The True Believers: Part 2
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. We're listening to part 2 of a new OTM series called The Divided Dial, hosted by Katie Thornton.
KATIE THORNTON: And I was about to introduce you to the lineup.
GORKA: The number is 833-33-GORKA but don’t call us on a cell phone that is connected to one of the big cell phone providers because they are utterly woke and hate us....
KATIE THORNTON: Sebastian Gorka, host since 2019. He was an anti-terrorism adviser to President Trump but failed to get the necessary clearance to work on national security issues. He’s been shown to have ties to a Hungarian far-right, neo-Nazi group that is on a U.S. Department of State watch list. And there’s Charlie Kirk…
CHARLIE KIRK : Let's talk about this war on white people. That's a thought crime, Douglas.
CHARLIE KIRK: You're not allowed to say that…You're obviously welcome to say it here. We agree.
KATIE THORNTON: Kirk runs the ultra-conservative, anti-higher-ed youth organization Turning Point USA. Boyce brought him on in mid-2020. Along with longstanding Salem hosts Dennis Prager, Hugh Hewitt, and Mike Gallagher, these new voices make up the core of Salem’s national talent. A sort of B-list of right-wing celebrities who don’t get reported on in the same way that your Alex Joneses or your Tucker Carlsons do.
And by the time the 2020 election season came around, listeners across the country heard a unified message from Donald Trump and Salem talkers alike.
DONALD TRUMP: This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen... All run by Democrats... It’s a rigged election.
CHARLIE KIRK: If we lose, if the President loses, they will come for us all. They will come for your children. They will come for your schools. They will come in every fashion. And they won't stop.
KATIE THORNTON: And on January 4th, 2021, Salem host Charlie Kirk used his radio show to lay out a roadmap to a second Trump term.
CHARLIE KIRK: Believe it or not there is a almost guaranteed way that Donald Trump serves four more years. ...Mike Pence says "based on the power and the authority granted to me as President of the United States Senate, and my oath to the Constitution of the United States, I refuse to certify at this very moment the election results of Arizona, Nevada, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan.
KATIE THORNTON: This is not true. But it was an idea that was making the rounds in right-wing circles. Two days later that’s exactly what the crowds on the steps of the Capitol were calling for...complete with a hangman's noose, and chants to string up the Vice President.
SEBASTIAN GORKA: Those who elect our representatives and our senators have had enough and they are in their house. Should I feel guilty for feeling good?!
KATIE THORNTON: As protesters poured into the rotunda, Salem host Sebastian Gorka celebrated live on air.
SEBASTIAN GORKA: As we saw a protester just moments ago on television say to the shock and the chagrin of Fox News. That's our house. It's not the Senator’s! It's not Nancy Pelosi's! It's not Chuck Schumer's! God willing it will continue to be peaceful, but a message has been sent.
KATIE THORNTON: It’s hard to remember now, but right after January 6th, there was a brief moment of almost unity. Even many in the broader right-wing media ecosystem, like hosts on Fox News, said that maybe the falsehoods about the election had gone too far.
JEANINE PIRRO: I want to be clear. The actions at the United States Capitol three days ago were deplorable, reprehensible, outright criminal. And I don’t care whether those who did it think the election was stolen.
KATIE THORNTON: Though no one from the company confirmed it, there were reports that Cumulus, one of the biggest radio chains in the country, with tons of conservative talkers, sent a memo to their hosts.
It said, the election is over. If you suggest otherwise, you can expect to be fired. People in the radio world speculated that Cumulus was worried about losing advertisers.
Because in commercial radio, the threat of an ad boycott looms large. But Salem is different. Nearly half of their radio income comes from paid programming — mostly conservative Christian ministries that run on their Christian talk stations. And the overwhelming majority of those programs — more than 95% — come back year after year, even as prices go up. So Salem doesn’t have to be so concerned with placating advertisers.
At Salem, there was no January 6th memo. The lies about the stolen election continued. And soon, the rest of the right-wing media ecosystem caught up with Salem followed closely by a large contingent of the Republican party. This midterm season, well over half of all Americans had a 2020 election denier on their ballot. And while they didn’t all perform as well as many on the right hoped, their influence is not going away. At least 170 of those candidates were elected to state and national offices. Some of those winners will be in charge of future elections.
Throughout their campaigns, Some of those candidates had been cited a key piece of “evidence” for their claims about the stolen election; evidence brought to the public… by Salem Media.
DINESH D’SOUZA: We must now face the chilling reality. The Democrats conceived the heist, they funded it, they organized it. Then they carried it out.
KATIE THORNTON: In May of this year, Salem released a film hosted by far-right activist Dinesh D’Souza.
DINESH D’SOUZA: They rigged and stole the 2020 presidential election. We cannot be okay with this. We cannot simply move on.
KATIE THORNTON: You remember D’Souza. He was convicted of felony campaign finance fraud for making campaign contributions in other people’s names — but was pardoned by Trump. The film, 2,000 Mules, claims to “prove'' election fraud in 2020. It relies on cell phone geotracking data that they say identifies over 2,000 people in five key states who made multiple trips to unnamed “nonprofits” which were “stash houses” for fraudulent ballots. Then, allegedly, those mules went to drop boxes.
DINESH D’SOUZA: What you are seeing is a crime. These are fraudulent votes.
KATIE THORNTON: The movie is rife with shortcomings and outright falsehoods. For one, they repeatedly say that they have video footage of the same individuals going to multiple drop boxes to drop off fistfuls of ballots…
TRUTH THE VOTE: This particular individual we have in a number of different locations and a number of different times, he's actually a mule.
KATIE THORNTON: …but they never show it. Tech experts have said that our phone’s geotracking is not precise enough to tell if someone went up to a drop box, or just walked by one. They are in highly trafficked areas. State Bureaus of Investigation actually did look into some of the cases the film showed — and they found no wrongdoing.
Regardless, the film was a hit. Trump himself held an early screening at Mar-a-Lago, where the likes of Marjorie Taylor Greene, Rudy Giuliani, and Kenosha, Wisconsin shooter Kyle Rittenhouse all came to watch. 2,00 Mules has a 100% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes! In a moment when election fraud conspiracies had finally broken through to the national stage, 2,000 Mules gave supposed “evidence.” And it applauds those who stood behind the lie.
DINESH D’SOUZA: And therefore, does it follow that the people who suspected fraud, even though they didn't have the proof, their suspicion was right.
TRUTH THE VOTE: Absolutely. Their instincts were right.
KATIE THORNTON: According to Salem, the film grossed $10 million in under two weeks. Nearly two months after it came out, when I made an account with “Truth Social,” Trump’s alternative to Twitter, Dinesh D’Souza was second only to Trump in my list of recommended accounts to follow.
Last year, Salem launched their own podcast network, and the Dinesh D’Souza Podcast was their debut feature. They’ve added over a dozen daily conservative podcasts since then — often featuring young hosts who vie for a new generation of listeners. And now every Salem radio host has a Salem podcast, too.
Those radio hosts can also be found as talking heads on the company’s new 24/7 internet television station, Salem News Channel, which they launched this summer. Salem also has their own movie streaming service and production house. A rapidly growing conservative Christian influencer network, a series of Christian websites like Christianity.com and “Godtube,” and a long running conservative publishing house called Regnery. ” They even run a service that sells sermons to pastors. And for over a decade they’ve been quietly purchasing some of the biggest conservative “news” sites: Townhall, Hot Air, and Red State.
But for all of Salem’s varied media strategies, broadcast radio is still central to their operations. According to Nielsen, broadcast radio has a higher reach than television. Pew research says it's nearly neck and neck with social media for how Americans get their news.
Surveys repeatedly show that Americans trust radio more than any other medium.
And that's why we'll be focusing our investigation in the coming episodes of this podcast series — on the airwaves.
NICOLE HEMMER: Radio is a sort of perfect medium for the spread of misinformation...
This is Nicole Hemmer. She’s a historian and scholar of conservative media. We’re going to be hearing a lot from her throughout this series.
NICOLE HEMMER: You have to listen to it live in order to capture what's being said. And that gives a lot more freedom to people who are on radio to say things that aren't true.
PHIL BOYCE: Remember with social media, anything you say can and will be used against you.
KATIE THORNTON: Salem VP, Phil Boyce.
PHIL BOYCE: It's almost better to say it on the air than to post it in a Tweet because you post it in a Tweet, it's out there for the end of time. You say it on the air, maybe they didn't hear it.
KATIE THORNTON: A single talk radio host goes on the air for hours every day. That’s a lot harder to cull through than 280-character tweets. Radio is hard to parse, hard to clip, hard to share… and not particularly glamorous to report on. It’s seen as the cast-aside, no-big-deal medium only us “flyovers” in middle America have to contend with.
NICOLE HEMMER: So not only is it largely unseen and understudied, but it's not taken seriously, even though it has very serious consequences for culture and politics in the United States. And so it just operates out of sight... Nobody pays any attention. And it has so much power.
KATIE THORNTON: Next time on The Divided Dial… We dive into Salem’s history… and find out that the company has deep ties to the Republican party. And thanks to their involvement with a secretive group of Evangelical and conservative leaders, they are tightly networked with right wing political strategists, pollsters, and big donors.
ANNE NELSON: It began when these... brothers in law, acquired a radio station in Bakersfield, California...
ADAM PIORE: I was looking at major campaign donors... for George Bush, I kept seeing Salem communications.
PASSION OF THE CHRIST PROTESTER: Anybody who mocks the crucifixion… will burn in hell.
PAUL WEYRICH: How many of our Christians have what I call the Gogo Syndrome, good government. They want everybody to vote. I don't want everybody to vote. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections, quite candidly, goes up as the voting populace goes down.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The Divided Dial is a five part podcast series hosted by Katie Thornton and edited by OTMs executive producer Katya Rogers. Sound Design and Original Music is by Jarrett Paul Production Help and Max Balton and Fact Checking by Tom Collagen. The series technical director is OTMs, Jennifer Munson. The series received support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism. Go to the On the Media podcast, feed wherever you listen to podcasts and make sure you don't miss any of the upcoming episodes.