By Gustav Wynn and Rob Kall
Hannity attacked the messenger, Limbaugh attacked his bosses, Beck's blog attacked "currency manipulator" George Soros and the web was abuzz as the the public considered whether Limbaugh, Hannity or Beck might have used their parent company's dial-a-fraud radio call-in service.
On his radio show Monday, (listen below) Rush Limbaugh responded to the online furor over his parent company acknowledging a secretive "custom caller" service. Rush questioned the judgment of the bosses at Premiere Radio Network when he got lumped in, accused of faking calls on his hyper-partisan political commentary show as it became clear his distributor hires and plants actors on radio programs. Until just recently, Premiere's promotional pitches did not specify that paid actors are not cast for calls on their nationally syndicated shows. Rush quickly claimed he had no idea his company was offering this service, pledging :"[i]f somebody had told me we were going to do this, I would put the kibosh on this".
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Reached for comment, Limbaugh's producer shared that they had never used Premiere's "On Call" service and had no idea who had.
Limbaugh sharply rebuked the suggestion, decrying media coverage of the article and denying he had ever used actors on his show as he tried to dissociate himself from the service and any possibility that he staged calls. One could even witness his brain switch gears as he begins to ask his own call screener if he was in on it. This demonstrates how quickly Rush would attempt to insulate himself should it be uncovered someone else was assigning actors to call his show, perhaps in "common purpose".
Next, about 2:06 into the clip he says "over the years" people have "come to him with ideas" to "get in the act" but he "shot it down". Okay, is this shades of Governor Walker? Who in Rush's circle of prospective collaborators came to him with these ideas? We don't know. He didn't say, protecting their identities from the very listeners he was trying to assuage.
Sean Hannity also denied planting calls in response to furiously tweeted reports announcing his company sells phony call-in services. But what did Hannity have to say about the many other allegations in the same article he cited
? Nothing. No point-by-point rebuttals.
At least now they have a denial on the record countering the fake call speculation, unlike Hannity's reaction to former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan's affirmation
that Karl Rove and the Bush White House's "massive propaganda" operation would "call Sean" to act as the government's media mouthpiece in hyping bogus arguments for the Iraq war. In that case, Hannity's response was to shift the conversation away so no one noticed his non-denial, even as Bill O'Reilly demanded McClellan tell viewers it was some other
Fox commentator running afoul of our domestic propaganda laws.
Whether it's frivolous prank call shows or political talk shows - the fact that even Hannity and Limbaugh have vociferously denounced the use of a paid caller operation puts all stations and hosts on notice. This may, however plunge a dagger into the heart of the Premiere On Call service. When the #1 and #2 broadcasters in the US disown a service their own company offers, wanting to put the "kibosh" on it, what does it say about stations who do use it? Anyone now found out to have used this service would be toast.
But questions still remain. Premiere's declaration their service "is not utilized by News/Talk programs or stations" begs the question, "who wrote the guidelines?" Who then is
allowed to hire the actors? Health shows? Consumer shows? Financial Shows? Relationship advice? Only wacky prank-call DJs? Since we don't know, we may well have
to speculate. [Update: some of these questions now may be answered
Unlike the two top-rated radio mega-icons, Glenn Beck defends the pay-to-lie services
, explaining real people are too dull and too inhibited. Through Beck's blog The Blaze,
author and Breitbart alum Mike Opelka also makes a blatant factual error saying "Tablet Magazine...neglected to exercise the most basic journalistic common courtesy -- asking the accused for a response. Instead of seeking real answers, they printed what they wanted to believe."
In fact, Tablet's original article
included a statement from Premiere spokesperson Karen Nelson who confirmed the existence of the service and shifted blame for any potential abuse onto her clients. "Premiere provides a wide variety of audio services for radio stations across the country, one of which is connecting local stations in major markets with great voice talent to supplement their programming needs," Nelson wrote in an email. "Voice actors know this service as Premiere On Call
. Premiere, like many other content providers, facilitates casting--while character and script development, and how the talent's contribution is integrated into programs, are handled by the varied stations." That's no denial.
Though Premiere may have been hiring actors since 2009 or even 2008, their casting service flew under the radar until last month when Tablet writer Liel Liebovitz met an actor who had auditioned for the job. "Once I learned about that, I reached out to other actors until I found enough sources who could corroborate the veracity of the story. I definitely talked to a number of actors who were paid to call in to radio shows. The people I talked to showed me communications from Premiere proving they were hired as freelance actors", Liebovitz said.
In further research, Liebovitz discovered that the Premiere On Call website advertised a wide diversity of voice types, ensuring calls would be varied and appear "authentic." But once discovered by a journalist, Premiere evidently had second thoughts about promoting the service online. Liebovitz told OpedNews.com, "Premiere took down the website as soon as I called to ask the question. I called on Tuesday, spoke to them on Wednesday, and it was taken down by Friday." The original promo copy can be seen as cached here
Monday, recapping Limbaugh's on-air rant, but left out how upset Rush seemed that he wasn't notified and that Premiere On Call hadn't announced a policy to exclude "News/Talk" programs earlier. They certainly admitted the service did in fact exist, but changed the previous wording to be a little more ambiguous.
"Premiere is the syndication arm of the Rush Limbaugh program and Limbaugh used his show, in case there was any doubt, to let his audience know that none of his calls have ever been staged...Premiere On Call is not utilized by any of Premiere's nationally syndicated talent, including Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck...Premiere On Call is a recently launched audio service connecting local entertainment radio stations with great voice talent to supplement their programming needs. The service is not utilized by News/Talk programs or stations."
Liebovitz, an assistant professor of communications at NYU, told OpedNews,
"I'm not some naive who is unaware of the machinations of modern media. But this thing blew me out of the water. I was deeply troubled by what I discovered is going on. I really did not think, and for that matter, neither did Michael Harrison of Talkers Magazine (the talk radio trade journal) that this even existed." The Web Reacts
A deluge of tweets
abounded in reaction to the OpedNews article, followed by heated debates on numerous blogs questioning whether it was appropriate to consider Limbaugh and Hannity as users of Premiere On Call. Bloggers on the right parroted Glenn Beck who dismissed TabletMag.com as "Soros-funded", asking "so what" if radio stations use pitch-perfect, clear-speaking actors instead of fumfering, inarticulate real people.
Far too many on the left inaccurately tweeted or blogged headlines like "Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity Caught Hiring Actors in Radio Fraud
" in their haste to trash the hosts, while industry insiders asserted fraudulent calls were a longstanding open secret in radio, either using actors, show staff, interns or friends, describing rolodexes full of "ringers". One commenter claims to have worked as a plant on relationship advice shows, as well as wacky morning shows and comedy programs - but never any political programs. Another reader offered there were several such services available inside the industry bubble.
The legality of the practice was discussed, with some pointing to the precedent of the 1960 Communications Act amendment that followed rigged TV quiz show scandals. But others pointed to a 2003 Florida court decision
that is said to have "legalized lying in news and media", with FOX TV teaming up with Monsanto to assert that there are no written rules against distorting "news" in the media as they suppressed safety concerns raised over introduction of synthetic hormones into livestock.
Many bloggers offered specific Sean Hannity call-ins they are wary may have been staged, such as a "small business owner" who called and started sobbing because Obama's taxing and regulations are "killing" her and her husband. This came in the days during the tax cut debate when Hannity was busily conflating the richest 1% of American earners with small business owners making $250K.
One listener pointed out how a "random" dittohead called Limbaugh to complain about actor Andy Griffith doing pro-Medicare ads. Then, suddenly, Rush started playing a prepared audio parody of Griffith making hilarious zingers about government healthcare programs. The celebrity impersonator threw in a race-baiting "good cracker!" comment, just for good measure at the end. Did Rush just happen to have the parody recording just laying around or was this call perhaps a set-up to the bit?
Another listener described a Limbaugh segment heard in the last week or two in which a caller claiming to be a schoolteacher described his NY town's fiscal troubles. On and on he went, allowed unusually excessive air time, detailing how the solution to the town's money woes was through natural gas exploration, which he assured was safe and environmentally friendly. He then described the town's "unreasonable" resistance to 'hydrofracking'. Rush was pretending to be only half interested, which the witness says he felt suggested the call and the caller was fake.
One Facebook user claimed Hannity and Limbaugh both showed a pattern of having summaries handy when right wing callers bring up stories, but are caught off guard when callers bring up left-leaning stories, hustling them off the air.
Liel Liebovitz, who broke this story, observed,
"I listen to a lot of radio, and since I learned this, I wonder, each time a caller calls in, whether this is a real person or an actor. Premier refused to answer to me and the Columbia Journalism Review. No-one is denying this. It is completely above ground. The question is who used this, how prevalent is this.
My piece is just step one. That's not even the important step. I would genuinely like to know how deep is this thing is. Is it a few radio shows using this once a month or every fourth caller?
My article ran, what, a month ago and really, no-one picked it up. I incredibly grateful to OpedNews for getting such tremendous attention and you have done a lot to get my article which did not receive much attention and put it on the agenda and get in front of a lot more people."
We are gratified the public is now having this discussion. Whether it's Premiere's top-rated market leaders, like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck, or progressive Premiere talk hosts like Randi Rhodes or Rev. Jesse Jackson, deception in radio betrays a sacred trust given public broadcasting licensees. Listeners may wonder, now knowing deceptive actors are out there, whether talk show callers are authentic or not whenever we listen. And it is Premiere's biggest name hosts -- Limbaugh, Beck and Hannity -- the people with the most leverage -- who have a duty to demand that Premiere disclose which shows use the planted actor service.