As the competitive Maine Senate race heated up last summer, the conservative news outlet Newsmax blared a warning to its audience: Democratic moneymen were pouring cash into an effort to flip one of Republicans’ most endangered Senate seats.
“Progressive big-money donors are stepping up their crusade against centrist Sen. Susan Collins,” Newsmax senior editor David Patten wrote. “Advertising Analytics reports none of the $1.3 million spent on the Senate race so far has come from Republican sources.” Collins’ Senate campaign quickly promoted the piece on its own website.
Exactly one week later, Newsmax took steps to even the odds. The company donated $50,000 to 1820 PAC, a deep-pocketed super PAC linked to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce supporting Collins’ re-election. It was just the fifth time the company had donated directly to a federal political committee, and the first time it had done so since 2015. And it was by far Newsmax’s largest-ever donation.
Days after the donation, Patten wrote another story relaying allegations of election law violations by Collins’ Democratic opponent, Maine State House Speaker Sara Gideon. The following month, Newsmax ran a story touting Collins’ lead in the polls—and reporting on a new 1820 PAC ad supporting her.
Neither of those articles disclosed the news outlet’s donation to the group, nor has any article on the Maine Senate race in the ensuing months.
Newsmax is among the web’s most popular right-of-center news outlets, boasting about 3.7 million unique visitors in January, according to web analytics service ComScore. It also runs a cable-news channel that the company claims reaches 100 million homes.
Newsmax founder and publisher Christopher Ruddy is a friend and acquaintance of President Donald Trump, and is known to frequent the president’s Mar-a-Lago club, a short drive from the Newsmax headquarters in Boca Raton.
The company has made some high-profile hires in the Trump era, including bringing on former Fox News news executive Michael Clemente as CEO in 2018 (Clemente stepped down after about a year, but still consults for the company). Most recently, Newsmax hired former White House press secretary Sean Spicer to host a weekday news and opinion show. Its regular guests include prominent names such as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, disgraced former Fox News primetime host Bill O’Reilly, and far-right columnist Michelle Malkin.
Newsmax does not hide its conservative leanings. But its five-figure donation to 1820 PAC in August crossed a line from ideologically driven coverage of politics and current events into outright and quantifiable support for an explicit partisan outfit. It’s the most apparent illustration to date of the overt politicization of a news organization where, according to a former anchor for the outlet, executives micromanage and tailor news coverage to fit a political agenda.
"Newsmax tightly controls its on-air and website content to cater to its conservative viewing audience. Executives... are intimately involved in selecting the topics of news stories and how they are covered,” alleged Miranda Khan, a former Newsmax TV host, in a lawsuit filed last year. “Prior to joining Newsmax, [Khan] had substantial on-camera experience, particularly in the news industry,” the lawsuit added. She said she “had never experienced the level of control she experienced at Newsmax."
The lawsuit was settled before Newsmax officially responded to those allegations. Khan declined to comment on her allegations, which have not been previously reported.
Ruddy did not respond to inquiries about the allegations, or the ethical issues raised by its political contributions.
Ruddy himself is a longtime Collins supporter. “Throughout Susan Collins' 21-year career as a U.S. senator, the Maine Republican has faced criticism from both sides of the aisle, but has always come out with her head held high and her principles intact,” he wrote in a glowing opinion column in 2018.
Ruddy has also supported Collins financially ahead of her 2020 re-election fight. He has made just two federal political contributions this cycle: $2,500 to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and $5,200 to the Collins Victory Committee, a joint fundraising committee that dispersed the money to Collins’ campaign and her leadership PAC. The transfers to her campaign came in June, shortly before Newsmax chipped in to 1820 PAC.
It’s common for large media companies’ political action committees to donate to congressional candidates. But that political giving is usually spread among dozens of recipients of both parties, and generally aligns more with the business interests of parent companies such as News Corp, CBS Entertainment Group, or Disney than with the editorial positions of its news properties.
That giving is also almost uniformly done by way of the parent companies’ PACs, not by the companies themselves. Corporations can’t donate to political candidates directly, but they can set up PACs, generally funded by their employees, that can give up to $5,000 per election cycle to federal political candidates.
Corporations can also donate unlimited sums directly to super PACs. But it’s extremely rare for a media company to so heavily fund such a group set up for the express purpose of electing a single political candidate. Newsmax’s donation to 1820 PAC is all the more noteworthy due to its alignment with the political activity of Ruddy, the company’s top executive, and the company’s simultaneous promotion of Collins’ candidacy through its regular coverage of the Maine Senate race.
The contribution also came just months after Khan recounted Newsmax executives’ meddling in the company’s news coverage.
Newsmax has in the past scrutinized and been critical of political donations by journalists and media executives that could be seen as conflicts of interest. When it was revealed during the 2016 presidential campaign that ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos had donated $75,000 to the Clinton Foundation, Newsmax’s print and TV arms ran a number of stories relaying allegations of a breach of journalistic ethics. None mentioned Newsmax’s own $1-million financial pledge to the foundation.
“WikiLeaks email revelations from Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman John Podesta,” a Newsmax columnist wrote the following year, “show that not only is there a deep connection with the media—reporters, opinion writers, and news anchors—but it also reaches as high as the corporate executive suite.”