On July 28, 2009, Glenn Beck called President Barack Obama a "racist" who has a "deep-seated hatred for white people, or white culture" in an appearance on the Fox News Channel morning show, Fox & Friends. Almost two years later, on June 30, 2011, he wrapped the final episode of Fox's The Glenn Beck Program.
What led to the demise of the firebrand's controversial television show? Everything from a sharp decline in ratings -- according to The New Republic, Beck's ratings fell from an average of 2.9 million in January 2010 to 1.8 million in January 2011, and Forbes' Rick Unger said his numbers represented the "steepest decline in all cable news programs" -- to political differences between Beck and the Fox team has been cited, but one important factor cannot be ignored.
Beck's vitriolic commentary forced Fox to take a hit where it hurts the most: its bottom line. But it would not have happened without a concerted effort by a number of groups and activists.
A True Netroots Campaign
In response to Beck's July 2009 comments, the netroots group Color of Change launched a campaign to convince the companies that advertised on Beck's show to pull their sponsorship.
"Beck's rhetoric was so egregious, so far over the line of decency, that few advertisers wold want to associate their brand with Beck," wrote James Rucker, co-founder of Color of Change, in an AlterNet column published in April 2011. "If we could convince advertisers to abandon Beck's show, and stay away, this would make Beck a financial liability for Fox News Channel, ultimately leading to his show's demise."
The campaign was a true netroots effort. An online petition sent to Beck's advertisers was signed by 285,000 people, and the number of advertisers who responded by dropping their ads from Beck's show exceeded 300.
Just two months into the boycott, Color of Change announced that it was costing Fox News $600,000 per week. Fox remained in denial, and two months later, Fox's Rupert Murdoch, recently involved in his own scandal for breaking into the cell phones of crime victims and dead service members, supported Beck by saying he was right when he made the offensive comments.
Fast forward to one year after the boycott was launched, and 15 of the 27 advertisements on Beck's show were News Corp house ads or ads for nonprofits that were likely sold at a reduced rate. That same month, the U.K. broadcast of Beck's show ran without any ads. Less than a year later, in April 2011, Beck's departure was announced. Using the same calculations that Color of Change used to arrive at the $600,000 per week figure in September 2009, Eric Boehlert, senior fellow at Media Matters for America, estimated that by the time of Beck's departure, the show booked nearly $43 million less than it would have had it held onto its advertisers.
"We are happy to see Glenn Beck's show come to an end," said Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, in a statement. "Beck consistently played racial politics by building conspiracy theories that relied on prejudice to explain problems in our society, with his actions being consistently condoned by Fox executives Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes. We're glad to see Fox end the show, although it only happened once its business interests were threatened by the departure of more than 300 advertisers, which has been attributed to the efforts of members and our multi-year campaign."
In a post for the blog Jack & Jill Politics, Robinson credited MoveOn, CREDO Action, Media Matters for America and StopBeck as partners in the campaign.
Even in the campaign's early stages, the New York Times wrote, "Given the number of advertisers that have pledged to remove their spots, it appears to have been unusually successful."
The Power of the People
What made it so successful? It was fueled by two incredibly powerful forces: the people and the Internet. In other words, the netroots.
Each group involved in this campaign has a strong web presence. Color of Change says on its website, "Using the Internet, we enable our members to speak in unison, with an amplified political voice." MoveOn and CREDO Action both have a history of Internet and mobile-based communication. Media Matters did its part by publishing updated lists of who had pulled their ads from Beck's show, and who was sticking around.
StopBeck added its own unique twist as a Twitter-focused effort. Those who are quick to dismiss the effectiveness of Twitter in such a campaign need look no further than the campaign's interactions with Nestle in May 2010. After ads for Nestle's Purina Cat Chow ran on The Glenn Beck Program, StopBeck participants contacted Nestle -- mainly through Twitter -- and Nestle tweeted several statements to clarify that while advertisements for several of its brands had run on Beck's show, they had been run in error, and the company did not advertise on Glenn Beck's television or radio show.
While the grassroots boycott efforts proved to be successful, the campaign received minimal attention from the mainstream media. Boehlert pointed out in a September 2009 Media Matters blog post that, while the campaign was mentioned from time to time, he could not find a single news outlet that had reported the momentum the boycott was gaining. At that point, the number of advertisers deserting Beck had increased five times since the New York Times called the campaign "unusually successful" -- yet, as Boehlert wrote, "the Times, whose newsroom normally obsesses over the intersection of politics and media … remained dutifully mum on the still-unfolding story."
Even with the support of nearly 400 advertisers and 285,000 petitioners, Rucker agreed as Beck's show came to an end.
"We knew all along that if we could make sure advertisers stayed away from Beck, it would eventually catch up with Fox," Rucker wrote in April 2011. "And it has, finally. But we'll never know how much sooner Fox would have been forced to drop Beck if the media had done its job and forced Fox and News Corp to explain why they were propping up someone who is bad for business."