Angelo Carusone is the Director of Online Strategy for Media Matters for America. Even prior to that gig, he’s been known in the Twitterverse during the past couple of years as @StopBeck, an online campaign to let Glenn Beck’s advertisers know where their advertising dollars were going. The Voice spoke with Carusone by phone from Washington, D.C. after his @StopRush Twitter actively rang the Limbaugh death bell over the weekend.
Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
Why did you start Stop Beck?
I started it on July 2nd, 2009, during the summer between by second and third year of law school. For me, it was an interesting time. I was in law school, getting an info dump. I was trying to figure out what I was going to do, and for me, it became clear that things were pretty messed up. Our policies are messed up, and didn’t think the conversation around them was going well. I started looking at the irresponsible, reckless pillars of the media. Beck represented the worst of them at the time. He was extremely reckless, and illustrated the very worst of the media abdicating their responsibility. That’s why I picked him as a first target. Things for him turned out to be bad business. I think people should have opinions, and express them passionately, but there is a responsible way of doing that. He was being completely irresponsible, and that’s why I started Stop Beck, in July of 2009.
And then a month later, he called President Obama a racist. I started Stop Beck, and the next month, he really ramped up why he was problematic. Before that, there wasn’t a magnifying glass on what he was doing. He helped put a larger microscope on the many ways his program was troublesome.
What was Beck’s Waterloo moment? And when did you know you were having an effect?
For me, I always believed it would have an effect. I believe persistence pays off. I always told people, [Beck] might have a platform, but it was a two-year plus campaign. But it was effective every day, because we attached real financial consequences to what he was doing. [Here’s] a link to those financial consequences to what Beck was doing. We went back and got advertisers’ rates, and showed that the number of paid ads decreased, and that the rates themselves decreased, during Beck’s show on Fox. Fox was getting three to six times less from the same ad, from the same advertiser, than other Fox News shows. So it was effective everyday.
For me, as we moved into 2011, it was obvious that Fox News knew it had a more significant problem on their hands. They’ been absorbing losses for a long time, and the problems increased. It became clear that this was bad business for them.
What did you start Stop Rush?
Stop Rush, I initially rolled it out in late 2009 and early 2010. At the time, the Beck work was doing well. I thought that in dealing with advertisers, some really appreciated being educated about where their ads were running. The ad market took care of this. The word “boycott,” it’s very rare that I called for a boycott or attacked a company. For the most part, I let advertisers know where there money was being spent, where it was going, and what it was helping. They made the decision themselves.
I started Stop Rush in 2009, 2010, and when I went to register the domain, I saw that Rush owned StopRush.com
I’ve noticed things like that. Corporations often do that. In looking at a story about JC Penney, you see they own hundreds of corporate domains… BoycottJCPenney.com, UnionizeJCPenney.com, etc.
Yeah. Rush didn’t have StopRush.org, so that’s what I got. Obviously at the time, I was a law student, and I was working very much on the Beck effort, and I was still managing law school. The Beck work was working, and I kind of froze the Rush work, and experimented with it a little, to get a sense of who Rush’s advertisers were and what their comfort level with him was. It was definitely valuable, and I am glad I spent some time doing it. It has informed the work I am doing now.
When did you have a sense that Sandra Fluke might have been Rush’s Waterloo?
It was very clear late evening Friday, early Saturday that this was different and distinguishable. There have been temporary flare ups with Rush before. This was clearly not one of those. It has a different dynamic, and became a business problem, as opposed to people just being angry.
Rush had spent three full days digging in. I started talking to advertisers on Thursday, and got a lot of feedback on Friday, and I knew a lot of movement was taking place. This was important to think about from a business perspective. The very clearest example was when Carbonite came out on Saturday night. That was significant because they had been one of his biggest advertisers, and they announced their drop after the so called apology. They said the apology didn’t matter. Rush had exposed himself as too volatile to do business with.
And on the top of his website, there was a blank box that said “ADVERTISEMENT.” That was where Carbonite has been for a long, long time. It was a very clear sign that we were dealing with something new.
The only ads I saw were for Rush’s own products. I was almost surprised to see that his “Club Gitmo” clothing line hadn’t dropped him!
[Laughs.] Yeah. Let me ask you about this: Sandra Fluke was a white, middle class woman. She was a law student, like yourself. Rush has been saying nasty, vile, racist things for decades. What do you make of the fact that the outcry has come about with this person and this issue? What do you make of advertisers who paid Rush for years already when he was so nasty?
There are two reasons, maybe three reasons. First, the lay of the land has changed. We saw Komen, and all the constant attacks on Planned Parenthood. I think women see the effects of sexism on our society. There’s a recognition that what Rush did was very problematic, and illustrative of a media landscape that thinks it’s OK to go on the air, and level almost 50 smears for three days on someone, and mar the reputation of someone, and dismiss her valid perspective on policy. That is one part of it.
The second part is that Sandra Fluke is not a celebrity or a political figure. She’s just a student. So people can personalize this. Rush wasn’t attacking Hillary Clinton. Fluke could be your sister or your cousin, or you. No one wants to think about those things being said to millions of people in three days. That’s different.
And the reaction, compared to the past – there’s never been social media before. It’s the combination of the lay of the land, and the attack on an individual. We finally have the tools to push back. Previously, Rush would have been the only voice, or the largest voice in the room, when something like this happened. There was energy to push back, and social media provided the tools.
You are a gay man, correct?
Others have thrown this question at me, so I’ll ask you: as a gay man, why are you concerned with reproductive rights for women?
The way I look at this, this is a question for our society, and the values we have. Discussions of policy or politics can get too specific; I look at things from the standpoint of values. The way we treat our fellow citizens is a reflection of society, and of us. We are free to socialize, to participate in our society, and to shape it.
This is a values issue. This is making sure citizens have the care for their needs met, that women have the cares for their medical needs met. It’s true, I’m gay and I’m also a man – all the more reason to defer to a woman, who should know more about the needs of women. That’s what it boils down to. There are the substantive issues at play, and the matter of differing opinions. But one thing is universal, though: we can all acknowledge that the way Rush Limbaugh has used his initial platform was irresponsible and abusive, regardless of his opinions on the matter.
That’s my stake in it.
A final question: I wrote yesterday about the largely self-inflected demise of the five right wing figures on the cover of my 2010 Voice story “White America Has Lost Its Mind.” Some people wrote me they were happy to see these people’s ideas lead to their downfall. But at the same time, they have been replaced with crazier people with even crazier ideas. It’s like cutting off the head of a hydra, only to have two replace it. As Beck has stepped off the stage, except in his subscriber circle, are you concerned that the conversation has grown even less civil in the past couple of years?
One the one hand, we are talking about people who are monolithic. Rush is on hundreds of radio stations. There is a giant media company imposing that. His voice eliminates conversation, actually. That block from 12-3, there used to be a person there doing that at a local radio station. They may have talked about national politics, but they were local. Everything was through the local lens. That diversity has been taken away and replaced with a model devoid of any choice.
As [people like Rush and Beck] wane, things might get said that are more ridiculous. But it will increase the amount of diversity.
In terms, of the larger question, of what I call the “window of reason”…People will have different ideas, even irresponsible and unsubstantiated ideas. I don’t want that to go away from society. But it’s one thing if they are being validated by major commercials identities. And that’s different. I said during the Beck work, I’d never be comfortable saying that anyone isn’t allowed to say those things they believe – within the bounds of slander and so forth. They are more than welcome to say it, on a soap box or on a corner. But it’s different when major corporations are benefiting from that, and many brands are benefiting. The more controversial, the higher the ratings, so there’s an incentive for better business to be outlandish.
We are trying to invert that model, and show that being reckless and irresponsible will not improve your business.
And it’s working.