At the birth of rock ’n’ roll, DJ Alan Freed was like the attending physician. He wrote songs with Chuck Berry, got his own TV show and had spun records from Akron to New York. Then he got busted for payola — in fact, in 1960 he was the first to be indicted for taking money to play certain records. If Freed could create a hit — and big profits — what was $2,500 to a record label?
There have been no payola prosecutions in decades, but the word has been getting tossed around since Republican icon Dick Armey blew the whistle on his old employer last week. In December, Armey resigned as chairman of FreedomWorks, the political organization credited with powering the Tea Party.
Armey told Media Matters he left because he objected to “paid advertising” spent to get Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh to weave nice comments about FreedomWorks into their broadcasts. “Raising money,” Armey said, “[became] an end [unto] itself, not an instrumental activity to support the foundation work that our organization does.”
Wait, Beck and Limbaugh are getting paid to pimp FreedomWorks? That’s the real news here. In 2012, Beck took $1 million from FreedomWorks, while Limbaugh took an unspecified amount. Sounds like payola to me.
In 2011, Politico.com dug into conservative media and right-wing fundraising and quoted one troubled conservative involved with such a group: “I wish more of the grassroots knew the reality that this wasn’t Rush or Sean or Beck saying these things out of the goodness of their hearts. If the grassroots found out that these guys were getting paid seven figures a year to say this stuff, it might leave a bad taste in their mouth.”
But the grassroots don’t need to know that; they just need to keep writing checks. And to keep the outrage levels high, conservative media stars have to raise the rhetoric to further extremes, pushing elected officials into crazier corners. Now members of Congress are openly advocating blowing up the American economy over the debt ceiling, and 67 Republicans in the House voted against funding relief for Hurricane Sandy’s victims.
Unlike Freed, who could never find a job after his conviction and who died of alcoholism five years later, Dick Armey looks to be fine. FreedomWorks owes him $400,000 a year for 20 years as severance. And the group plans to stick with its pay-to-say arrangement with Beck and Limbaugh.
The question in payola was, “Do you really think this song is great, or is somebody just paying you to say that?” For FreedomWorks, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, it’s, “Do you really believe all this crazy stuff, or is somebody just paying you to say that?”
Meanwhile, the question for America is, “Which is the bigger crime?”