The Independent

Denial, conspiracy and double-speak: Trump-loving OAN and Newsmax’s bizarre coverage of Biden’s inauguration

Far-right TV news outlets covered President Joe Biden's inauguration – and the early exit of Donald Trump – from the position of a soothing alternative reality.

From Wednesday morning the ultra-conservative cable networks, NewsMaxTV and One America News (OAN), appeared to be creating a “safe space” for those who remain convinced by Mr Trump’s lies that the presidential election was stolen from him.

The channel’s anchors and guests repeatedly told viewers that Mr Trump lost unfairly and that the presidential transfer of power was completed with grace. At one point, the hosts of NewsMaxTV gave the strong impression that Elton John had performed an impromptu concert in Mr Trump’s honour before he flew to Florida.

“The president is getting a rocking send-off!” yelled Sean Spicer, former White House press secretary turned Newsmax presenter, into the mic from Joint Base Andrews.

Mr Spicer is infamous for his tall tales following Mr Trump’s 2017 inauguration, when he claimed that his boss’s inauguration crowd size had far outstripped President Obama’s attendees. (They did not.) 

OAN, however, went one step further. Throughout the morning the inauguration was almost entirely avoided, in favour of other foreign news stories and pre-cut features on Mr Trump's successes in office.

Though that didn’t stop them tweeting scare-mongering news stories including that Biden would focus on “domestic terror, possibly targeting Trump supporters”.

Until November, the conspiracy theory-led OAN and NewsMaxTV, tagline “Real News for Real People”, were considered fringe, Fox News-rip offs and not formidable competitors.

But when the Rupert Murdoch-owned channel admitted the Republican president’s defeat, Mr Trump pointed his followers in both of the networks' direction, as the last bastion of “truth”.

Within days NewsMaxTV's 7pm show, Greg Kelly Reports, had notched up a narrow ratings win over Fox, going from 10,000 viewers to, at one point, around one million, according to Nielsen data.

While OAN’s audiences reportedly jumped by 40 per cent, according to the network, which did not release figures. The job of news reporting on an alternative reality is not an easy one.

On Wednesday Newsmax anchors juggled the Schrödinger's cat of political stories: covering the inauguration of a new president without admitting the defeat of the outgoing one. At any one time in the programme, Mr Trump was both president and not president.  

Even the outgoing White House occupant seemed to have taken the contradiction onboard, announcing in his farewell speech: "Have a nice life. See you soon!”

At around 8.30am, Newsmax’s Wake Up America show with Rob Finnerty and co-host Rachel Rollar, included fluffing Mr Trump’s legacy; assuring voters that he didn’t lose the election, and preparing them for any future President Biden “successes” as being down to the “solid ground-work” laid by his predecessor.

Below the screen, the news ticker claimed that “conservatives fear Biden’s immigration plans”…”some schools won’t show the inauguration because of fears of violence” and “Joe Exotic not on pardon list”.

Watching footage of Mr Trump flying off on Air Force One, Mr Finnerty turned to the camera and said: “I get chills every time I see it take off or land.”

Meanwhile the ticker underneath him read: “New York Times editor mocked for DC Biden ‘chills’ comment”, in reference to journalist Lauren Wolfe who, ironically, had tweeted a similar emotional response to the new president arriving, as Finnerty had in seeing the old one leave.

Over the next couple hours, the Newsmax team on the ground in DC found new ways to talk about the inauguration that didn’t involve actually talking about it.

The arrival of President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris ahead of their swearing-in ceremony at the US Capitol, where special Covid-precautions meant no jubilant crowds and parades, was covered from the angle of an alleged bomb threat and the need for 20,000 members of the National Guard.

The alleged threat had been called into the Supreme Court hours before inauguration, the building was checked, nothing was found, and evacuation did not occur.

“We won’t see the sitting president attend the new president’s swearing in ceremony. It’s … different,” said the chirpy White House correspondent Emerald Robinson.

Referring to Mr Trump breaking from 152-years-of-history and intentionally not attending the inauguration, Ms Robinson claimed the outgoing president “didn’t look sad, he looked at peace ... rested and happy”.

And, like all networks, there was a never-ending panel of experts.

Betsy McCaughey, former lieutenant-governor of New York turned Trump economic advisor, credited him with “driving the terrorists out of the Middle East” and inventing the Covid vaccine.

Another guest was Mark Halperin, ex-political director of ABC News who was fired in 2017 following multiple sexual assault allegations.

He called Mr Trump a “tremendous personality” and said that the media “forced him into bad luck”.

Doug Wead, former adviser to President George HW Bush, added: “He’s got a great legacy, peace and prosperity, and they are spitting mad.”

But then Newsmax ran into a problem.

Mustafa Tameez, a former George HW Bush advisor, had been booked. He is now a Democratic strategist.

“Let me say it this way, so it’s very easy for everyone to get their heads round,” Mr Tameez said.

“He will be remembered in history as one of the worst presidents in the history of the United States.”

The presenter Mr Finnerty’s eyes froze.

Mr Tameez continued: “[Trump] leaves with the lowest approval rating since we started calculating approval ratings, so does the First Lady.

“We keep talking about President Trump’s accomplishments? People stormed the Capitol building whilst they were trying to certify the ballots. That is not the kind of history that anyone would want.”

Mr Finnerty moved swiftly to another guest before heading to a commercial break.

When the programme returned, Mr Tameez was no longer on screen.

As Kamala Harris was sworn in as the first female, Black and South Asian vice-president, the network pundits conceded it was a “historic moment”, before moving on to fears that she would “unravel ... four years of work”.

Later as crowds cheered for the newly-minted President Biden, he gave a stirring inaugural address which called for unity. “Let’s start afresh,” he urged the country.

The Newsmax host John Bachman paused for a long time, before finally mumbling: "…our president ... being welcomed by his family ... of course you'll notice Hunter Biden there of course."

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