Politico Explores Talk Radio’s Pay-For-Play Practices

Are deals for Limbaugh, Beck a harbinger?

Politico reporters Ken Vogel and Lucy McCalmont had an interesting, well-reported story Wednesday about the inner workings of what’s been called the “right-wing marketplace.” Their lede:

If you’re a regular listener of Glenn Beck’s radio show and you wanted to contribute to a political group that would advance the populist conservative ideals he touts on his show, you’d have plenty of reason to think that FreedomWorks was your best investment.

But if you’re a fan of Mark Levin’s radio show, you’d have just as much cause to believe that Americans for Prosperity, a FreedomWorks rival, was the most effective conservative advocacy group. And, if Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity are who you listen to, you’d be hearing a steady stream of entreaties to support the important work of the Heritage Foundation.

That’s not coincidence. In search of donations and influence, the three prominent conservative groups are paying hefty sponsorship fees to the popular talk show hosts. Those fees buy them a variety of promotional tie-ins, as well as regular on-air plugs - praising or sometimes defending the groups, while urging listeners to donate - often woven seamlessly into programming in ways that do not seem like paid advertising.

That interweaving, the story notes, can take the form of the hosts’ defending the credibility of their sponsors—such as Limbaugh vouching for Heritage’s conservative bona fides despite the think tank’s former support for an individual health insurance mandate. Alternately:

Some sponsorship deals also include so-called “embedded ads” in which the sponsors’ initiatives are weaved into the content of the show, say sources familiar with the arrangements, while the hosts have been known to feature officials from their sponsoring groups on their shows, though the sources say that’s not typically part of the arrangements.

And the sponsors seem to be getting their money’s worth: Heritage tells Politico that its connections with Limbaugh and Hannity have yielded 40,000 new memberships, while FreedomWorks attributes a big spike in Web traffic to its sponsorship of Beck’s show.

This is not entirely shocking, but it’s interesting stuff. As for What It All Means-well, that may depend on whether your interpretive frame is the conservative political world or the broader mediasphere.

In a post on Greg Sargent’s “Plum Line” blog, Jonathan Bernstein takes the former tack, writing:

What’s going on here that there’s simply a lot of money to be made in the relatively small but amazingly lucrative market niche of catering to enthusiastic movement conservatives (what my brother David S. Bernstein calls the conservative marketplace). Normal political incentives are still important in determining how politicians act — Hill Republicans move to the right because they’re terrified that they will be the next Bob Bennett, the Utah Senator who was defeated for renomination by obscure Tea Party candidate, now Senator, Mike Lee. But the fact that there’s easy money to be had by being a famous (or perhaps notorious) conservative adds a whole other set of incentives to act extreme.

In short: In today’s conservative marketplace, crazy equals money.

One consequence, Bernstein writes, is the creation of “an incentive structure that is at times very different from the usual reelection motive”—which, though he doesn’t quite come out and say it, may mean this well-funded partisan infrastructure sometimes undermines the GOP’s electoral prospects.

The broader media angle, meanwhile, is touched on by estranged conservative David Frum, who in a column for The Week asks why such practices—which would be verboten at broadcast networks and major newspapers—are accepted within right-wing ranks. His final theory speculates that the situation Politico documents is the start of a broader trend:

3) Conservative media outlets are harbingers of an emerging American media culture defined by the collapse of traditional revenue sources. In this new world, revenue will be scarcer, competition for revenue more ferocious —and standards will be everywhere pushed downward by competitive pressure.

If this third theory is right, the media obsession with “objectivity” and “ethics” was a by-product of the short interval in which media companies enjoyed local monopolies and collected abundant revenues. The new technology of the 21st century is thrusting our media culture back toward the standards of the 19th century, when media and journalists candidly advocated the powerful interests that owned or employed them.

How persuasive is this? It’s certainly the case that mainstream outlets, like conservative talk show hosts, are exploring new revenue opportunities, and in some instances that exploration has come into conflict with what are understood to be ethical practices. (“Salongate” at The Washington Post, for example.) And it’s true that the rise of objectivity is often explained in economic terms, as a stance that allowed American publishers or broadcasters to sell their product to a politically diverse audience.

But as the sociologist Michael Schudson has argued, however, the roots of objectivity in American journalism can be understood differently: as a norm adopted and enforced by reporters and editors seeking to establish their occupation’s credentials as a profession.

The merits of that norm—and how well the press has adhered to it—are of course much debated. But for the present discussion, what matters is that it has never much applied to talk radio of any variety. The conservative blogger and talk show host Ed Morrissey, mocking the Politico story, argues that the many of the practices Vogel and McCalmont describe are standard fare for talk radio.

He’s correct, and in fact the Politico piece acknowledges as much. But that’s hardly a robust defense. And all it does is bring the issue back to a variation on Frum’s original question: not whether the revenue-generating tactics of conservative talk radio will spread to other media, but why conservatives built their media infrastructure around talk radio in the first place.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx. Tags: , , , , ,