Politics

The King of Dead-End TV

On Newsmax, Trump didn’t lose—and Greg Kelly is a star.

Greg Kelly on Newsmax TV.
The Sean Hannity of the forever-Trumpers. Newsmax

On Nov. 17, more than a week after the Associated Press, the major TV networks, and every other mainstream media outlet had called the 2020 presidential election for Joe Biden, Newsmax TV anchor Greg Kelly went on the air to announce, yet again, that the rest of the media was wrong. “This is Newsmax, where we have not called the election,” Kelly said, deploying the kind of smarmy, self-righteous tone that Goofus uses to gaslight Gallant. “Why would we? We do not know who has won. This whole idea of a president-elect? It is a media fabrication.” Kelly was flanked by an on-screen graphic reading “NewsmaxTV: It’s not over (obviously).” Obviously!

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If you’re the type for whom the outcome of the election is not obvious at this point—if, instead, you believe that Sleepy Joe stole it with an assist from some compromised servers—then you may have found your way to Newsmax TV at some point this month. The six-year-old cable news operation, which until very recently was watched by approximately no one, has notched unprecedented ratings since the election, its rise apparently fueled by disaffected Fox News viewers furious at Rupert Murdoch’s network for calling Arizona for Joe Biden on election night, and for occasionally suggesting that the Trump campaign’s wide-ranging and amorphous claims of voter fraud might not be particularly credible.

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President Trump has encouraged this exodus with tweets and retweets urging his fans to dump Fox News and turn to networks less encumbered by the facts. Newsmax TV, which has made much of its refusal to accept Biden’s electoral victory, fits the bill. Its competitor, the much-discussed and little-watched One America News Network, also fits the bill, though it’s a bit more unhinged; watching OANN, you get the sense its on-air talent might start yelling about lizard people at any given moment. Newsmax TV mostly sticks to the fantasies that the president and his associates concoct, albeit with such credulousness that its staffers must be jostling for discounted Mar-a-Lago memberships or staff jobs with the Trump 2024 exploratory committee.

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Newsmax is run by Trump pal and Mar-a-Lago member Christopher Ruddy, who was described in a Slate book review in 1997 as “a determined, if bumbling, former New York Post reporter who has virtually single-handedly spawned a cottage industry of conspiracy buffs dedicated to the proposition that a foul and monstrous cover-up surrounds the circumstances of [former deputy White House counsel Vincent] Foster’s death.” In 1998, Ruddy founded Newsmax.com, a conservative website that in its early years served as a clearinghouse for strange rumors about Bill Clinton. The brand later expanded to include a print magazine, and, in 2014, a cable news network. Although its viewership is still a fraction of Fox News’, Newsmax TV is fast becoming the network of choice—at least during the presidential transition—for forever-Trump conservatives who prefer their news untainted by actual news. Accordingly, that news is delivered by the dregs of the right-wing mediasphere.

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If Fox News is full of smart people pretending to be dumb, then Newsmax TV is full of dumb people who are proud not to be smart. Current hosts include Benny Johnson, fired first by BuzzFeed and then by the conservative Independent Journal Review after instances of plagiarism; the social-media personalities Diamond and Silk, who were axed as Fox News contributors earlier this year after voicing conspiracy theories about COVID-19; columnist Michelle Malkin, whose recent lowlights include defending the Holocaust-denying alt-right personality Nicholas Fuentes; former Navy SEAL Carl Higbie, who years ago suggested that a “lax of morality” accounted for “the high percentage of people on welfare in the black race”; and Sean Spicer.

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And then there’s Kelly, a former Fox News correspondent who has become Newsmax TV’s breakout star. Kelly is the son of former NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly, who, among other things, implemented stop-and-frisk in New York City during the Bloomberg administration. In 2011, a New York woman accused Greg Kelly of rape. After a two-week investigation, prosecutors decided not to bring charges against him. Though the New York tabloids interpreted this outcome as a full vindication for Kelly, in a 2014 BuzzFeed article the woman stood by her story.

The allegations haven’t hurt Kelly’s career. He spent years co-hosting Good Day New York on New York City’s Fox affiliate until leaving the morning program in 2017. Since this January, he has hosted Greg Kelly Reports at 7 p.m. each night on Newsmax, competing with Martha MacCallum on Fox. He has excelled in this relatively soft time slot since the election, with his program becoming the first Newsmax show to draw more than 1 million viewers. What’s the appeal? To figure that out, I did what a lot of Newsmax-curious Americans have done for the first time in recent weeks: I tuned in.

Kelly, who is 51, looks a lot like the actor John Michael Higgins, known for his work with the mockumentary director Christopher Guest, and more than once while watching Greg Kelly Reports I had to remind myself that it wasn’t some sort of odd comedy sketch. Kelly doesn’t come across as your typical anchor. He stumbles over words, makes random digressions, and often sounds like he’s winging his lines rather than reading them off a prompter. It’s a strangely endearing mix. Kelly is amiable if a little lost-seeming, bringing morning-show gravitas to an evening-show set. It’s clear his recent success is still new to him, just as he’s a new presence to much of his audience. During the Nov. 17 program, alongside a graphic reading “Meet Greg Kelly” and an image of the host as a younger man next to a fighter jet, he introduced himself.

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“I am pro-Trump, and I make that quite clear. This is an opinion-based show,” Kelly said. “I lean conservative, I like Donald Trump because of his policies, and I also like Donald Trump because of his style. Yup, I do. I like the tweets.” If Newsmax TV is an unabashed cheerleader for the president, Kelly is the leader of the pom-pom squad.

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“President Trump got something done that was amazing for the American people. Of course, almost immediately ignored,” Kelly opened on Nov. 20, referencing a speech in which Trump bragged about lowering the price of insulin. Kelly’s voice was vaguely weary, as if such willful sloppiness was all you could really expect from the mainstream media. “They were focused on other things. Other things.” It was a funny jab, because like the rest of cable news, Kelly is also focused on something else—Trump’s refusal to concede the election. On Newsmax, the president’s bad sportsmanship redounds entirely to his credit. On Nov. 23, alongside a composite photo of Donald Trump, some voting booths, the Constitution, and the words “Fighting For Democracy,” Kelly told viewers that Trump was in fact “fulfilling his duty” and “defending the Constitution” by refusing to concede. “A good rule of thumb to remember: The mainstream media, they are almost always, always wrong about this guy,” Kelly said, chuckling and pointing his thumb at the picture of Trump. It was an amateurish aside, but a characteristic one for Kelly, and one well in keeping with the looseness and low production values of Newsmax in general.

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Greg Kelly Reports, like the opinion programs on Fox News and every other conservative media outlet, is suffused with disdain for the non-wingnut press. Where Kelly’s program differs is in the tenor of its bad-faith media criticism. Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and Rush Limbaugh, for example, work hard to spin tales of elitist reporters conspiring to overthrow the president in the name of cancel culture. Their theories are ridiculous, but at least they are inventive. Kelly’s media criticism is a lot lazier than that. “Have you seen the White House when they have 25- and 26-year-old… people questioning the president of the United States?” asked Kelly on Nov. 17, over a chyron reading Many reporters are young and inexperienced. “I think you need a bit more seasoning than that. I do.”

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Media people think too much of themselves, read the chyron on Nov. 23, alongside a composite photo of several mainstream anchors and reporters under the words “We’re So Important.” “They are fighting for their egos,” Kelly said. “Because, if they get this wrong, again. I mean, really.” When speaking about the mainstream media, Kelly communicates primarily in a sort of ideological shorthand, proceeding from anti-press premises so universally understood and accepted on the right that there is no need for him to do any work proving, or really even explaining, them. (In this case, I think Kelly was referring to the polls that suggested Democrats would have a more successful election than they eventually did, but I cannot say this for sure, because Kelly did not finish his train of thought.) Trump does this, too. He is too lazy to ever actually make a logically coherent argument, so instead he just speaks in tones that sound like he is making an argument, in the hopes that people who are not listening very closely will mistake his bluster for substance.

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There are a lot of these people out there, people who choose to put their faith in malignant simulacra while rejecting the real thing. Newsmax TV exists wholly within this Trumpian sphere of consensus. In accordance with their Donald Trump, right or wrong, though of course he’s never wrong editorial philosophy, Newsmax TV has been peddling the sorts of election conspiracy theories that even Fox News has been reluctant to touch. Days before Fox’s Tucker Carlson publicly criticized former Trump campaign lawyer Sidney Powell for providing no evidence to back up her feverish tales of electoral malfeasance (involving Dominion Voting Systems, the CIA, and Venezuela), Kelly hosted Powell for a soft-ball interview that attempted to justify her refusal to show her presumably nonexistent cards.

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“You have evidence, it is coming in fast, there is a reason for not making it public, correct?” Kelly said at the end of the segment. “I mean, heh, you’re going to have a hostile media picking it apart, possibly trying to destroy your case, before you can even make it. Is that part of your case?” (“Well, not really,” said Powell, and Kelly looked surprised.) For Kelly and his audience, the very fact that the mainstream media opposes a thing is reason enough to trust and fight for that thing. Here, the difference between Newsmax TV and Fox News is that Newsmax TV is consciously—and somewhat ludicrously—lumping Fox News in with the rest of the mainstream media.

Still, if the goal is to pick off a chunk of the Fox audience, then the Newsmax position actually sort of makes sense, and Kelly’s weirdly amateurish vibe is the perfect delivery mechanism for this message. Fox News and its marquee talents existed and thrived before Donald Trump and can envision a future without Donald Trump. Newsmax, at this point, is a Trump-native channel that can hardly imagine a viable future without the president on its side: It seems to be speaking to an audience that was politically awakened by Trump and doesn’t want to ever hear or believe anything bad about him. For all of Fox News’ flaws, it still employs a full stable of real journalists, whose presence at the network has stopped it from going full voter-fraud conspiracy over the course of this past month. Newsmax is under no such restrictions. Greg Kelly Reports is a simple show on a simple network that exists to fulfill two simple premises: The media is wrong and Donald Trump is great. It is a journalistic philosophy as lazy as the man it is meant to lionize.

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