Here and there, a few votes remained to be counted. But the outcome was clear to most of the media. The election was over. And President Trump had lost.
But nearly two weeks later, as courts shut down the Trump campaign’s longshot legal challenges and states move forward with certifications of the vote, Trump himself is not letting go. And fighting alongside him are large — if wavering— swaths of the conservative media landscape.
The result is an alternate information universe that, despite all evidence to the contrary, attempts to portray the election’s outcome as still uncertain and a Biden presidency as highly doubtful if not illegitimate. “President Trump was right to call this for it really is — fraud,” declared the popular conservative radio host Todd Starnes in a Nov. 5 piece titled “We Are Watching a Slow-Moving Coup.” Or as the Federalist declared the same day: “Yes, Democrats Are Trying To Steal The Election In Michigan, Wisconsin, And Pennsylvania.”
It’s a thread of coverage and commentary rooted in conspiratorial thinking — but also in a thriving business model. While many Trump voters accept the inevitability of a Biden presidency, “the energy in conservative media is around the twenty million people in Trump’s base who believe the election was stolen,” said Chris Balfe, CEO of Red Seat Ventures, which helps conservative personalities such as Megyn Kelly and Nancy Grace build their own Web, podcast and other digital platforms.
Small cable outlets like One America News Network and Newsmax have turned their refusal to call the election into a new branding strategy, while the primetime opinion hosts on Fox News have played up anecdotal, and often baseless, claims of voter fraud. This, even as the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency said last week that “the November 3rd election was the most secure in American history.”
These conservative outlets have also given ample coverage to the longshot legal maneuverings of the Trump campaign, even it has abandoned some of its challenges and endured a series of judicial defeats.
One America News, which has been trumpeted by the president as an alternative to Fox, went to far as to expunge from its website a routine just-the-facts wire-service story that quoted Biden asserting that his victory was secure.
Rather than covering legal developments and voting audits as impartial journalistic observers, outlets like Newsmax have all but heralded the outcome that they are hoping for: a Trump victory. “We think he’s been a great president, and we’d like to see him have a second term,” Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy said during a segment on his network on Tuesday — though, he added, “We’re also encouraging the president to begin the possibility of a transition.”
Ruddy boasted that Newsmax is “one of the only major networks not to call the election,” telling viewers that the network is waiting for states to certify the election results and “see what the final result is.”
His sentiments echoed those of his on-air talent. “President-elect Joe Biden?” host Greg Kelly said. “I don’t think so. I just don’t think so. It doesn’t look right. It doesn’t sound right. It doesn’t feel right. And it’s not right.” This week, Kelly told viewers, “I really believe Donald Trump has a chance to turn this around.”
A big part of Newsmax’s programming strategy has been self-interested attacks on Fox News, from which it hopes to siphon viewers. Its personalities have attacked Fox’s non-partisan Decision Desk for calling Arizona for Biden early — the first election-night blow for Trump — and for showing an ”unwillingness” and “lack of curiosity, to get to the bottom of” election-fraud allegations.
That claim would fall flat to recent viewers of Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity or Laura Ingraham. The day after Election Day, as it began to seem likely that Biden would defeat Trump, all three of Fox’s punditry stars leaned heavily into doubts about the election. “Here’s a question that every American is going to have to answer for themselves,” Hannity told viewers. “Do you trust what happened in this election? Do you believe these election results are accurate? I have a lot of questions.” Carlson last week seized upon unverified claims that a dead person had voted in Georgia — a story he had to apologize for later when it turned out it was actually the man’s widow properly casting her own vote. Ingraham last week interviewed a silhouetted Nevada poll worker who claimed — with no evidence or verification— to have seen people in a “Biden van” tearing open envelopes that contained ballots and marking them.
And yet, the New York Post — like Fox, owned by conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch — spent barely two days boosting the president’s hopes (“No matter who wins, the polls, the pundits, the press were all wrong, wrong, wrong,” a front-page editorial chided the Thursday after the election) before pivoting that weekend to a smiling Biden splashed across the cover with the headline, “It’s Joe Time.”
More broadly, there seems to have been something of a shift in Murdoch’s media kingdom in recent days. His properties, considered reliably pro-Trump over the past four years, have drawn lines when it comes to his spurious election claims.
On Tuesday, the editorial board of Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal asked, “Where’s the evidence? Strong claims need strong proof, not rumors and innuendo on Twitter . . . . So far, there’s no good evidence of voting problems that would come close to Mr. Biden’s lead of 73,000 votes in Pennsylvania or 145,000 in Michigan.” That same night, Fox’s Carlson sadly told viewers, “the election is over.” Ingraham appeared to concede as well, striking an elegiac tone: “You might not have liked Trump’s tweets or sometimes his tone, but you’re sure as hell going to miss his American-first ethos and results.”
When a Fox opinion host, Pete Hegseth, maintained “there is no president-elect yet,” anchor Harris Faulkner pointedly noted Wednesday it was indeed the right title to use for Biden because “that’s what we have always done.” And that morning, “Fox & Friends” co-host Brian Kilmeade suggested that Trump — a regular guest on the morning show, which is he known to watch regularly — should at least acknowledge the reality of his situation by coordinating with a Biden transition team: “It’s in the country’s best interest.”
And in a striking departure, Carlson on Thursday night cast doubt on the wild election-fraud claims leveled by one of the president’s attorneys, Sidney Powell. “She never sent us any evidence despite a lot of requests, polite requests, not a page,” he said. “When we kept pressing she got angry and told us to stop contacting her.”
And yet Hannity this week continued to echo baseless allegations about “election irregularities,” even as the president’s chances seem to have diminished by the day. “What the hell is happening in Georgia, and in our country?” he asked. “Why are we still finding thousands of ballots weeks after the election? Does that inspire confidence in the outcome to you? Does anybody, should anyone ever, trust this?” On Tuesday, he trumpeted the news that two Republican members of the Wayne County, Mich., board of canvassers had balked at certifying election results — and turned suspicious when they ultimately voted to certify. Hannity, deflated, pledged to find out “why the change of heart.”
And while Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo did question Powell, her Thursday night guest, on whether she had any evidence to back up florid claims of Venezuelan-run conspiracies to tamper with voting machines, the segment mostly turned into an opportunity for Powell to float these false allegations for public consumption.
Still, some observers see signs that conservative media is quietly beginning to prepare for an imminent future under a president other than Trump.
“The story has in many cases moved to talking about how awful the coming Biden presidency is going to be,” said Howard Polskin, who has tracked conservative media headlines through the Trump era at his site The Righting.
Ingraham kicked off her show this week with a segment that evoked old pre-Trump conservative gripes about liberals supposedly disrespecting Christmas (by saying “Happy Holidays,” for example, or making insufficiently seasonal coffee cups). The “Thanksgiving police” she warned, were here to ruin your holiday with their petty concerns about coronavirus. “If you had Thanksgiving plans, they want to shame you into cancelling them,” she said.
Conservative radio icon Rush Limbaugh was even deeper into throwback mode, harking back to Barack Obama’s 2010 Thanksgiving address honoring the generosity of the Native Americans towards newly arrived Pilgrims — an effort, Limbaugh warned, to get people to “assault conservative family members with the Obama agenda.”