Pay for Play controversies pop up on the right with some regularity. The idea is, companies or interest groups pony up a big check, and in return, they can buy (or at least, lease) the credibility of like-minded media figures. Just last week, we heard about a “RedState Endorsement Program,” in which clients could purchase a “video endorsement” from Erick Erickson (the program was quickly scrapped).
This new Politico report may not be quite in the same league when it comes to conservative media corruption, but it’s at least in the ballpark.
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 hear 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.
If you’ve ever listened to talk radio, you know it’s standard practice for advertisers to pay hosts to read commercials on the air. Clients are, in effect, paying for the host’s voice, hoping that listeners will be more likely to listen to it. It’s clear, however, that the comments aren’t part of the regular on-air programming, but rather, just an ad.
But what the Politico article is describing is something different. Far-right groups pay sponsorship fees, and in turn, the nation’s most prominent right-wing hosts tout, echo, and even defend the groups’ work, without always letting listeners know about the financial support.
And what of the left? The report added, “The increased willingness of non-profits to write big checks for such radio endorsements … seems to be a primarily, if not entirely, a conservative phenomenon.”