This reporting is featured in this week’s edition of Confider, the newsletter pulling back the curtain on the media. Subscribe here and send your questions, tips, and complaints here.
Newsmax will apparently stop at nothing, including crossing clearly delineated ethical boundaries, to supplant Fox News as the GOP’s de facto comms shop.
Over the past few months, multiple Republican congressmen have filled in as guest hosts on the network, often “reporting” on national political stories of which they’re very much a part. It’s an ethics nightmare, multiple media watchdogs and journalism ethics experts told Confider of the network’s decision to tap a sitting congressman to anchor its primetime shows.
Since late May, bombastic MAGA Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) has guest-hosted for Greg Kelly and Rob Schmitt—the network’s key weeknight stars—on at least five occasions. During his turns in the anchor chair, Gaetz—who also has his own podcast—not only covered stories with a direct connection to himself but also interviewed several of his congressional colleagues. Newsmax then offered that same opportunity to one of Gaetz’s GOP pals, Rep. Pat Fallon (R-TX), who filled in for Kelly this past Friday.
Readers may recall how in 2021, amid a since-fizzled federal probe into allegations of underage sex trafficking, Gaetz told us he’d had convos with Newsmax and others about a future TV job. Also notable: Both Gaetz and Fallon were two of Newsmax’s biggest champions during its ugly dispute with cable provider DirecTV earlier this year, calling for congressional hearings on why the AT&T-owned company was “silencing” conservatives. (The threats of a House probe grew silent after DirecTV and Newsmax reached a deal this spring.)
Of course, none of this was ever disclosed during Gaetz’s and Fallon’s hosting turns—just one of many reasons this Newsmax stunt has turned media experts’ heads.
While there has always been an incestuous relationship between Capitol Hill and TV news across the political spectrum, cable news networks typically wait at least until lawmakers exit their office before giving them as on-air hosting duties. And even though Fox News has occasionally let candidates and elected officials (including Gaetz) sit in on its midday panel show Outnumbered, technically making them a “guest host,” they are basically just acting as a panelist in the same manner as they would on The View.
“There is not even a pretense that Newsmax is a ‘news’ organization and, of course, it violates every journalistic rule,” one Newsmax insider told Confider, snarking that at least you know a GOP lawmaker “is a rabid partisan versus hosts that are just opinion-makers but technically without political affiliation.”
Tim Gleason, professor emeritus at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication, told Confider that Newsmax using congressmen to host its programs is “a gross blurring of the lines that should be clear between journalists and government” that “no credible news organization” would make. “Unfortunately, that line is increasingly blurred, especially in the cable news world where viewers are hard-pressed to sort out fact from opinion in the cacophony of talking heads that dominate cable programming to varying degrees across the cable spectrum.”
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Subbu Vincent, the Director of Journalism and Media Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, Santa Clara University, went even further in criticizing Newsmax over its decision. “There are multiple issues here,” Vincent told Confider. “This is not a blur between politics and partisan news media. ‘Blur’ is the word used to describe the confusion between commentary and news that happens on television shows—across left and right. Cable TV news shows on the left have been criticized for bringing on ‘experts’ on war whose connections to the American military-industrial complex are not fully disclosed on shows.”
He continued: “Newsmax is seeing itself as a battle station in the culture war, attempting to compete with Fox News’ long-standing leadership position in the conservative marketplace. It is a classic unethical means-and-ends situation. Journalism is a process, with its ethics, and news is a product. Newsmax is simply rebuilding ‘news’ as the medium to carry the chants and drumbeats of a tribe flexing its weapons and battle cries. When a congressman does reporting and anchoring on a ‘news show’ it is not news. When you are generating tribalism in, for, and with your audience, the distinctions between news, journalism, and ethical guardrails do not matter, as long as you can make money and perhaps even expand the audience.”
Angelo Carusone, president of the liberal watchdog Media Matters for America, told Confider that this situation shows Newsmax “planting a flag” to become the leading voice of a newer, Trumpier version of the GOP. “Because of the complete collapse between media figures and political figures in the Republican Party and that increasing convergence [at Newsmax],” he wrote, “they’re signaling a willingness to just sort of breach this line.”
He further suggested this is “an indication of something larger” coming on the horizon. “And if nothing else, it will chasten Fox” to repeat its own mistakes, Carusone added, pointing out how Newsmax previously pushed Fox News to embrace election denialism after the 2020 election, costing Fox nearly $800 million. (Newsmax, meanwhile, is awaiting its own defamation trial over its election fraud lies about voting machines.) “Trump will basically be able to have a tool that will make Fox more Trumpy,” Carusone concluded.
Even though Newsmax is blatantly embracing its role as a propaganda outlet, the network’s CEO Chris Ruddy has previously tried to portray the network as being merely a right-of-center news outlet. Last year, he chastised Fox News for being further right-wing in primetime than his lineup, adding that his channel had been pro-vaccines and in favor of U.S. support for Ukraine. “If you look at their nighttime programming of Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, we don’t have anyone that matches their level of severe right-wing politics,” he told Forbes, adding that Newsmax doesn’t “want to be known as the Trump Channel.”
A year after making those comments, his network is running on-air promos of Trump boasting about Newsmax’s support for him while transparently pandering to Tucker Carlson fans. (And, apparently, even offering to let Carlson run the whole network if he came aboard.)
All of it perhaps serve as further proof of how, as Ben Smith once wrote in The New York Times, “Nobody I’ve ever covered treats an audience with the blithe disdain of Mr. Ruddy… Perhaps he actually thinks his viewers are that dumb.”
The network only leaned in further when reached for comment, writing via a spox: “Everyone knows nightly cable news shows are heavily opinionated, and having an occasional congressman, disclosed as such, adds to that mix. The public is smarter than the far left acknowledges, another reason why Newsmax ratings continue to grow.”