Cumulus Media Tells Hosts to Stop Claims of Fraud or Be Fired – The New York Times

Jan. 11, 2021, 1:25 p.m. ET

By Tiffany Hsu

Mark Levin, a Trump-supporting radio host, has tweeted about a “massive fraud perpetrated against the president.”
Credit…Erik S Lesser/EPA, via Shutterstock

Cumulus Media, a talk radio company with a roster of popular right-wing personalities including Dan Bongino, Mark Levin and Ben Shapiro, has ordered its employees at 416 stations nationwide to steer clear of endorsing misinformation about election fraud or using language that promotes violent protest.

Brian Philips, an executive vice president of Cumulus, issued the directive in a stern memo on Wednesday after a pro-Trump mob breached the halls of Congress. Addressed to employees working in the company’s programming and talent divisions, including those at its syndication arm, Westwood One, the memo included an introduction in bold typeface, with many words capitalized for emphasis.

“We need to help induce national calm NOW,” it began.

“Cumulus and Westwood One will not tolerate any suggestion that the election has not ended,” the memo continued. “The election has resolved, there are no alternate acceptable ‘paths.’ Please inform your staffs that we have ZERO TOLERANCE for any suggestion otherwise. If you transgress this policy, you can expect to separate from the company immediately. There will be no dog-whistle talk about ‘stolen elections,’ ‘civil wars’ or any other language that infers violent public disobedience is warranted, ever.”

The memo, which was first reported by Inside Music Media, underlined a statement at the end of the paragraph: “Through all of our communication channels, including social, we will work to urge restoration of PEACE AND ORDER.”

Cumulus did not respond to requests for comment. The company owns and operates 416 radio stations across 86 markets, including WMAL in Washington, WNBM in New York and KABC in Los Angeles.

In 2020, right-wing radio was a hotbed of baseless election fraud speculation, with hosts spouting some of the same debunked arguments later repeated by the mob that stormed the Capitol and have been echoed by Trump supporters threatening armed protests outside state government buildings in the days to come.

Mr. Levin has tweeted about a “massive fraud perpetrated against the president” and promoted the Jan. 6 demonstration in the days leading up to it. On the Wednesday episode of his radio show, Mr. Levin, who also hosts a Fox News program on Sunday nights, criticized those who stormed the Capitol, but defended “people who are peacefully protesting” against “a stolen election” — a characterization that has been repeatedly debunked as false.

Mr. Bongino, a former Secret Service agent and a current Fox News contributor, was also an investor in Parler, a social media app popular with Trump supporters. In an appearance on Fox News on Monday, Mr. Bongino fulminated against the suspension of Parler by major technology companies, referring to “the communists at Apple and Amazon and Google.”

Mr. Bongino, who hosts a podcast and has a popular Facebook page, has raised questions about what he has called “irregularities” in the 2020 election. On an episode of his podcast in November, he said, referring to the election, “Ladies and gentlemen, these claims that there are no evidence of fraud are utterly absurd.” On the day after the storming of the Capitol, he said he would not let go of his belief that “we had an election with unbelievably suspect behavior, and we better damn well fix it.” On Monday’s episode of his radio show, Mr. Bongino said that “principles about what happened in the election, the constitutionality, are in dispute and should be.”

Efforts to contact Mr. Bongino and Mr. Levin were unsuccessful. Mr. Shapiro, who said in an email on Monday that he had neither heard from Cumulus executives nor received a memo about coverage of election results, declared in October that he planned to vote for Mr. Trump but has also repeatedly stressed that the president has not produced evidence of voting fraud.

Brian Rosenwald, the author of “Talk Radio’s America” and a scholar in residence at the University of Pennsylvania, noted that talk radio has been “a massive force on the right” since the late 1980s, when Rush Limbaugh, a backer of the president’s baseless election-fraud claims, was ascendant, and was a key to Mr. Trump’s political rise.

“Base voters wanted someone who sounded like their favorite hosts, and Trump was just using the talk radio playbook,” Mr. Rosenwald said. “A lot of the anger on the right that is channeled into Trump was something hosts were picking up in their audiences and voicing long before Trump came along.”

Ray Appleton, a talk radio host in Fresno, Calif., was suspended by the Cumulus-owned central California station KMJ after saying on his Thursday show that “certain news editors should be hanged, maybe,” The Fresno Bee reported.

The Cumulus memo is part of a wave of censure from corporate America, one that has included banks and blue-chip businesses distancing themselves from the president and his allies, and social media companies throwing agitators off their platforms.

“Cumulus has a big, broad set of interests — they have advertisers, sports contracts, nonconservative podcasts, dealings with the F.C.C. over station licensing,” Mr. Rosenwald said. “They understand that if you get involved in something that risks instigating violence, there’s a serious danger to the bottom line.”

Sarah Sobieraj, a sociology professor at Tufts University, said that recent events offered an opportunity to rethink how “hyper-ideological spaces” are used to spread information.

“We may have seen the business model that relied on making people feel angry and afraid to drive attention reach its breaking point,” she said. “Media folks far and wide are probably asking the same questions: Could we be alienating members of the audience, losing investors and advertisers? We can’t just keep amping up.”