Steven Crowder, a right-wing blowhard with a YouTube show, was recently offered an astonishing $50 million to sign with Ben Shapiro’s company The Daily Wire for four years. Crowder rejected the offer, reportedly demanding even more money ($30 million a year) and likening it to a “slave contract.” A public spat then erupted between Shapiro and Crowder, with Shapiro calling Crowder “despicable,” Crowder accusing Shapiro of being in league with Big Tech, and so forth.
There is no reason you should care about this public fracas between these two loathsome, ignorant narcissists. However, your thoughts may have been drawn, as mine were, to the financial aspect. You may be thinking, as I have been: Good lord, is there really so much money in right-wing YouTube videos? Tens of millions of dollars for a guy who just sits at a desk and tells people the left wants to take your kids away if you refuse to take them to drag shows? Is this real? This is the kind of money these loudmouths are hauling in?
Alas. There’s apparently a ton of money in conservative punditry. It’s very difficult to measure precisely. Ben Shapiro isn’t required to disclose his net worth, but we can assume that if a second-tier figure like Crowder can be offered more than $10 million a year, Shapiro himself is making considerably more. Last year, his Daily Wire reported bringing in $100 million annually. (A Vanity Fair profile describes how the Wire’s online shows have “meticulously designed and personalized sets … stuffed with enough high-end cameras, soundproofing, and lighting equipment to rival the best cable-news studios.”) PragerU’s annual report gives a useful glimpse of the kinds of money flowing into one conservative propaganda factory. In 2022, they raised $65,000,000, which they used to fund content from children’s books to explainer videos to talk shows to online courses to documentaries. PragerU reports having received 1.2 billion views for its material in a single year, with lifetime views of over 7 billion (Earth’s current population is 7.8 billion). PragerU says it has 105 employees in 8 locations across the country including a 44,000 square foot headquarters in Los Angeles.
Even if PragerU and the Daily Wire were the only parts of the conservative propaganda apparatus, it would be formidable. But there’s plenty more. Fox News, of course, makes billions per year. Turning Point USA, which claims to have affiliated groups on 1,000 college campuses, brings in $50 million a year and has well over 350 staff. Its many divisions include a college branch with paid campus organizers, a high school outreach branch, a “faith” division with dozens of full-time staff who set up events at churches around the country, a massive event staff that puts on “6 National Summits and 8 Regional Conferences” every year, a marketing department to “saturate social and traditional media markets with the message of freedom and limited government through influencer-based and digital marketing initiatives,” an “advancement” department dedicated to finding donors, and a design department with an astonishing 17 full-time graphic designers. My colleague Ben Burgis, who debated Turning Point founder Charlie Kirk last year, went to their headquarters and says that it’s decidedly opulent, with custom carpeting that has the Turning Point USA logo woven into it. (That’s fine by me, incidentally, because any money they’re spending on fancy carpeting is money they’re not spending on filling young people’s heads with lies.)
Of course, I understand why they need all this. The conservative political agenda is so transparently repugnant that it cannot hope to “sell itself” and needs giant teams of full-time propagandists to develop and push new euphemisms for things like stripping basic workplace protections and wrecking the planet by pumping endless volumes of greenhouse gasses into the air. Still: it’s scary how many resources they have at their disposal. And I’ve only talked about a few institutions. There are many more, and there are also individuals like Dinesh D’Souza and the Tuttle Twins guy who sell millions of books. Republicans barely squeaked into a majority in the House of Representatives in last year’s elections (again, because their agenda is so obviously vile that it’s hard to get Americans to sign on), and Trump’s initial victory was by a slim margin, so it’s fair to say that this giant apparatus may be making a decisive difference between conservatives being politically successful and not. One of the most disturbing studies I’ve ever read shows that just reading an op-ed avowing a particular position shifts a certain number of the readers toward that position. Conservatives know that their talking points don’t necessarily need to be right as long as they’re heard, because when a given number of people hear unrefuted arguments, some will think the argument sounds persuasive and be persuaded. (PragerU cites its own studies showing that exposure to its content changes minds.)
So: conservatives are building a giant media machine that is designed to reach everyone from elementary school to old age. And we know this media machine may well be decisive in determining whether the right’s horrible agenda carries the day. We are in critical times. If we are going to address colossal problems like the climate crisis, we need information sources that show ordinary people what is going on, why it matters, and what they can do about it. (And that cut through absurd right-wing talking points like global warming is good because it will make everything nice and tropical.) Right-wing media is trying to get everyone around you to believe in ideas that, while not presently popular, if successful will contribute to the destruction of Earth as we know it. Our job is to get people to believe in and organize toward an alternative.
Understanding these facts is a big part of what led me to ditch my previous career plans (lawyer or academic) and start a leftist media organization. I realized that if we’re going to counter this, we need to fight much harder than we have been. And we desperately need independent left media organizations that tell the truth and expose lies.
Let me tell you a bit about leftist media, though: We are scrappy. The right likes to present the radical left as some giant powerful force that has control over all institutions. This is deranged. Socialist political power in this country is negligible, and the reach of socialist media organizations is tiny. I know this because I happen to run one. Current Affairs is probably the second-largest socialist magazine in the country, after the (considerably larger) Jacobin. If one of the leading right-wing organizations has over 350 staff, how many do you think one of the leading left-wing media outlets has? Two. Right now, the Current Affairs full-time staff is myself and managing editor Lily Sánchez. We have a part-time admin and freelance writers and artists. I’m the editor in chief, but I edit podcast episodes and do most of the graphic design for the magazine personally, because we can’t afford 10 people, let alone 300. We bring in a few hundred thousand dollars each year, all of which goes toward our shoestring expenses like printing the magazine, paying the rent, paying the salaries ($45k/year at the moment), and paying the writers and artists. We started off with a $16,000 Kickstarter campaign, and every month we have to hustle (and I am virtually glued to my desk) trying to make sure all of our modest expenses (like our two-room office) are paid for and we’re not going broke. For seven years now we’ve kept our heads above water. But it can be draining constantly trying to think of new ways to bring in small sums of money. I never regret forgoing a much more lucrative career in the law, because this work is so important (and because our subscribers send us such nice letters about what the magazine has meant to them). Money is a stupid thing to spend your life chasing, as every sensible person knows. But the point is that even those lucky few of us who are able to make a full-time living in left media are working on a shoestring. Nobody’s getting rich off this, despite what certain extremely wealthy pundits might allege.1
Jacobin, the only larger socialist magazine, is considerably larger than we are, but still very tiny compared to the right-wing media outlets. It brings in a few million dollars each year. Its salaries are very modest. (Its highest listed salary in 2019 was around $60,000, compared with around $400,000 at libertarian magazine Reason and the right-wing National Review.)There’s an obvious reason for this: socialism advocates for those who have very little wealth against those who have nearly all of it. Of course there’s no money in socialist politics. How could there be?
Here’s the upshot: independent left media needs your support. We are working with very limited resources against a colossal propaganda machine that is able to hire legions of highly skilled people. In our favor, we have the fact that leftist politics are sensible and humane, and thus massive propaganda onslaughts against ideas like Medicare For All have failed to erode public support for them. But conservatives are regrouping. They are writing children’s books, in the hopes that the next generation of young people won’t be as socialist as millennials are. (Current Affairs has at least one 11-year-old subscriber, which gives me hope that they will fail.)
There are plenty of good left media projects to support. (I list a few of them in the “Left Media Diet” section of Why You Should Be a Socialist). I am thrilled when others succeed, and despite the left’s notorious tendency toward schisms and factions, there’s a comradely relationship between most of us in left media, because we understand that we have to stick together if we are to have any hope. People at Jacobin have always been very supportive of Current Affairs. Choose which left media project you think is valuable to support. But do support them if you can. They cannot survive without subscriptions and donations.
For our part, I’m proud of how well Current Affairs uses its donors’ and subscribers’ money. Nobody makes a profit around here, we try to pay as much as we can for writing and art, and we keep salaries equal. When you support Current Affairs, your money is used to make a better publication that covers more important topics and provides a vital counterweight to both the right-wing noise machine and the mainstream media. (I haven’t even discussed why we need an alternative to the New York Times, but we do.) So please consider subscribing and/or donating (you can make a one-time or recurring donation, including a small-dollar monthly donation on Patreon to support our work). Our subscriptions are a bit pricey, but it’s not because we’re trying to gouge you. It’s because we’re trying to put out the best quality print magazine we can, with zero advertising or corporate sponsorship, overflowing with excellent writing and artwork. (If you don’t believe me, listen to Michael Moore, who said: “This is one of the best magazines in this country, I encourage you to read it. I’m a big fan of it, I learn things I don’t know and I read their analysis and it’s very enlightening… I couldn’t believe it when I read the first issue of it, both the subjects that were being covered or being written about are being said in a very different way than what you’re used to… [N]ot only highly readable, it’s inspiring… I will continue to be a reader and a subscriber and I bought a subscription for all my crew on my last movie. It’s a real gift to have Current Affairs…”) The more you support us, the more we can do to give people a reliable and humane alternative information source.
I’ve written before about what can be called the “political economy of knowledge,” or how the structure of wealth and power affects what information people end up knowing. In today’s media, it’s sadly often the case that the truth is paywalled and the lies are free. I often think about Karl Marx’s life in London. The insights that Marx gifted to the public in Capital depended on the economic conditions of Marx himself. He was so poor that he had to pawn his overcoat sometimes. When he didn’t have his overcoat, he couldn’t go out in the cold to the British museum to research and write Capital. Thus, when Marx had money, his theories were written. When he didn’t, they weren’t. This story from his life is a valuable illustration of Marx’s own point that the structure of an economy determines the dominant ideas that emerge in the society.
Likewise, if left media has funding, left ideas will be heard. If the capitalists are the only ones with the money to buy megaphones, they are the ones who will be heard. PragerU gets huge numbers of donations, which means it can offer much of its content free for viewers. If we had similar levels of funding, we could make our subscriptions much cheaper, taking down a financial barrier to hearing progressive ideas. The internet has, fortunately, made it much cheaper for us to compete without having much in the way of resources. Left media is flourishing in part because you don’t need to buy a radio station these days in order to reach people, you can just start a podcast..
Persuading people that an agenda of broad social uplift (and human survival on a warming planet) is in their best interest is one of our top priorities at this publication. If we can’t persuade the public of our ideas, we can’t build a political and social movement in that direction. We need your help to do this.