The Spectacle Blog

David Frum, Politico: Trash Talk Radio for Cash?

By on 6.16.11 | 8:00AM

Not since I watched Captain Midnight selling Ovaltine back there in the 1950s -- blessedly preserved for eternity on YouTube (who knew??) -- have I been so shocked. Shocked!

Oh the agony of having to learn as a child that Captain Midnight -- Captain Midnight!!! -- was getting paid to sell Ovaltine! I tell you…trauma city. The playpen was a mess for weeks!

Now -- hold on to your playpen, conservative kiddies.

Yesterday Politico ran a story accusing conservative talk radio hosts Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, and Glenn Beck of selling endorsements of conservative organizations. The groups in question are the Ovaltine of conservative adulthood: The Heritage Foundation, Americans for Prosperity, and Freedom Works.

David Frum piled on, writing this up for The Week with this headline:

"The conservative media's pay-for-play deals:
Want better coverage on talk radio? Buy it"

Pay for play deals?

Apparently Mr. Frum, who grew up in Canada, is not familiar with Captain Midnight and Ovaltine. I have no idea where Politico's Kenneth Vogel, who wrote the breathless piece in Politico, grew up. Mars? Outer Madeupscandalia?

No idea. But I can only be relieved Captain Midnight, now rocketing through heaven I'm sure, was never found out to be purveying Ovaltine in uniform right there on the old black and white Zenith. One can only imagine what special hell would be facing him today as assorted Frums and Vogels summoned up fevered images of pay-to-drink deals for some save-the-children prosecutor somewhere.

What I do know is that the conservative talk radio hosts -- the Captain Midnights of our day -- work right out there in the open every hour of their work day in a commercial enterprise. Hello? NPR this is not.

Every one of these people work for broadcasting companies. All of them. Companies that earn money by selling advertising. Their sponsors -- whether it's the Heritage Foundation or any other sponsor -- are paying for direct advertising. In the case of the groups named they are targeting audiences for membership drives, this or that event etc. etc. etc. This is called capitalism, and the product being sold is conservative activism. The Ovaltine of the 21st century. And… hard to believe, I know… the idea is to advertise a conservative think tank or group to a conservative audience just like Captain Midnight was paid to wear his uniform while selling Ovaltine to kids.

What I do know is that Mr. Frum and Mr. Vogel seem to think the conservatives in these audiences are too stupid to understand as adults something we learned from Captain Midnight or, in one of a zillion examples growing up in American culture, the James Bond movie of your choice being but one example. As in this one, Tomorrow Never Dies, starring Pierce Brosnan and a BMW. Hint: yes, the BMW got something for playing itself. That would be, at a minimum, millions of dollars in publicity and maybe some good bucks and a date with a hot red Beemer.

Does anyone outside of actor Brosnan know whether he actually drives a BMW? No idea. Did the BMW have an agent and script approval? No idea. Is the BMW being advertised in the "editorial flow" -- make that "creative flow" -- of the film? Hello? Of course. Were Bond fans too stupid to understand this? Ahhhhhhhhhh….no.

The entire universe knows that Rush Limbaugh and his colleagues are, no kidding, really conservatives. The chances that, say, Sean Hannity and Mark Levin don't believe in the principles they advertise for the Heritage Foundation and the others? Just a wild guess: zero.

Which is another way of saying that to try and say these conservative hosts have done anything remotely unethical, immoral, or illegal with these ads is untrue to the point of being bizarre. The accusation borders on the morally dishonest. And their audiences are nowhere close to being as stupid as Messrs. Frum and Nobel seem to think they are. We understood why Captain Midnight wore his uniform when he mixed up a hot cup of Ovaltine. We understand why 007 drives a BMW. We understand when we listen -- let's repeat that word -- "listen" -- to Rush or Sean or Mark when they are doing a commercial.

But is there more here? Why would anyone make a patently phony allegation like this -- particularly on the heels of equally phony stories that conservative talk radio is losing its audience. An allegation discussed here.

Well, yes. There is more.

There's an agenda.

Politico, for example, doesn't say that Mr. Vogel is a frequent critic of conservatives. His, to use Frum's term, "editorial flow" in the past has included making targets not just of conservative talk radio hosts but conservative activist Ginni Thomas and the Koch brothers. Again, free speech -- bravo. But should there be just a hint of consumer warning that Vogel's editorial flow is decidedly one-sided? That whether the story is about conservative talk radio or Thomas or the Kochs -- the theme is the same? That theme being that honest, well-out-in-the-open activities by conservatives are somehow really shadowy, somehow dishonest or conflicted? Isn't this pay-to-play? Mr. Vogel writes a supposed news story that is really ideologically driven -- and gets paid to do just that?

You won't find this consumer warning at the Politico, where Vogel is purveyed as a straight just-the-facts kinda guy. On the other hand, take a look at this story and you'll see his idea of an unbiased, reputable source.

Uh-huh. That's from Congressman Weiner the truth-teller. Thank God there was a photo editor for the head shot.

Ditto an agenda with Mr. Frum, whose editorial flow in The Week does not mention that he is an activist for a group whose leaders and members are loud critics of conservative talk radio. That group, No Labels, counts Frum as one of its "Founding Leaders." Again, democracy at work. But to pretend he is some disinterested observer while hurling a fundamentally dishonest accusation of dishonesty at honest people practicing straightforward, above-board capitalism is, well, gee.

When Frum wrote this cover story back in 2009 for the liberal Newsweek, this was pay-to-play. Either Frum turned in a piece sharply critical of Limbaugh, a hit piece from an ex-Bush speechwriter going after the number one conservative talk radio host in the land or -- no cover story, period. And no check. No play -- no pay. No trash -- no cash.

There's more here. For one thing, is it an accident that this recent rash of allegations against conservative talk radio -- specifically against Rush, Hannity and Levin -- with swipes at the medium's advertisers and its conservative audience have come from two people involved with one group? That would be David Frum and John Avlon. Both, amazingly enough, "Founding Leaders" of the No Labels group. Hmmmm. Do they get paid to write these pieces? Is this capitalism? Or could we call it what it increasingly appears to be: trash-for-cash?

One suspects Captain Midnight would not be pleased with the answer.

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