In the wake of the announcement that Glenn Beck’s daily Fox News program would end, there was no shortage of mixed signals meant to obfuscate the reason for his departure. Beck himself appeared on his program that night and claimed that the show had been a burden he never wanted to bear, indicating that it was his choice to leave. Fox News CEO Roger Ailes was no less opaque, telling an AP reporter that, “Half of the headlines say he’s been canceled. The other half say he quit. We’re pretty happy with both of them.” But buried near the end of that AP report, Ailes responded to the fact that hundreds of advertisers had pulled their ads from Beck’s show, saying, “Advertisers who get weak-kneed because some idiot on a blog site writes to them and says we need to stifle speech, I get a little frustrated by that.”
Angelo Carusone is pretty certain that the “some idiot on a blog site” is referring to him, and he’s not buying any claims that this was a voluntary move on Beck’s part (I reached out to Fox News for comment but have not heard back). He’s also not surprised that Fox News would try to avoid answering the question. “Fox News is deeply concerned about a backlash from Glenn Beck’s base — I call it a ‘Becklash,'” he told me in a phone interview. “They’ve seen this at least in a very small part during the campaign, where advertisers would drop Beck but would continue to advertise on Fox News, and those advertisers were getting heat from Beck’s own fans, especially during the times when Beck would rant about advertiser boycotts. So clearly Fox News is concerned about getting a backlash from Beck’s base.”
The “campaign” he referred to was Stop Beck, a project he launched in July of 2009, around the same time of a successful push from a civil rights group called Color of Change in getting advertisers to back away from Beck. Carusone was a University of Wisconsin law student at the time and the dedication and discipline in how he approached the project was impressive: Every day he’d pick a new Beck advertiser and start a slow and steady drumbeat on Twitter and Facebook to pressure it to drop Beck. Within months he had amassed thousands of fans and followers, and many of them would flood the Facebook walls of these major companies and publish hundreds of @ replies aimed at their Twitter accounts, making it nearly impossible for the advertiser to ignore the complaints. While of course some silently withdrew their support, many of them publicly announced that they would no longer sponsor Beck on any platform. Though it’s difficult to discern how many sponsors had dropped Beck, many journalists pegged the number at over 300, and in the UK his program was running without any outside advertisers at all. It wasn’t long after Stop Beck launched that the only advertisers on the show were less reputable ones, like the Superior Gold Group, which had its assets frozen recently by a judge in California. “The week when they made the announcement [of Beck’s departure] I was just making some final touches on some data, and what the data showed was that for the few advertisers who were running on Beck who had ads running elsewhere on Fox News — the same ads from the same advertiser would get anywhere from three to eight times more money on another Fox News show. Mind you they tout how great Glenn Beck’s ratings are, and yet he’s getting grossly lower rates than any other comparable show on Fox.” It also became hard after awhile to measure how many advertisers were steering clear of Beck, since some of them were doing so preemptively. “That was in part because we were very proactive in communicating to media buying agencies in the hope they would prevent for their own client the blowback of advertising on Beck,” he said. “So instead of going after one advertiser at a time, we tried to convince a media buying agency that Beck was a toxic place to advertise.”
Carusone’s attention to the issue took its toll. When I was trying to negotiate a time to meet him for an interview, he replied in email, “I was planning on taking tomorrow off. Since July 2009, I’ve only taken 8 days off … 5 of which were for my grandfather’s funeral (not exactly a vacay).” He later admitted to me that he delayed his graduation from law school an entire month because he didn’t have a laptop and so needed to be able to use the school’s library computers to continue the Stop Beck effort.
But his work paid off when it caught the eye of employees from Media Matters for America. The liberal watchdog group hired him on in December to not only continue his Stop Beck efforts, but to work on campaigns against Fox News as a whole. With the group’s staff of 90, Carusone suddenly had many more resources at his disposal. While the broader campaign may involve more activism with the news outlet’s advertisers, Media Matters will target other components of the network’s infrastructure, including educating consumers about how Fox News leverages its other News Corp television properties when negotiating its cable subscription fees, a tactic that affects people who don’t even watch Fox News.
But what of Carusone’s focus on Beck? While the pundit’s daily news show may be gone, he still has a widely listened-to radio show, bestselling books, regular speaking gigs, a growing web presence, and references to future Fox News collaborations. He responded by pointing out that many of the advertisers who backed away from the television show announced they’d stay away from all Beck platforms. “For example, his online platforms — most notably The Blaze, where he hired Betsy Morgan, who is the former Huffington Post CEO; she told the New York Times that they had difficulty selling advertisements for his online holdings. It’s because we were able to garner so many committments from so many companies to not sponsor any of Glenn Beck’s platforms.” But he also argued that the television show was the strongest chink in Beck’s armor. “Beck himself has stated on several occasions that of all his media outlets — whether it’s his radio show, whether it’s his book publications, his live events, his internet holdings — the most important part of his enterprise is the chalkboard. He himself has acknowledged that, and Glenn Beck has lost his chalkboard.”
But aside from Beck’s departure from television, Carusone has seen what he considers other positive signs that the media landscape is changing.
“I stand very encourged by one thing,” he said. “And that’s that the [radio] stations that have been dropping Beck … are replacing him with local conservative talkers. That makes me very happy, because instead of having these monolithic voices — born of deregulation — like Limbaugh and Beck imposed on their communities by these huge media consolidated radio chains– instead you have local talkers now who are finally getting a chance. This is the way it used to be, but they’re finally getting to re-emerge, and as a consequence Beck’s kind is being underminded. And what I like about local talk radio is that even though they’re conservative, at least they’re responsive to the local community. At least there can be diverse voices. If you get six local talkers in the place of Glenn Beck then you have six different ideas and six different takes, and that matters. It really does.”
Copyright 2011 The Moderate Voice