When Glenn Beck went on Fox & Friends in July and accused President Obama of having a “deep-seated hatred of white people and white culture,” he caught the attention of Color of Change, an organization that “exists to strengthen Black America’s political voice,” according to the group’s Web site. Color of Change’s campaign against Beck has been successful; it has secured commitments from 36 advertisers, including Clorox, Procter & Gamble and AT&T to stop advertising on Beck’s show. In return, Beck has used his TV show on Fox News as a forum to go after Color of Change founder Van Jones’ ties to the Obama administration (he is a special advisor on Green Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.) To explain Color of Change’s agenda, Brandweek spoke with James Rucker, a co-founder and executive director of the group (pictured left). Rucker said advertisers should be cognizant of how their advertising dollars can help support shows like Beck’s and that the group is watching to see which advertisers stick with Fox after their contracts are up. Here are some excerpts from the interview:
Brandweek: How long has Color of Change been around? What was the purpose?
James Rucker: Color of Change started literally two weeks after Hurricane Katrina. [We felt] as a group African-Americans didn’t have anything like the political engagement and power needed to effect a better outcome for the governmental response to Katrina. It really was a response to that. It started with friends and family and it has grown over the last four years to about 600,000 people. We use a very similar model to MoveOn-I used to work at MoveOn-of using online engagement to work for change.
BW: Glenn Beck is obviously your most high-profile campaign of late, but what else have you done in the past?
JR: We do a lot of work that’s related to [New Orleans]. We’ve done a fair amount around representations of black people in the media and we’ve done a lot related to Fox. One of our most successful campaigns was to call on the Congressional Black Caucus Institute to not partner with Fox to do the presidential debates. We thought by aligning with Fox they’d be legitimizing Fox as a news organization when [Fox has] a pattern of attacking and disparaging black Americans. We raised over a quarter of a million dollars for the legal defense fund of the Jena Six and really raised the profile of that case nationally. So it’s really a matter of holding members of Congress accountable and holding the media accountable.
BW: In the case of Glenn Beck, you went after the advertisers and it seems to have been effective. Do you think viewers put it together that if someone’s advertising on a show they are implicitly endorsing it?
JR: Yeah. In fact, usually this would be an escalation [compared to what we usually do.] [Typically] we’d help a story get told and offer a pretty lightweight way for people to get engaged. Our belief was that fundamentally we thought we could connect the dots for our members and we did. It’s really advertising dollars that allows them to have a platform. If there’s no advertisers, no financial support then you’d have a much smaller platform. We connected the dots and so far 100,000 of our members have responded.
BW: Is there any indication from Fox that they’re going to have him tone down his rhetoric?
JR: It’s hard to tell. There was this whole idea of was it a forced vacation [for Beck], a planned vacation? We were never able to tell. I think for Fox, they have a really toxic asset. It’s not news, it’s not even fact-based commentary to a large degree. He’s stoking these kinds of flames of race-based fear and he’s doing it on a regular basis and that we think is irresponsible. Really this should be a moment of truth for Fox: Is this what we want our platform to be used for? They haven’t really responded. They’ve talked about “We haven’t lost any revenue,” but I think one thing is our goal is really to pull revenue away from Beck’s show, not Fox overall and another thing is there are folks who are basically living up to their obligations under contract and have moved their ads from Beck’s show. When it’s time to reup it will be interesting to see what they do. I know for at least one, UPS, they said “We’re done with Fox.”
BW: When someone like Procter & Gamble does a buy with Fox they’re not necessarily saying “We want to be on the Glenn Beck Program,” it doesn’t go down to that level, but what kind of responsibility do you believe these advertisers have?
JR: I think they have a huge responsibility…When 36 of them say, “We don’t want our money to underwrite this program” I think it sends a pretty clear message to Fox and the American people as well that this isn’t something that they want to enable.
BW: Your group was formed after Hurricane Katrina. Kanye West was on an NBC telethon around that time saying George Bush doesn’t care about black people, which is in effect calling him racist. Do you see the same situation here or would you have called for a boycott?
JR: The irony here is actually we upheld Kanye’s comments. In fact in our first e-mail, the subject line was “Kanye was right.” I wouldn’t say that he called the president a racist. What he said was the president didn’t care about black people and when you have a crisis like there was in the Gulf and you can’t mobilize aid for days, I think those actions speak for themselves. We’ve seen other people say “George Bush doesn’t care about white people” and I do think we’re asking the question what really is racist? Kanye made an observation that seems to be based on real facts and real actions. It’s valid discourse as far as I’m concerned.
BW: Do you think if you’re ultimately successful that you’ll make things more politically correct and people will be even more afraid to say what’s on their minds?
JR: I would hope not and I would think not. I have a faith in people and businesses and advertisers that they can distinguish even one-off remarks. [Radio host Don] Imus would be an example. You could argue that there was a pattern as far as who was on Imus’ show and so on, but the reality was he made remarks that were offensive. Fine. This is very different. There seems to be a pattern here where part of Glenn Beck’s goal is scaring people based on their racial fears and stoking those flames and I do think it should give a network pause and they should recognize that there’s a responsibility as to what’s helpful and healthy and what serves democracy. We have people in town halls who are armed with misinformation. They’re in a place of fear and they’re interrupting honest healthy discourse. You have some people who have an oversimplified view of “We can’t say this and we can’t say that” and I think that’s really missing the point and it’s not a situation that we’re trying to create.
BW: Is there anyone else on your radar right now?
JR: Our focus is really on Glenn Beck. Ironically a few days before we launched that campaign, we were keeping a focus on [CNN’s Lou] Dobbs for keeping alive this false notion that President Obama wasn’t born here and isn’t a legitimate president. But Beck is clearly the worst of the worst.