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Saturday, June 18, 2011

Money Talks on Right-Wing Radio

Will Wilkinson:

Politics' new cash nexus, by Will Wilkinson: Rush Limbaugh loves the Heritage Foundation. ... Sean Hannity is also a vocal Heritage fan. Mark Levin likes to talk up Americans for Prosperity... For his part, Glenn Beck prefers Freedomworks. If you ask these popular right-wing talkers why they promote these groups on air, they'll tell you they believe in the work they do. Also, the pay's pretty good.

In Politico, Kenneth Vogel and Lucy McCalmont report on the cozy financial relationships between conservative talk-radio stars and a number of right-leaning research and advocacy institutions. 

In search of donations and influence, the three prominent conservative groups [Heritage, Freedomworks, and AFP] 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 ... often woven seamlessly into programming in ways that do not seem like paid advertising. ...

The Heritage Foundation pays about $2 million to sponsor Limbaugh’s show and about $1.3 million to do the same with Hannity’s – and considers it money well spent. ... While the deals differ, most provide the sponsoring group a certain number of messages or so called “live-reads,” in which the host will use a script, outline or set of talking points to deliver an advertisement touting the group and encouraging listeners to visit its website or contribute to it.

Some sponsorship deals also include so-called “embedded ads” in which the sponsors’ initiatives are weaved into the content of the show... But officials with the groups stress that they sought out the hosts because they were already ideologically in sync with their causes.

... More interesting than the superficial pay-to-play aspect of this story is what it reveals about the increasing integration of the conservative economy of influence. What we're seeing is a set of once disparate pieces coming together into a powerfully unified persuasion machine. Rich and not-so-rich people give to think tanks and advocacy groups because they believe, mostly correctly, that these organizations can do more with their money to promote their political values than they can do on their own. But the influence of these organizations is limited both by their budgets and their ability to get their messages out. Conservative talk radio has proven itself an incredibly popular and powerful persuasive force. They offer Washington politics and policy shops both a huge potential donor base and a megaphone. It helps Heritage immensely to have Mr Limbaugh citing their studies on air. But the persuasive force of their message is even greater when Mr Limbaugh's listeners choose to literally "buy in" to the Heritage Foundation by becoming donors. Over time, Heritage's financial support subtly and not-so-subtly shapes Mr Limbaugh's message. He, and thus his audience, comes to think ever more like Heritage. And his audience, who become ever more personally invested in Heritage, become correspondingly more receptive to his Heritage-influenced messages. The partisan public has its independent general policy instincts, but it tends to adopt its more specific policy opinions from trusted partisan elites. Traditionally, these elite opinion-leaders have been politicians. But I think we're witnessing a process through which professional "movement" elites in Washington, DC political non-profits are actively shaping public opinion via sympathetic mass-media intermediaries. Conflict between the Republican "establishment" and the tea-party movement may well reflect this shift in the balance of elite persuasive power.

(Are analogous forces at work on the left? I imagine there are, and I would like to hear about them. But I know that world much less well.) ...

When money talks, it doesn't always know what to say. Those trusted to write the scripts wield real power. The amplification and consolidation of this power through explicit financial deals between "freedom movement" institutions and conservative talk-radio superstars is a potentially profound development in American politics. If you ask me, the progressive fixation on campaign finance is badly misguided. Money shapes the course of our democracy at least as much through the complex confluence of popular mass media, Washington's institutional ideologues, and their far-flung multitude of impressionable donors. This a tricky story to tell, and it's hard to say what, if anything, should be done about it. But this is where a lot of the action is.

I don't have much to add, so I am mostly interested in hearing your thoughts on this. My thoughts, which I haven't considered very carefully, are first that if this is actually advertising in some form, and it seems clear that it is, don't we have rules about presenting products honestly to the public? When outright lies are used to sway the public, and there's no doubt this happens, should regulators step in and take action? If a producer can't make false claims about a competitor, why do we allow it in the political context? Is it simply the difficulty of picking referees, defining truth and lies, etc.? The other thought is about anti-trust legislation (and our failure to enforce it). To what extent is this all driven by concentrated ownership of media outlets? If there was more competition in this industry, would this be less of a problem?

But as I said, I'm mostly interested in your thoughts.

    Posted by on Saturday, June 18, 2011 at 09:54 AM in Economics, Politics, Press | Permalink  Comments (23)


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