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Do the Conservative Media Think of Their Audience as an ATM Machine?

There aren't many American political movements that have turned rackets into lasting political success.
 
 
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As Republicans continue to try to make sense of their recent election losses, the finger pointing is becoming more intense.

In recent days, prominent conservatives Bill Kristol and Joe Scarborough have leveled a new allegation: Major players have allowed their pursuit of personal wealth (and ego) to take precedence over larger political goals; that elements of the conservative movement resemble a me-first, moneymaking "racket," where lining ones pockets stands out as the key objective.

The nasty "racket" accusation highlights what's happened as Republicans have handed over more and more of their branding and marketing to media personalities whose ultimate barometers of success (ratings and personal income) differ from those who run political parties (getting candidates elected to office).

In the business of media self-promotion, and particularly the carnival barker variety that powers so much of the conservative movement via Fox News and AM talk radio, it's inevitable that the goals of the "conservative entertainment complex," as writer David Frum dubbed it, would collide with the retail politics of the Republican Party. (Frum has charged the complex with having "fleeced and "exploited" its followers.)

Remember when Glenn Beck charged fans $125 to sit through the taping of his radio show? Or when he charged $500 if they wanted to attend a meet-and-greet before the show? And that was after Beck banked $32 million the previous year. More recently, conservative pundits and outlets have rushed to cash in on election spending by renting their emails lists, while Fox News' Karl Rove lightened wealthy donors' bankrolls by $300 million via his failed political groups.

It's conservatism as an ATM.

The "racket" implication also extends beyond the media world and into the Tea Party, which Fox has faithfully touted as a "grassroot" movement. That feel-good characterization was hard to square with the recentrevelation that former GOP House Majority Leader Dick Armey stepped down as chairman of FreedomWorks, an influential Tea Party non-profit group, with a staggering $8 million golden parachute. (He will reportedly be paid in $400,000 installments, annually, in "consulting fees.")

Republicans rarely begrudge millionaires for big paydays. (It's the free marketplace!) But if they think cashing in has trumped winning elections, GOP pushback is inevitable.

From Kristol [emphasis added]:

And the conservative movement--a bulwark of American strength for the last several decades--is in deep disarray. Reading about some conservative organizations and Republican campaigns these days, one is reminded of Eric Hoffer's remark, "Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket." It may be that major parts of American conservatism have become such a racket that a kind of refounding of the movement as a cause is necessary.

And MSNBC's Scarborough:

"You have a lot of people running around, saying harsh things that sell books and push ratings and lose elections," he said on Monday. "Conservatism is a racket for a lot of people to get very, very rich. With no thought of winning elections." 

Scarborough didn't mention Dick Morris by name, but it's possible the MSNBC host had the Fox News contributor him in mind when he denounced the type of conservative fraud that's "destroying the Republican Party."

As Media Matters detailed, Morris and conservative news outlet Newsmax Media operated something of a right-wing boondoggle during the recent election season. Cashing in on his television platform, Morris aggressively fundraised for a super PAC he advised, which then appeared to to funnel money back to Morris through rentals of his email list. Morris' Super PAC for America paid Newsmax roughly $1.7 million for "fundraising" in October and November. It turns out a significant portion of the super PAC's money likely went to renting Morris' own email list, which is operated by Newsmax Media.

As Rachel Maddow noted last night, while highlighting the Media Matters report, "What these financial reports seem to indicate is that donations to Dick Morris' super PAC, substantially, just end up going to Dick Morris."

That feels like a racket to me.

Meanwhile, the incessant right-wing media desire to extract donations from followers for people and organizations that don't really need it can lead to baffling disconnects.  

Last week, while cheering the news that Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) would be leaving the U.S. Senate in order to become president of the influential conservative think tank, The Heritage Foundation, Rush Limbaugh urged his listeners to support the institution and to become paying members. What Limbaugh failed to mention to his AM listeners was that The Heritage Foundation operates on an $80 million annual budget, lists assets totalingnearly $200 million, and receives generous support from of 3M, Boeing, and ExxonMobil, just to name a few, key corporate benefactors.

Indeed, the Heritage Foundation, with its gold-plated deep pockets and its big business sponsorship, has long been seen as the most prosperous think tank in all of Washington, D.C., boasting a staff of nearly 300 people. (As its new president, DeMint's annual salary will likely be in excess of $1 million.) Yet Limbaugh was urging his listeners from around the country, including those from small town America, to write checks to the Heritage Foundation so that its voice can be heard?  

And yes, according to this Washington Post report, Limbaugh has pocketed millions from the Heritage Foundation over the years, so this also feels like a racket. And there aren't many American political movements that have turned rackets to electoral success.

Eric Boehlert is is a senior fellow at Media Matters for America. He's the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush (Free Press, 2006) and Bloggers on the Bus: How the Internet Changed Politics and the Press (Free Press, 2009). He worked for five years as a senior writer for Salon.com, where he wrote extensively about media and politics.
 
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