Ringo HW Chiu / AP
Of all the candidates trying to topple California Gov. Gavin Newsom in the recall election that ends today, conservative talk show host Larry Elder has the best chance.
Elder works for right-wing broadcaster Salem Media Group, an organization that has quietly grown into one of the most powerful forces in conservative media, with hosts peddling discredited claims about COVID-19, last year’s election and Moreover.
But Salem Media is not just an employer for Elder; it is a platform, a vehicle and an absolute support for him in this race. Polls suggest the recall attempt will fail. Still, Elder stands out as the candidate likely to get the most votes if Newsom falters. And whatever its success, a lot of it stems from the strong support from Salem Media.
Salem Media Group paid Elder $ 35,000 last week (under California law, companies are allowed to donate money directly to candidate campaigns). On Saturday, Elder was the guest speaker at an annual event sponsored by conservative website Town Hall and KRLA-AM radio in Southern California, the home station of Elder’s national radio show. Both outlets are owned by Salem Media.
Another KRLA host, Jennifer Horn, who was helping moderate the evening’s events, noted that for legal reasons, Salem couldn’t ask her to put on a proper campaign-style rally. But sometimes it was hard to tell the difference: Elder was comfortably seated, microphone in hand, joking with his colleagues in a way tailored to entice last-minute supporters to vote.
“Your question was what would I do when I was governor?” Elder asked, eliciting fervent applause as he lingered on the word “when”.
The elder jokes that he is the “black face of white supremacy”
Horn had introduced him to hundreds of enthusiastic fans at an Orange County Hyatt Regency by his favorite nickname: the Sage of South Central. Elder grew up in South Los Angeles, attended Brown University, and earned a law degree from the University of Michigan. Still, he wouldn’t make his mark in law.
If his unlikely offer succeeds, Elder would be the first African-American governor of the most populous state in the country. He would also bring a record of years of brazen political beliefs, especially on issues of race and gender, meant to spark outrage among millions of liberals who would be among his new voters.
At the event on Saturday, Elder vowed to kill one of Newsom’s coronavirus-related warrants, joked with another radio host that he was “the black face of white supremacy”, and defended himself earlier criticisms that he argued that women were not as smart as men. Elder told attendees he was not against COVID-19 vaccines and had been vaccinated himself, but questioned the need for government mandates.
On his radio show, he gave ample time to those who doubt the effectiveness of vaccines themselves. And he also amplified false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump.
Such controversies could inspire criticism from some employers. This is not the case at Salem Media, which has welcomed conspiracy theorists into its lineups. In a warm-up for Elder’s appearance on Saturday, the hosts interviewed a gallery of Trump surrogates: former Trump White House adviser Sebastian Gorka, Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk and Blaze host. and Fox News Mark Levin. All of them are employed by various Salem Media outlets.
Salem Media seeks to appeal to “an electoral base of fundamentalist Christians who are invited to the polls, on the basis of their conservative and sometimes socially regressive beliefs, anti-abortion, anti LGBT, etc.” “Shadow Network”, a book on the political alliance of conservative media, religious groups and business.
The brothers-in-law founded Salem Media as a religious broadcaster
The founders of Salem Media were two brothers-in-law, Stuart Epperson and Edward G. Atsinger III. They created the outfit in 1986 as a religious broadcaster. Their mission has now expanded to incorporate conservative fundamentalist Christianity and promote the victories of like-minded Republicans.
Salem Media, which is listed on Nasdaq, now owns more than 100 stations, making it one of the largest radio groups in the country. He says he distributes his programs to 3,000 stations nationwide. Plus, it has a host of conservative opinion sites, including not only Town Hall, but Hot Air, PJ Media, RedState, and Twitchy. Salem Media claims more than 200 million unique users per month, a figure that is difficult to verify. But Nelson says that through radio stations and sites, Salem Media can encourage Trump-minded people to vote, especially in the more conservative swing states of the Midwest and South.
Elder had twice been a national host for ABC Radio in Los Angeles. When he was fired for the second time in 2015, Salem hired him. Nelson says he’s found ways to align with his even more conservative bosses.
“Elder kind of turned to approving these positions and operating that voter base with this massive radio network support that was built under him,” Nelson told NPR.
The senior Salem Media executive responsible for handling media inquiries did not respond to three messages left by NPR over five days requesting an interview for this story. Elder’s campaign also did not respond to requests for comment.
In 2018, Salem Media fired Red State writers who were deemed insufficiently supportive of Trump, according to reports on CNN and elsewhere.
Salem Media puts extreme content behind the paywall
Behind the paywalls, some Salem Media commentators offer even more extreme takes. In July, PJ Media editor-in-chief Paula Bolyard warned readers that the critical reaction to the COVID-19 site’s coverage, particularly its caustic positions against public health officials, had made ravages. And, Bolyard wrote, there was a reason she was asking readers to subscribe in order to bypass payment walls: She didn’t want to subject her site’s most powerful posts to scrutiny.
“Regular readers of PJ Media know that much of our COVID-19 coverage has been behind a paid wall, accessible only to our VIP subscribers,” Bolyard wrote. “It just isn’t worth dealing with the fact-checkers, who went overtime to discredit us and damage our reputation.”
Behind the payment walls of various Salem Media sites, writers and podcasters have denounced the use of COVID-19 masks and vaccines and instead promoted discredited remedies. Additionally, the hosts unleash rude rants against the media and brag about their ability to evade not only fact-checkers but social media moderators as well. On repeated streaming videos on pay walls, RedState’s Scott Hounsell lifts a middle finger to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey.
To be clear, Salem, an explicitly conservative fundamentalist Christian media company, charges viewers, listeners and readers for access to uncensored and secular content.
Yet unfettered conspiracy theories can be found in the free content as well. On the free version of the Town Hall podcast “Triggered”, hosts Matt Vespa and Storm Paglia earlier this year called Congress a disgrace. They wondered why anyone should be surprised by the violent January 6 insurgency on the United States Capitol. Moments later, however, they concluded that the event was not real, but a set-up by the FBI.
In July, on his radio show Salem, Elder received a call from a voter urging him to run and suggesting the vote could be sabotaged against him. Elder scoffed at the Trump-style election fraud prediction and said he wouldn’t be surprised.
In recent days, Elder’s campaign has set up an official website claiming fraud is taking place in California’s recall race, even though the election is not yet over. It’s a claim – not supported by any significant evidence – that receives a warm welcome across Salem Media.