Trumped And Dumped
Newsmax teams up with Donald Trump to host a GOP presidential debate, only to get burned when most candidates refuse to take part and Trump bails out.
By Terry Krepel
Over the past year, Newsmax has had a strangely close relationship with Donald Trump.
As ConWebWatch has detailed, Newsmax's Ronald Kessler -- whose ties to Trump date back more than a decade, when Kessler fawningly portrayed Trump in his book on the Palm Beach social scene -- was the top cheerleader for Newsmax's promotion of Trump's presidential ambitions, even paving the way for Trump to speak at a major conservative gathering. Newsmax helped Kessler indulge Trump's birtherism and other anti-Obama rantings, failing to provide even the most cursory fact-check. Newsmax CEO Christopher Ruddy exhibited no shame about the relationship, declaring, "Trump realizes the great potential of Newsmax and has been using it very adroitly. We're well aware he's using it, happy he's using it."
But when President Obama's release of his long-form birth certificate torpedoed Trump's main talking point and collapsed the Trump boomlet. Trump ultimately decided not to jump in the race -- contradicting what Kessler had claimed would happen.
In April Kessler wrote, citing "sources close to the real estate titan,' that during the finale of the Trump's TV show "Celebrity Apprentice," Trump "plans to say that he will be holding a press conference in the next few days at Trump Towers in New York," at which "Trump will be announcing his candidacy for the presidency." But National Journal pointed out that the season finale of "Celebrity Apprentice" because the episode was taped months earlier. (Newsmax tried to salvage things by citing an unnamed "Trump spokesman" claiming that a statement of some kind timed to the season finale was still “not inconceivable.” In the end, Trump issued his statement stating that he would not run six days before the finale. A presumably heartbroken Trump, in a post-announcement column, ignored his faulty reporting and declared, "Candidate or not, Trump is likely to remain a force in Republican politics."
Newsmax apparently decided that it would make that happen.
Newsmax declared in a Dec. 2 article: "Newsmax Media and ION Television, one of the nation’s largest broadcast networks, will collaborate to host a Republican presidential debate on Dec. 27, moderated by businessman Donald J. Trump." The "news" article reads like a press release,touting how Newsmax is "the largest online conservative news outlet in the nation" and propping up the little-watched, rerun-laden TV network Ion Television. No mention is made of Trump's birtherism, nor of Newsmax's rampant boosterism of Trump.
Newsmax ramped up its self-promotion in the run-up to the debate, creating an email list (screenshot) where people can "get special notices about this debate, be invited to online VIP events before and after the Debate and have an opportunity to participate online in the event itself!"
That was followed by a Dec. 4 article announcing that "A prestigious team of some of the top producers in network and cable television news ... which collectively has more than a century of experience in managing major network coverage of U.S. presidential debates and elections" had been assembled to produce the debate. What Newsmax didn't mention: the team -- with previous experience mostly at CNN and CBS -- are part of the dreaded "liberal media" that is supposed to be anathema to conservatives.
The head of Newsmax's team was a particularly surprising choice: Eason Jordan, the former chief news executive at CNN.
In February 2005, Newsmax published a column by Michelle Malkin attacking Jordan for "incurable anti-American pandering" for supposedly claiming that American troops have deliberately targeted and killed journalists in Iraq. Jordan denied making such a claim, but the right-wing furor over the supposed remarks led to his resignation from CNN. And in an April 2003 Newsmax column, Michael Glueck and Robert Cihak bashed Jordan for his admission that CNN had failed to report on atrocities committed by Iraq's Saddam Hussein. They wrote, "CNN and other so-called 'news' organizations have ignored the screams of children in favor of their own personal, ideological and business agendas or interests," adding, "Will Mr. Jordan be hearing these screams in his dreams for the rest of his life? He should unless he's anesthetized his own conscience."
The Media Research Center predictably howled about Newsmax's selection of Jordan to lead its debate coverage -- Scott Whitlock declared in a Dec. 5 MRC item that Jordan "accused U.S. troops in Iraq of attempting to murder reporters." He then wrote: "The question must be asked: Why are Ion, Newsmax and Donald Trump giving Jordan a platform?" Whitlock expressed no concern, however, that Newsmax and Ion were giving a right-wing birther like Trump a platform.
Despite that, things seemed to be going swimmingly, with Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum quickly signing on to take part in the debate. And ... that was it. All the other major candidate, including Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, and Rick Perry declined to participate. So Newsmax tried a combination of cajoling and shaming to encourage the others to join in.
On the cajoling end, it obtained statements from conservative groups and prominent conservatives and rolled them out in a barrage of articles:
But Newsmax seemed to hit bottom on those kinds of endorsements rather quickly. One article declared that "former Ronald Reagan aide Jeffrey Lord" backed the debate because "Trump’s record as a job creator makes him precisely the kind of person the GOP should embrace." But Lord is hardly a major figure in the conservative movement these days; in fact, his most notable accomplishment of late is getting into a semantics argument over what a lynching is, bizarrely insisting that a black man wasn't "lynched" because he was beaten to death instead of hanged.
Matt Towery similarly took aim at Mitt Romney's refusal to enter the debate, declaring without evidence that Romney's refusal "has sealed his fate in Florida, where the Newsmax/Trump world dominates." Really? If there's any domination of that "world" anywhere in Florida, it's pretty much limited to their mutual Palm Beach base.
Dick Morris weighed in as well; a Dec. 8 article claimed that "those who skip the debate are misjudging the broad reach such a debate would have." The article didn't mention Morris' extensive business relationship with Newsmax, which includes management of Morris' email list and his shilling for Newsmax's financial products.
Newsmax also went the Trump-fluffing route -- a Dec. 4 "Insider Report" touted how "Donald Trump’s organization is the largest privately held company in the New York metropolitan area," while a Dec. 5 article by David A. Patten and Kathleen Walter featured an interview with Trump, who just happened to have a new book out.
Another Dec. 5 article contains a statement by Trump, which Newsmax has headlined "Trump: I’m Not Running for President, I’m Backing GOP Candidate." But that's not what he actually says:
Let me be clear: I do not want to run as a third party candidate.
Trump's declaration that he "wants" to endorse a Republican and "do[es] not want" to run as a third-party candidate are not definitive statements, as the Newsmax headline portrays them. It's entirely possible that he will not endorse a Republican and run as a third-party candidate, and this statement does not preclude him from doing so.
A few days later, though, Trump was musing about that very thing. More on that later.
Newsmax even seemed to be altering its website content to conform to the debate -- something it has experience doing. Newsmax published a Dec. 6 column by Kessler quoting his longtime buddy, former American Conservative Union president and current National Rifle Association president David Keene, touting Mitt Romney's ability to beat Newt Gingrich. But sometime shortly thereafter, Kessler's column had mysteriously disappeared.
It disappeared quick enough that no copy of it currently exists in Google cache. The only place we could find a remnant of it is at Free Republic, which notes only the first two paragraphs:
Ex-CPAC Head Keene: Mitt Will Beat Newt
Why did Kessler's article disappear? After all, it's no secret that both Kessler and Keene are big fans of Romney -- in June, Kessler quoted Keene declaring Romney to be the likely GOP candidate, and in September, Kessler quoted Keene calling Rick Perry "a riskier presidential candidate" than Romney. The only apparent difference is that Romney turned down Newsmax's debate.
Kessler quickly got back on message with the company agenda -- the next day, he issued a column lavishing fawning praise on Trump's new book, asserting that Trump's earlier (Kessler-promoted) flirtation with the presidency was not about seeking publicity but about attacking Obama. Of course, the latter does not disprove the former.
Meanwhile, as all this Trump-fluffing was going on, Trump was starting to publicly express reservations about the debate. Trump said on Don Imus' Dec. 8 radio show that the debate may not go forward because only two candidates have committed to appearing at it. Trump also said, "They really want me to drop my status as a potential person to run as an independent, and, honestly, I don't think I'm going to do that. I'm not going to drop it."
Newsmax apparently missed that interview, because an article published a few hours later optimistically asserts, "Newsmax and Trump have said they will forge ahead with the debate." No direct quote to that effect from either Trump or Newsmax is included in the article, though it does include a list of "major conservative groups and leaders" who have "endorsed the debate vocally."
Newsmax slipped further into denial -- and Trump-fluffing -- with a Dec. 10 article fawningly described a signing Trump did for his new book in Florida. A Dec. 11 article rehashed a British newspaper article on Trump, in which he claimed that "millions of Americans listen to me and respect me." This article actually hedges a bit on the debate, stating that Trump "also is slated to moderate The Newsmax ION Television 2012 Presidential Debate Dec. 27 in Des Moines, Iowa." That's a less-than-definitive assertion. Neither article, though, addressed what Trump said on Imus' show.
The denial continued in an article published late on Nov. 11, optimistically headlined "Newsmax ION TV Debate With Trump: It's a Go." The article declared: "Newsmax Media and ION Television are moving forward with The Newsmax ION Television 2012 Presidential Debate moderated by Donald Trump, a great American success story." Again, there was no mention of Trump's wavering.
Newsmax followed that up with two more articles -- one highlighting Fox News' Bill O'Reilly backpedaling on his claim that the debate would be canceled, and the other touting how Amazon.com has sold out of Trump's book, a claim that is actually unattributed but seems to be coming from Trump's publisher, since he's the only person quoted in the article. Newsmax CEO Christopher Ruddy contributed a column in which he asserted that Gingrich -- one of the two candidates who committed to the debate -- has "always been a conservative."
Newsmax began Dec. 13 the way it had been: in denial and Trump-fluffing. An article by Margaret Menge and John Bachman featured an "exclusive interview" with Trump at yet another signing appearance for his book -- the second such article Newsmax had done in the past three days -- and no mention of Trump's debate qualms.
A couple hours after that fawning article was posted, however, Trump announced he was withdrawing as debate moderator.
Newsmax's article on Trump's withdrawal features an open-ended comment from Newsmax editorial director Steve Coz:
“We are very disappointed as we believe Mr. Trump would have made a tough and fair moderator. However, we respect his view that the role may have presented a conflict of interest in light of the fact that he now wishes to keep his options open to run for the presidency himself.
This article marked the first time that Newsmax admitted that Trump wanted to keep open the option of running for president, even though it had been widely reported elsewhere.
Coz was careful not to say whether the debate would go forward without Trump as figurehead, though Trump himself was less reticent about speculating. Trump said later on Fox News that he didn't think it would go forward without him, adding, "They really wanted me to do it."
Oddly, while he was keeping silent at his own website about Newsmax's debate plans, Coz was more forthcoming with other news outlets.
Coz told CBS News, "We're full steam ahead. ... We're obviously disappointed more candidates didn't come forward... [but] what everyone is ignoring is that we have the frontrunner."
Coz told the Huffington Post's Michael Calderone: "We, Newsmax and ION Television, are actively exploring having a forum for candidates on the 27th or at a later date. ... Obviously with Trump bowing out the situation has changed."
Why isn't Coz reporting any of this at his own website? Should Newsmax be the go-to site for news about Newsmax's debate? As of this writing, the most recent article tagged "Trump Debate" on Newsmax's website is the Dec. 13 article announcing Trump's withdrawal.
Then again, Coz used to be editor of the National Enquirer, so maybe he's a little unclear about how this "news" stuff actually works.
Even after all of this, Newsmax still couldn't quit Trump. Two days after Trump pulled out of the debate, Newsmax published an article touting how "Donald Trump’s new book 'Time to Get Tough' is garnering praise from Rush Limbaugh, America's most-listened-to talk radio host."
Newsmax, theoretically, had fair warning of Trump's mercurial nature, as his earlier presidential flirtation amply demonstrated. Yet it still decided to work even closer with him to set up this ill-fated debate.
Yeah, Newsmax should have seen it coming. Now it has to deal with the fact that its attempts at trying to enhance its prestige have been undermined by spending too much time hanging around Donald Trump.