“Welcome to the fairest show on television.”
That’s how host Leland Vittert opens each episode of On Balance, a nightly opinion gabfest on upstart cable news outlet NewsNation. Incredibly, he doesn’t mean “fairest” in the Snow White sense. Despite the show looking virtually identical to every other such show you’ve ever seen, On Balance has a more valid claim to that title than the kind of fairest the host intends.
If an emphasis on fairness and balance brings to mind Fox News, which paradoxically billed itself as “Fair and Balanced” for its first 20 years, that’s not by accident. Vittert worked at Fox News until 2021, and from watching his show, one might still think he does. But it’s not just one right-leaning cable personality who brings to mind that association. Nor is it the many other Hannityville refugees, from former Trump aide and Fox News exec Bill Shine to former top Fox News producers and PR execs, who’ve joined up.
NewsNation may desperately want to be known as “America’s source of fact-based unbiased news for all America,” as they put it, but after I tuned in for an entire week, the network struck me as more of a Yassified Fox News—with all unseemly biases artificially buffed and ironed into a centrist façade.
NewsNation was conceived as a corrective to the self-righteous editorializing of MSNBC, the ambient vapidity of CNN, and the mask-off MAGA exuberance of Fox News. It began in September 2020 as a three-hour nightly newscast on the cable channel WGN America, launching with a feather-soft Trump interview, wherein the then-president asserted, “The press is fake, they don’t write the truth,” without any pushback from anchor Joe Donlon. The following spring, WGN’s owner, the media conglomerate Nexstar, rebranded the whole channel as NewsNation and began building out its schedule. Several early hires promptly quit, after finding it a less neutral news hub than advertised.
In the nearly two years since, the network has been best known for enticing Chris Cuomo into the fold, beating MSNBC and Fox News last Christmas, playing will-they-won’t-they career rehab footsie with disgraced Fox News star Bill O’Reilly, and going all-in on laughably credulous coverage of aliens this past summer.
My NewsNation week started immediately after August’s Republican presidential primary debate. At first, I assumed the prevalence of GOP guests was merely pegged to post-debate coverage, during which Mike Pence’s former chief of staff claimed Pence won the debate, a Nikki Haley supporter in Congress claimed Haley did, and you can probably guess who a Ron DeSantis surrogate thought triumphed. The roster of guests in the days that followed, however, formed a rainbow of almost exclusively red hues; a who’s who of conservative voices such as Fox News retreads Erick Erickson and John Bolton, along with an array of spineless spinmeisters from the Trump administration, like Sean Spicer and Hogan Gidley.
Beyond the many GOP guests, the spectral spirit of Alan Colmes looms ineffectually large over the network’s wonky liberal offerings. In a typical segment, Morning in America host Marni Hughes welcomes strategists from both sides to discuss Donald Trump’s glowering mugshot. Hughes asks the GOP strategist his opinion on why Fulton County D.A. Fani Willis insisted Trump take a mugshot, which prompts the strategist into a nearly two-minute tirade of MAGA talking points. When Hughes finally interrupts him, it’s not to push back on any falsehoods or mischaracterizations—that first Trump interview on NewsNation apparently having crystallized “zero pushback” into house style guidelines.
“At least Fox News has the guts to live its partisanship out loud while NewsNation cloaks theirs in the jazz notes of what isn’t being said.”
Instead, she turns to the Dem strategist to ask whether he agrees that Trump is the victim of a double standard, given that recent NewsNation guest Alan Dershowitz—whom, Hughes stresses, did not vote for Trump—thinks Al Gore reacted after the 2000 election pretty much the same way as Trump did after 2020. The Dem strategist offers a cogent 40-second rebuttal before Hughes throws it back to the GOP stooge for a long rant on Hilary Clinton’s emails and similarly relevant topics. End of segment.
It’s as if the host, the GOP strategist, and Alan Dershowitz for some reason, are all on the same side, with the Dem strategist on hand just to play devil’s advocate.
Left-leaning voices are heard on NewsNation rarely, briefly, and cursorily—as if to tick a box. Even the token lib in two episodes of Dan Abrams Live during the week I tuned in turns out to have been a long-time Fox News political analyst who once ghost-wrote a book for Chris Christie. But Dershowitz just might be the platonic ideal for a guest on this network, since he’s someone who fiercely touts his independence but whose positions coincidentally always seem to line up with Republicans. By dint of having legally represented but supposedly not voted for Trump, he’s presented as an arbiter of both-sides objectivity. So when host Adrienne Bankert lets Dershowitz call Fani Willis a “liar” several times in the span of one minute without challenging him on it, viewers are meant to think, “Wow, even a lawyer who famously doesn’t support Trump said that!”
NewsNation is a both-sides news organization only in that its coverage is aimed at both Never Trumpers and Maybe Trumpers—Republicans who find the former president a tad too gauche, but still preferable to Joe Biden. The fact that the country is currently in shambles thanks to Biden’s leadership is a narrative that runs unopposed throughout the week. Contempt for the president oozes out of practically all NewsNation programming. Even when the hosts aren’t directly contributing to that atmosphere, it’s the air they’re breathing in. One segment that should be about how conservatives rallied around a low-resolution video to falsely claim Biden conked out at a Maui memorial service instead treats the topic as an ongoing question—even after also airing the high-res version that debunks it. (Four days later, Vittert would go on to outright state as a fact that Biden had been sleeping during the service.)
More alarming than the active hostility toward Biden, however, is the way a supposedly objective NewsNation covers Trump—in a stakes-free vacuum. The hosts and most of their guests discuss the former president almost exclusively in horse-race terms. “I’m opposed to Trump because he can’t win and I want winners,” Chris Sununu says in a par-for-the-course segment about the primary. NewsNation treats Trump’s indictments like potential baggage; as though he stood accused of mild tax evasion decades ago, rather than recently plotting to overturn an election, obstructing justice, mishandling nuclear secrets, and dozens of other extremely serious charges. Everyone on-air seems to regard the GOP’s continued love affair with him as a questionable quirk, not an unmistakable sign of rot from within the party.
Networks like MSNBC and CNN may get too bogged down in the melodrama of Trump’s alleged criminal activity, but to avoid acknowledging the gravity of these charges—and to provide friendly cover for alternative facts about some of the dead-to-rights evidence supporting them—is a massive overcorrection. It’s not unbiased; it’s untethered to reality.
Maintaining a performance of objectivity in such violently lopsided times requires a lot of willful ignorance and false equivalence. Sometimes the NewsNation hosts seem to go out of their way to avoid saying anything bad about Republicans, as if doing so would put them in danger of being mistaken for Rachel Maddow. One segment this particular week is about what can be done to protect judges, which I assume going in is a response to all the Trump supporters making threats against the jurists involved with his cases. Instead, the segment is focused on the great threat SCOTUS Justices live under in the wake of the Dobbs decision, citing the very-scary vigil outside of Brett Kavanaugh’s house… back in May 2022.
This segment ignores, and even provides a counter-narrative to, a pattern that speaks to the looming threat of political violence right-wingers are increasingly advocating. It’s a succinct distillation of what a news network has to do in 2023 in order to cosplay neutrality.
At least Fox News has the guts to live its partisanship out loud while NewsNation cloaks theirs in the jazz notes of what isn’t being said. Sometimes the two networks are indistinguishable, though. The grossest thing Fox News host Jesse Watters did during the week is suggest that Trump’s mugshot raised his popularity with Black people, using his garbage man’s supposed testimonial as evidence. NewsNation, meanwhile, brought on a Black former inmate released by Trump’s First Step Act to talk about the former president’s alleged newfound street cred.
“He’s being pursued and quite frankly persecuted by the same criminal justice system that many of us have been victimized by, and that makes him relatable,” says the guest.
The host, as is standard procedure, does not push back in the slightest on the narrative that Trump is being persecuted, let alone that Black people feel seen because of it.
It’s the kind of thing one might call biased, had it not happened during the fairest show on television.