Inside the disinformation machine: How far-right media brainwash millions daily

Christian fundamentalists have quietly built massive propaganda empires that most Americans have never even heard of
FILE: Turning Point USA co-founder Charlie Kirk is interviewed by Salem Media commentator Katie Pavlich at the 2018 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

The following is an adapted excerpt from “Shadow Network: Media, Money, and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right” which is out now in paperback.

Over the past two decades, the American media landscape has been transformed. At the turn of the last century, a hundred-year-old news canon still reigned supreme: professional journalism from wire services such as the Associated Press and leading newspapers set a national news agenda. Magazines, broadcasters, and local newspapers added their own reporting, but paid close attention to the national template. The formula worked: the late 20th century was the Golden Age of the journalism business. Professional news organizations played a powerful role in society, and ad-rich newspapers and broadcasters made record profits.

That all changed in the early 2000’s, when the new digital platforms — including Google, Facebook, and Craigslist — challenged that structure and blew up its business model. Journalism’s mainstays, lucrative display and classified advertising, migrated online with the advantage of reaching targeted consumers. Audiences who had been told “content wants to be free” balked at the paywalls that compensated journalists to report and editors to vet their work. 

As a result, between 2000 and 2020, network news divisions closed scores of foreign and national bureaus, and one in five US newspapers failed. Over a thousand counties, most of them rural, were left with no newspaper at all. 

But nature abhors a vacuum, and as professional journalism disappeared from thousands of communities, new media models stood ready to take its place. The Radical Right’s media ecosystem was built on previous decades of media development through religious broadcasting and political direct mail. They benefited not just from the news deserts, they also combined with the opportunities presented by new media technologies. These would mushroom into an entire ecosystem of religious fundamentalist radio programs and podcasts, many of them disguised as “news programs,” as well as countless digital platforms and social media initiatives that have been feeding a toxic diet of political propaganda and COVID misinformation to their audiences in recent years. 

To understand this ecosystem, it’s useful to explore its roots. Many of these can be traced to a shadowy organization called the Council for National Policy, founded in 1981 in the wake of Reagan’s election. Its founding fathers were strategist Paul Weyrich, networker Morton Blackwell, and mass marketer Richard Viguerie.

The architects of the CNP’s goals were stunningly ambitious: to dominate the United States, and reshape the state as a white fundamentalist institution. They honed their methods with a series of institutional takeovers, beginning with the Southern Baptist Convention, where moderates were ruthlessly purged and hardliners were installed in positions of power. Next in line was the traditional Republican Party. Over the next four years, the CNP leadership would bully moderate Republicans and target the recalcitrant, to the point of supporting their opponents. Once the way was cleared, they would propel CNP protégés into positions of power and influence.


The architects of the Radical Right studied the art of the “soft coup d’etat” – not just to take over the Republican Party, but to weaken various public institutions that challenged their “Biblical values.” These included public schools that taught evolution, universities that advanced climate science, and businesses that supported equal rights for the LGBT community.

They also disapproved of the professional news media, which seemed to bear every trait they spurned: urban, liberal, and more secular by the minute.1 They resolved to break its hold on the nation’s psyche.

On the eve of the Reagan era, this goal seemed unlikely. The prestige of American journalism was at its apex, after journalists brought down a President with the Watergate investigation, and challenged a war with the Pentagon Papers.

James Squires summarized the role of the press in American history in his 1993 book “Read All About It! The Corporate Takeover of American Newspapers.” His assessment is worth quoting at length:

It fell to the press to stir the colonies to revolution in the first place. A hundred years later, it was the newspaper voices of abolition that ultimately propelled the nation to the twin brinks of destruction and greatness over the slavery question – the Civil War. Another century later, it was dramatic press accounts of oppression in the South that produced desegregation across the land, as well as a public rebuke of the war in Vietnam.

Squires had come to praise journalism, not to bury it. But his paean inadvertently listed the original sins of American journalism as they were perceived by the fundamentalists. The Southern Baptist Convention had been established in defense of slavery; it was the meddling Northern press that fanned the flames of abolition. A century later, they thought the segregated South was doing fine until Northern newspapermen arrived to tell them it wasn’t. (One frequently cited turning point was the arrival of Harrison Salisbury from the New York Times to cover the Birmingham protests, which ignited a national debate on the Civil Rights movement.2)

Squires continued:

Between 1960 and 1974, the press played a vital role in an unprecedented empowerment of the citizenry—the extension of participatory rights to minorities in new civil rights legislation and a similar enhancement of the roles of women and youth by the feminist and peace movements. In such a system, it is the reporting of unfettered truth about how things are and ideas of how they might be made better that motivates a citizenry to act and educates it to courses of action. People cannot govern what they cannot see. And whatever its imperfections, the unquestioned purpose of the old business of journalism was to provide America with an accurate reflection of itself and the understanding necessary to preserve freedom.3

The 1946 Hutchins Commission report defined news as “a truthful, comprehensive, and intelligent account of the day’s events in a context which gives them meaning.” Here Squires was paying homage to the concept of fact-based reporting. But the CNP’s Morton Blackwell stressed that “being right” was less important than winning.4 The power and influence of the national media were mighty, and the fundamentalist challenge might have come to naught – if the “old business of journalism” had not decayed from within.


Modern American journalism is a surprisingly recent phenomenon. Nineteenth century newspapers were generally openly partisan party organs (as reflected by the names like the “Arkansas Democrat-Gazette” and the “Waterbury Republican”). In the Civil War, Confederate reports were often written by officers who exaggerated their victories; many Northern correspondents moonlighted working for the government.5

Professional journalism, along with journalism schools, associations and prizes to uphold its vales, evolved over the next century. Nonetheless, while American journalists benefited from an usual degree of political freedom and legal protection, their outlets were still answerable to business interests and advertising revenues. The twentieth century brought massive growth in the newspaper and magazine industries, and the birth of broadcasting; media companies founded and run by entrepreneurs – in Squires’ words, “men of wealth, power, politics and eccentricity.”6

The Second World War served as a great unifier, as the press became an important component of the war effort. Broadcasters expanded their news divisions as a public service, exempting them from the need to turn a profit, and reaped national prestige in return. The spirit of public service lingered. In 1962 William Paley told CBS correspondents, “You guys cover the news; I’ve got Jack Benny to make money for me.”7 News organizations proliferated across the country, most with local ownership. In 1940 there were 1878 newspapers in the US; as of 1946 there were a dozen large magazine companies and competing newspapers in 117 American cities.8

Metropolitan dailies assumed an outsized role. If the New York Times ran with a major story, other media had to follow suit. If it passed on it, other outlets were less likely to follow up. The perspective of midtown Manhattan could be radically different than other parts of the country, and no matter how diligently news organizations pursued fact-based reporting, they could lose sight of their own subjectivity.

Print and broadcast journalism continued to grow in influence and revenue. Newspaper penetration peaked between roughly 1970 and 1990, when the ratio of circulation to American households approached 1:1.9 Network news, launched in the 1940’s, reached an apex around the same time, and the evening news expanded from fifteen minutes to half an hour in the early 1960’s. By 1980, 75 percent of American households were tuned to network news programs over the dinner hour.10

But this news ecosystem (as some journalism professors called it) was already in trouble. Newspapers were advertising-rich, producing returns of 10-20 percent, outstripping most investments in the manufacturing sector.11 But family-owned newspapers paid a price for their success; when the patriarch died, their descendants faced inheritance taxes of up to 70 percent, prompting many to cash out by selling their papers to corporations. Family owners were answerable to their communities and their peers, but corporations responded to shareholders who were more interested in quarterly earnings than Pulitzer prizes. By the early 2000’s, the new news business was implementing massive cost-saving measures: firing thousands of reporters; slashing circulations in under-served communities with commercially unattractive demographics; refusing to invest in the vital new technologies that were transforming the culture. The new corporate owners squeezed every last penny from their newspapers, in many cases using their revenues to float their debt in other divisions.

The result was devastating. Local voices were silenced, local populations abandoned. Ownership of the newspapers was increasingly concentrated. By 1990, just fourteen companies controlled half of the 1,600 daily papers, and the concentration of ownership would increase.12

Newspapers were losing ground to television, but network news divisions were also troubled. Over the late 20th century the networks were acquired by increasingly diversified corporations. CBS’s Viacom, NBC’s General Electric and ABC’s Disney saw no need to subsidize news divisions and directed them to turn a profit like other divisions. Television news reporting slid into softer stories, shorter soundbites, more reporting tied to entertainment, sensationalism, and human interest. Over the next few decades, the management closed both international and domestic bureaus and laid off legions of reporters. Cable and public broadcasting filled some of the information gaps, but cable channels tended to emphasize opinion, debate, and sensationalism over traditional reporting and cultivated like-minded niche audiences. Public television was worthy but chronically underfunded.

Over the decades the American appetite for news declined, especially among younger people. For much of the 20th century the broader American public had largely been working off the same page, relying on the network evening news and newspapers that followed the wires and the New York Times’ lead, on major national and international stories, but that accord weakened under economic pressure. The worst was yet to come.


The digital revolution was gathering steam. News organizations warily adopted the use of email and online search functions, but print outlets were fatally slow to understand how the upheaval would affect their business model and innovate in response. Display and classified advertising made up their core income; subscriptions were a minimal source of revenue.

In 1995 a newcomer to San Francisco named Craig Newmark launched a digital service that would turn into Craigslist. It took a few years for the impact to hit, but then it was catastrophic. Newspaper advertising revenues, which peaked from 2000, to 2005, utterly collapsed. More digital assaults were underway. Over the 1990’s digital entrepreneurs experimented with advertising approaches that took advantage of their ability to direct advertising to the users most likely to respond. The public moved online, and digital advertising was waiting for them: on their searches, in their emails, on their phones.

Derek Thompson described the collapse in the Atlantic: “Between 2000 and 2015, print newspaper advertising revenue fell from about $60 billion to about $20 billion, wiping out the gains of the previous 50 years.”13

In 2013, the struggling Washington Post would be sold to Jeff Bezos for $250 million, which would cover a middling superyacht. In 2016 the Tampa Tribune went for a paltry $9.5 million, the same price that was paid for a racehorse named Songbird the following year. The paper was subsumed into its rival, the Tampa Bay Times. Since 2004, almost 1,800 US newspapers disappeared altogether, and hundreds of communities became “news deserts” without a single local news organization. These were disproportionately aging communities of lower-income residents without college educations.14

The classified and display advertising that had paid journalists’ salaries migrated online. The erratic business model that underwrote professional reporting did not. By 2018, Forbes estimated the worth of Craiglist had grown to nearly $4 billion.15 It was fairly easy to migrate news content online, and make it easier to update, navigate and personalize. But digital ads sold for a tiny fraction of print ads, and once readers got used to free online content, it was hard to build revenues from paid subscriptions.

The catastrophe was less visible from the Boston-Washington corridor, where the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post built online readerships and began to transition towards a new digital business model – even if the future was far from secure. The rest of the country’s newspaper culture suffered a colony collapse. One of the most significant casualties was statehouse reporting, the traditional purview of mid-sized newspapers in Middle America. Pew Research reported that between 2003 and 2014, the number of full-time statehouse reporters dropped 35 percent.16 The press corps in many statehouses dwindled, allowing state lawmakers to go about rewriting laws with less scrutiny.

President Donald J. Trump delivers remarks at the 2020 Council for National Policy Meeting Friday, Aug. 21, 2020, at the Ritz-Carlton in Pentagon City, Va. Photo: Tia Dufour/White House

All of this must have been music to the ears of the Council for National Policy. The ongoing disruption of the traditional news industry created a vacuum, and they were systematically building a stable of media partners prepared to fill it. The regulatory environment was working in their favor.

The gutting of the Fairness Doctrine had opened the door for the Salem communications empire, originally founded as a radio operation by fundamentalist broadcasters Stuart Epperson and Edward Atsinger III. Salem and other CNP media partners produced highly politicized one-sided broadcasts. CNP member Donald Wildmon founded American Family Radio in 1991; it would expand into a network of almost 200 stations in 35 states. American Family Radio developed three different programming streams designed for its various markets: AFR Talk, AFR Hybrid, and Urban Family Talk, which employed an African-American staff to target an African-American audience. All three adhered to the statement of faith:

The American Family Association believes that God has communicated absolute truth to mankind, and that all people are subject to the authority of God’s Word at all times. Therefore AFA believes that a culture based on biblical truth best serves the well-being of our nation and our families, in accordance. with the vision of our founding documents…

The organization’s action statement spurred followers to “promote virtue by upholding in culture that which is right, true and good according to Scripture.” Its overtly political goal was to “motivate people to take a stand on cultural and moral issues at the local, state, and national levels.”17

Another CNP radio partner was the Bott Radio Network, founded in 1962 by Dick Bott, a former child evangelist, and his wife Sherley. Bott quickly recognized the potential of commercial religious broadcasting, and his radio network grew to over 100 stations in fifteen states, heavily concentrated in the Bible Belt.18 States like Kansas and Missouri had plenty of news deserts without a daily newspaper, but they were blanketed by Bott radio signals carrying the programs of CNP stalwarts like James Dobson and Gary Bauer. 19

Together, Salem’s Epperson and Atsinger, American Family Radio’s Donald Wildmon, and Bott Radio’s Dick Bott – all members of the CNP – built overlapping radio empires that were all but invisible to the urban northeast. But it was hard to drive very far across the Plains without running into their signals and their increasingly virulent rhetoric.

Wildmon’s American Family Radio network, for example, produced programs with titles like “Infanticide Adopted by Democrats” and “Homosexuality is the Dividing Line Between Light and Darkness.”20 One program asked how Christians should respond to a Muslim call to prayer, and answered “They should take the call to prayer as a call to arms, to go to war in the Spirit against the demon-god Allah and the spiritual deception of Islam.”21

The Salem Radio Network was especially aggressive in acquiring new stations. Atsinger and Epperson developed a successful strategy of purchasing leveraged stations in urban markets. But they ran into an obstacle with the Federal Communications Commission, which prohibited a broadcaster from owning too many stations in one market. Epperson and Atsinger—by now members of the CNP Board of Governors— joined other broadcasters to lobby against the regulations; Salem contributed $74,000 to key legislators. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was written by industry lobbyists, promoted by Newt Gingrich, and signed into law by Bill Clinton.22 It eased the ownership regulations to the benefit of Salem and other large companies. Salem went on an acquisition binge and created a system of station “clusters” to cut costs.

In 1999 Forbes magazine reported that Salem Communications (as it was now called) owned 57 stations. This made it the eighth largest broadcaster and the largest religious broadcaster in the country, with at least one station in 19 of biggest 25 markets. “Christian radio” had become the third most popular format in the US. (following country music and talk). 23

In July 1999 Salem issued an initial public offering. The company was booming. It still reaped half of its revenue – nearly $78 million — from the sale of block programming, but advertising accounted for a third of its revenues, and it was growing. The IPO’s influx of capital allowed the company to acquire more stations. 24

Salem’s reach extended beyond religious programming, it also rode the wave of conservative talk radio. Local radio stations, like hometown newspapers, had traditionally been owned by – and answerable to — members of the community. In the wake of deregulation, over a quarter of the nation’s radio stations were sold, many passing from local to corporate owners, while new satellite technology facilitated national programming.

Eventually the Salem, Bott, and American Family Radio empires – all owned and operated by members of the CNP – extended to at least forty-six states. (As of January 2019, they owned stations in every state except Idaho, Nevada, Utah and Alaska.) Their programming, including political content produced by CNP members, was utilized by other radio networks, including the Christian Satellite Network and Family Life Radio. In combination with their affiliates, the CNP radio broadcasters covered the entire nation; California and Texas were blanked by all three. ABC, NBC, and CBS began to dump their radio stations, especially in small and mid-sized markets, and their news programs disappeared. The Great American News Desert grew drier by the year.


National Public Radio, founded in 1970, did much to fill in the gap. As it grew to over 1,000 member stations, NPR offered traditional journalism and newscasts that presented multiple perspectives on public issues. Listeners could turn to NPR for detailed, thoughtful interviews with leaders from the leading political parties. Nonetheless, many conservatives in Middle America distrusted NPR as a smugly liberal voice with little interest in their issues, a maddening focus on identity politics, and a propensity to promote the Democrats’ agenda.

NPR tilted urban and coastal for obvious reasons. Its stations, its listeners – and its listener contributions – were concentrated in urban areas, suburbs and college towns. NPR’s weekly listenership would reach 28.5 million by 2017 – but that was still less than ten percent of the national population. Public broadcasting was founded with federal support, but the ongoing assault by Republican administrations whittled that down to almost nothing over the years. NPR responded by basing its budgets on listener contributions. But that meant that urban NPR stations—especially powerhouse stations in New York, Washington and San Francisco– had outsized budgets and programming capacity. Stations in conservative, rural areas – the news deserts that needed them most – got by on a fraction of the funding, with part-time employees and spotty local coverage.

Oklahoma, for example, has six NPR stations, mostly in cities and college towns, while Bott and American Family Radio have a combined twenty stations blanketing the state.25 And radio matters: it remains an important part of daily life for millions of Americans, whether in the home, the workplace, or the car.26

Salem Communications developed three principle formats for its stations: Christian (fundamentalist) talk, contemporary Christian music, and conservative news and talk. and blocks of religious programming (AM). 27 The company created a syndication service that distributed talk programs and a 24-hour news service to over 2,000 affiliates nationwide. It billed its programs as “Christian Radio’s Definitive Source for News” that “breaks the ivory tower approach of the traditional networks.”28 This was not news about Christianity, it was current events filtered through a highly partisan fundamentalist lens. Salem’s “Christian journalism” was a new genre, unhampered by professional practices of multi-sourced reporting, fact-checking, and corrections.

The Salem, Bott and American Family Radio networks, all run by members of the CNP, bypassed the crisis in business models that afflicted the rest of the industry, buoyed by blocks of airtime sold to fundamentalist churches and advertising sold to CNP affiliates such as the Family Research Council.

Further revenues resulted from the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA, pronounced D-shay), promoted by Senator Orrin Hatch. Hatch and his family had extensive involvement in the nutritional supplements industry, which is based in Hatch’s home state of Utah. DSHEA prevented the FDA from regulating harmful or fraudulent supplements before they hit the market. The Los Angeles Times concluded, “The harvest [of DSHEA] has been a public health disaster.”29 The elderly were especially easy marks. Bott and American Family Radio run ads for products such as “vitamin cures” for impotence and organizations such as the Institute for Creation Research, which argues “Birds didn’t evolve from dinosaurs because they can fly.”30 Salem’s online outlet RedState rented its email lists to the Health Sciences Institute, which used it to promote a product that supposedly “vaporizes cancer in six weeks.”31

Salem’s stations took a regional approach. In Irving, Texas, “The Word 100.7 FM” was overtly religious. Focus on the Family and related programming offered advice from a fundamentalist perspective for listeners’ daily problems of marriage infidelity, alcoholism, and depression, and condemned abortion and homosexuality. CNP member and attorney Jay Sekulow’s programs expounded on policy issues from a fundamentalist perspective.

Beyond the South, Salem’s “conservative news and talk” format built on the success of talk radio’s secular “shock jocks” like Rush Limbaugh, promoting hosts such as Hugh Hewitt, Sean Hannity, and the ubiquitous Sekulow. Salem’s Detroit station, “The Patriot WDCK,” focused on the anxieties of the Rust Belt: “politics, pop culture, the war on terror, education, immigration, and much more.”32

Atsinger and Epperson expanded their political footprint along with their radio empire. In 2005 journalist Adam Piore published a detailed history of Salem’s strategy called “A Higher Frequency” in Mother Jones magazine. Piore reported that between 1998 and 2004, they and their company offered $423,000 in federal campaign contributions, 96 percent of it to Republicans. This rendered them the sixth largest donor in the industry.33 In 2000 Atsinger, Epperson, and a colleague donated $780,000 towards a California state ballot initiative to oppose gay marriage.

Rep. Mike Pence speaks at an Indiana Tea Party event. March 31, 2011. Photo: Mark Taylor/Flickr

Conservative and fundamentalist talk radio served as both the training grounds and meeting place for a new generation of leadership. One beneficiary was a young Indiana lawyer named Mike Pence. Pence, a Catholic who converted to fundamentalist Christianity in college, made two unsuccessful runs for a Congressional seat in 1988 and 1990. In 1991 he accepted a position as president of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. This was the Indiana affiliate of the State Policy Network, whose members were described as a “mini-Heritage Foundation in each state,” concentrating on influencing state legislation. The State Policy Network funds its state affiliates, and is heavily funded by the Charles Koch Foundation and the Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund, whose major backers include the Koch brothers and the CNP’s DeVos family.34

From 1994 to 1999, Pence worked as a host for conservative radio programs, many of them syndicated across the state. Pence used the job to hone his public speaking skills, build a following and promote his image as a self-described “Rush Limbaugh on decaf.” His folksy baritone was well-suited for radio and his youthful face, prematurely white hair and “aw-shucks” manner sold him as a “safe” baby-boomer who respected his elders and drank milk for a nightcap. But he was a stalwart opponent to abortion, Planned Parenthood, and same-sex marriage.35 His mild exterior belied a bigoted streak. While he was president of the Indiana Policy Review, it published an article called “Military Necessity and Homosexuality” stating, “The homosexuals are not as a group able-bodied. They are known to carry extremely high rates of disease brought on because of the nature of their sexual practices and the promiscuity which is a hallmark of their lifestyle.”36

In 1998 Pence invited a 35-year-old Louisiana state legislator named Tony Perkins to appear on his radio show.37 Perkins had come to Indianapolis to testify before the state legislature on the “covenant marriage “ law he had drafted in Louisiana, which created a voluntary marriage contract restricting the right to divorce. Like Pence, Perkins was a fierce opponent of gay marriage and abortion. He was also one of nine Louisianans who belonged to the Council on National Policy.38

It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Perkins and Pence shared a talent for broadcasting and a thirst for power, though it wasn’t initially clear who would pursue each path. In 2000 Pence ran for Congress again, and this time he won. His radio expertise made him a hot commodity among Republicans on Capitol Hill, and his reactionary position on social issues won him favor with the Council for National Policy.

In 2003, 14 fundamentalists, including CNP stalwarts Paul Weyrich, Donald Wildmon, Gary Bauer, Richard Bott and James Dobson, regrouped in Arlington, Virginia. Worried they were losing ground, the group focused on three issues: abortion, gay marriage and gun rights. Polling showed that the topic where they could get the most traction was same-sex marriage.39

James Dobson, nearing 70, was slowing down, and he was ready to bring in some new blood. The landscape had changed. The Family Research Council’s new visibility as a Washington lobbying force could undermine the non-profit status of Focus on the Family’s multi-million-dollar operations. In 1992 he separated the two organizations again, creating an independent board that shared three members, including Dobson himself.40

To direct the new FRC in 2003, he turned to Mike Pence’s friend from Louisiana, Tony Perkins: fresh-faced and honey-voiced at 40, with a Southern variant of Pence’s “aw-shucks” manner. Perkins left his tiny hometown of Cleveland, Oklahoma to serve in the Marine Corps. He moved to Baton Rouge, where he joined the police force, then got a job reporting for the television station run by Woody Jenkins, the founding executive director of the CNP. Along the way he attended Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University (though he didn’t graduate until he was nearly 30).

In 1995 Perkins ran successfully for the Louisiana state legislature and was reelected four years later. The CNP’s Richard Viguerie was one of his fundraisers.41 Perkins also managed the unsuccessful Senate campaign of former CNP director Woody Jenkins. There were bumps along the way. A 1999 federal investigation revealed that Perkins, on behalf of the Jenkins campaign, had contracted the services of a media company partially owned by Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke. Perkins later reported that he was “profoundly grieved” to learn of the association.42 In 2001 Perkins gave a speech to the Baton Rouge chapter of the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens (sometimes called the “Uptown Klan”).43 Dobson was unconcerned by the negative press. Such events set a pattern that would be played out in the future. The Council for National Policy and its affiliates would be revealed to associate with unsavory characters, and they would be shocked that such nice folk could harbor such nasty ideology.

As soon as Perkins was hired by the Family Research Council, he launched a new radio program, broadcast on Bott Radio and the American Family Radio network. In the past, the Family Research Council had tried to maintain good relations with Democrats, but “Washington Watch” was unabashedly political, celebrating conservative Republicans and excoriating their Democratic opponents. For all practical purposes, the CNP had anointed the Family Research Council as its public lobbying and organizational front.

Nonetheless, the IRS assigned tax-exempt, 501(c)3 status to both the Family Research Council and American Family Radio—in keeping with the FRC’s stated mission to advance “faith, family and freedom in government and culture from a Christian worldview,” and the American Family Radio’s calling as an “educational organization” devoted to “spiritual development.”44

Sebastian Gorka, a talk radio host for Salem Media, speaks to attendees at the 2020 Student Action Summit hosted by Turning Point USA in West Palm Beach, Florida. December 19, 2020. Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

In recent years, the CNP media affiliates have continued to modernize and proliferate. It’s difficult to say exactly how many there are, or to track all the platforms where they appear. Salem Media, rebranded as the Salem Media Group, has acquired various digital platforms, including TownHall, RedState, and PJ Media. The Daily Caller, co-founded by CNP member Neil Patel and Tucker Carlson, lists Clarence Thomas’s wife Virginia (another CNP member) as a “special correspondent,” and Tony Perkins makes frequent appearances on its video channel “American Voices.” CNSNews (originally the Cybercast News Service) was founded by CNP executive committee member Brent Bozell III in 1998 as a division of his Media Research Center. Like many of the other organizations mentioned, MRC is designated a tax-exempt “non-partisan” 501(c)3 organization, despite its unrelenting stream of partisan content.

The movement has been focusing on developing social media platforms, especially since Donald Trump was banned from Twitter in the wake of the January 6 Capitol riot. On May 14 the Wall Street Journal reported that Donald Trump may launch his own platform on July 4, although it’s unclear what form it might take. Tony Perkins has endorsed a relatively new social media platform called Gab, which has been widely reported for providing a haven for QAnon supporters and other extremists.

Other contenders, such as Parler and Frank (launched by My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell) also vie for attention. The CNP has tried to develop its own “celebrity spokespersons” to cultivate specific target audiences, such as CNP member Charlie Kirk, who has his own YouTube channel and a radio program on Salem Media targeting youth. CNP member Alveda King (MLK’s niece) is prominently featured on Salem’s TownHall as an African-American opponent to HR1 and voting rights initiatives.

In the distorted mirror of this media system, the violent storming of the Capitol was a “tourist event,” and the illegal efforts to overturn the electoral results were exercises in “election integrity. Tragically, these media initiatives have not limited themselves to political misinformation; they have also been disseminating deadly misinformation about Covid for over a year, and sowing manufactured doubt about the safety of vaccines.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. The battle against Covid may have peaked, but millions of Americans are still vulnerable. The 2022 midterms will determine the fate of the House and the Senate, and in many ways, the future of the nation. These information systems create a growing chasm in America. Thanks in large part to their efforts, Americans are more sharply divided than they have been in our lifetimes — and as Abraham Lincoln warned, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

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Endnotes

1 This assessment would have surprised many leftists, who regarded “legacy media” as conservative.

2 Alabama Public Radio. “How The Media Covered The Civil Rights Movement: The Children’s March.” April 25, 2013.
 

3 Squires, James D., Read All About It: The Corporate Takeover of America’s Newspapers, Times Books, 1994, p. 223-4
 

4 Blackwell, Morton. “The Real Nature of Politics.”
 

6 Squires, p. 10.
 

8 Pew; Squires, p. 208
 

9 Pew , Statista, Pew.
 

10 Marc Gunther. “The Transformation of Network News.” Nieman Reports.
 

11 Lou Ureneck. “Newspapers Arrive at Economic Crossroads.” Nieman Reports.
 

12 Squires, p. 208.
 

13 Derek Thompson. “The Print Apocalypse and How to Survive It.” The Atlantic.
 

14Abernathy, Penelope Muse, “The Expanding News Desert,” University of North Carolina School of Media and Journalism, 2018.
 

15 Angel Au-Yeung. “Why Billionaire Craig Of Craigslist Is Giving Millions To Journalism And Education.” Forbes, August 13, 2018.
 

16 Katerina Eva Matsa and Jan Lauren Boyles. “America’s Shifting Statehouse Press.” Pew Research Center.
 

17 American Family Radio. “Who We Are.”
 

18 Bott Radio Network. “History.”
 

19 Bott Radio Network. “Broadcasts.”
 

21 AFR Life & Liberty Minute (all print)
 

22 Piore, Adam, “A Higher Frequency,” Mother Jones, December 2005.
 

23 Forbes. “Articles of Faith.” December 27, 1999.
 

24 Hoffmeister, Sally. “Religious Broadcaster Salem Hopes Lofty Values Will Lift Its IPO.” Los Angeles Times, June 28, 1999.
 

26 Jacobs, Fred. “The Rapidly Changing Face Of Radio Listening.” May 15, 2018.
 

29 Hiltzik, Michael. “Column: Orrin Hatch is leaving the Senate, but his deadliest law will live on.” Los Angeles Times, January 5, 2018.
 

30 Bott and American Family Radio broadcasts, Oklahoma, October 3, 2017 and September 30, 2019
 

31 Murphy, Tim. “How This Company—and Mike Huckabee—Cashed In by Scaring Conservatives.” Mother Jones, November/December 2015. Kasprak, Alex. ““Sour Honey’ is a Cure for Cancer?” Snopes, April 10, 2017.
 

32 Salem Media. “101.5 FM / 1400 AM WDTK The Patriot.”
 

33 PIore, Adam, “A Higher Frequency,” Mother Jones, December 2005.
 

34 Conservative Transparency, “State Policy Network.” Kroll, Andy. “Exposed: The Dark-Money ATM of the Conservative Movement.” Mother Jones, February 5, 2013.
 

35 Drabold, Will. “Here’s What Mike Pence Said on LGBT Issues Over the Years.” Time, July 15, 2016. Hellmann, Jessie. “Pence: Abortion will end in U.S. ‘in our time.’” The Hill, February 27, 2018.
 

36 Ray, R.D. “Military Necessity and Homosexuality.” Indiana Policy Review, August 1993., p. 10. Indiana Policy Review, December, 1993. 
 

371998 CNP Membership by State.” Public Eye.
 

38 Ibid.
 

39 Religion News Service. “Opposition to Gay Marriage Links Members of Arlington Group.” May 16, 2006. AFA Journal. “Pro-family groups unite to promote ‘Marriage Protection Week.’” October 2003. See also George Barna, The Day Christians Changed America and Dan Gilgoff, The Jesus Machine, p. 156-8
 

40 Family Research Council. “History of the Family Research Council.”
 

41 FRC Action. “VVS 2017: Honoring Stu Epperson.” YouTube video.
 

42 Family Research Council. “A Response to False Claims made by The Nation.” June 15, 2005.
 

43 Council of Conservative Citizens
 

44 Charity Navigator, “American Family Association.”