the-board dominance in cable news.

“Since January 2002, FNC remained the most-watched cable news network across both day-parts with total viewers and in the key 25-54 demographic. Notably, the network continues to post yet another streak as No. 1 in all of television in weekday primetime, topping all broadcast networks in total viewers beginning Memorial Day 2020 to date,” a Feb. 2 news release said.

And in a Feb. 9 earnings call with investors, Fox Corp. Executive Chairman and CEO Lachlan Murdoch said Fox was the most-watched station on election night, “beating all television networks and averaging 25% share of total viewers.”

Murdoch said, however, that Fox was seeing a “post-election audience pullback” that the network had anticipated. “We fully expect that the overall news audience will normalize and our share of ratings will dominate. In fact, this trend is already beginning as we have seen substantial share gains versus our competition since the inauguration,” Lachlan Murdoch said.

It’s unclear if the competition to which Murdoch referred was Newsmax or all cable news networks.

The website Mediaite reported Monday that Newsmax’s ratings, like most cable news networks, declined last month after an election-related surge. Prime-time viewership at Newsmax the last week of February was 223,000, down from a peak of 495,000 in November, the report said.

Fox, in comparison, drew an average of 3.6 million viewers nightly in 2020, according to a recent Forbes report.

Trump TV?

In the Fox earnings call, Lachlan Murdoch said his network’s audience is “firmly center right.”

“And we believe where we’re targeted to the center right is exactly where we should be targeted. It’s where we’ve been. We don’t need to go further right. We don’t believe America is further right. And we’re obviously not going to pivot left.”

Lachlan Murdoch also said that all of Fox’s “significant competitors are to the far left,” effectively dismissing the threat posed by Newsmax and OAN.

Newsmax, which did not call Biden the president-elect until the Electoral College votes were counted, has been disparaged by some in the media as being a mouthpiece for Trump. But Ruddy, who earned a master’s degree in public policy from the London School of Economics, began his career as a reporter for the New York Post and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and says that Newsmax adheres to traditional journalistic standards.

“The press will say Newsmax is farther right than Fox News. It’s not true,” he said.

“Newsmax has always been more balanced. We’ve always had both pro and con; we always make sure we include liberal voices. It was never an effort to have political point of view.”

As for Trump’s influence, Ruddy says, “I’m a friend of the president, but I don’t always agree with him. I didn’t support every position he took. … People who followed what I said through the years knew that I wasn’t a sycophant.”

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Evidence of that, he said, is that Newsmax is available on every major cable company — to the chagrin of cable executives and owners who are liberal, he said. “When they started examining our news coverage, they realized, well, they’re conservative but they’re not in the tank for Trump. We’re not in the tank for anybody. We’re in the tank for news.”

And despite rumors that Trump wanted to buy Newsmax and make it “Trump TV,” Ruddy has firmly, but politely, said no, telling a reporter for the Sun-Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, “My focus is building Newsmax into a major news property.”

Thompson, at Syracuse University, said that at this point, Newsmax is unlikely to topple Fox. But asked if Newsmax was the equivalent of a gnat to a ratings behemoth, he said no.

“I wouldn’t make them that tiny. I’d make them more like great big mice, and we know how elephants feel about mice.”

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