Last week, perhaps the most fraught and fascinating political media scandal wasn’t Jeff Bezos’s surprise visit to The Washington Post, but rather a more obscure and potentially seismic controversy. In mid-December, Steven Crowder, the A-list conservative content creator, took his show Louder with Crowder independent from his old employers at The Blaze. In many ways, this was a significant deal unto itself. According to Crowder, 300,000 subscribers were paying $99 a year to join the “Mug Club,” the membership-only community that received premium content from Crowder (as well as the eponymous mug), and Crowder was gunning to replicate that cash flow with a new venture. “I can’t know if you are in, or if you want to be in Mug Club, unless you enter your email to MugClubForever.com,” he said in a grainy Twitter video posted shortly after leaving The Blaze.
In many ways, his departure seemed to mirror a concurrent pangaea-like reforming of the media landscape, especially the political-media landscape, consistent with Matt Yglesias’s move to Substack and Bari Weiss’s decision to launch The Free Press. After all, Crowder was a legitimate star who was betting on himself. But his professional pivot also reflected the growing D.I.Y. rebelliousness of the modern right—a world where conformity is considered despicable corporatism. For his part, Crowder stressed that his new company, a network of right-wing content creators, would remain independent not just from the dreaded mainstream media, but also from a burgeoning cabal of conservative mediacos he labeled “Big Con.”
In a video published last Wednesday, Crowder claimed that one such mediaco had offered him a contract that would penalize him if any of his social media channels were banned or de-monetized, or if he could not deliver a certain number of episodes. Moreover, he claimed, this company wanted complete control of his social media accounts, the lifeblood of his connection with his audience. “I don’t just mean unreasonable demands for control. But what I would argue [is they] are immoral terms that actually punish conservative content creators on behalf of big tech,” he told his audience. “And that’s something that I just couldn’t unsee.”
And yet there was one persnickety complexifier, to quote from Bezos. Though he did not name the company, there were enough clues to identify it as the Daily Wire. In response, Daily Wire C.E.O Jeremy Boreing released an hour long video riposte, walking through the details of the proposed contract. He revealed, among other things, that the Daily Wire had indeed offered Crowder an eye-popping $50 million over four years, with adjustments in the event that he was unable to deliver the agreed-upon number of episodes or lost more than 50 percent of his advertising revenue.
This sort of downside protection might be considered “cancelation insurance,” or simply smart risk management for a company that’s still dependent on the likes of YouTube, Facebook, Amazon AWS, and the Apple App Store. “It’s a long term investment to build these alternatives, and Daily Wire+ is an alternative platform,” Boreing acknowledged in the video. “But right now, we all still are dependent, for getting our message out, to have access to Big Tech and to monetize our content. We have to have access to Big Tech. That’s where the audience is. And it’s where the money is.”
The intention may have been damage control, but the implication—that Crowder had a less-than-sophisticated understanding of the media business, and that he didn’t understand that railing against Big Tech was a talking point but not a growth strategy—didn’t sit well with the Mug Club. In a video response of his own, Crowder leaked audio of his call with Boreing and claimed that the Wire wanted to exploit younger content creators as “wage slaves.” The Wire’s talent roster, including co-founder Ben Shapiro, Candace Owens, Matt Walsh, and Jordan Peterson hit back in a series of tweets, videos and podcast appearances, berating Crowder for secretly taping an ideological ally, and accusing him of ginning up controversy to rebuild the Mug Club email list. Crowder, in return, alleged on a podcast that the Wire was inflating their audience numbers. (Through a spokesperson, the Daily Wire declined to comment. Representatives for Crowder did not return repeated requests for comment.)
It’s all gotten very messy, and very personal, very fast. The battle between political influencers, like the Buckley–Vidal debates (or a Real Housewives reunion), has occupied a remarkable amount of headspace on the right. But it also points to the very real, increasingly important, question dividing conservative media, especially as Fox News’s influence is replaced by a nascent and balkanized ecosystem: Is going corporate selling out?
The Cancelation Club
Back in 2018, in the early post-Trump era of conservative media exuberance, I had a prescient conversation with Lionel Chetwynd, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter who had helped to launch Friends of Abe, a sort of underground networking group for downtrodden Republicans in Hollywood. I was working on an article about a newish L.A. media startup called the Daily Wire, then best known for hosting Shapiro’s podcast.
Shapiro and Boreing, members of Chetwynd’s support group (alongside Gary Sinise, Kelsey Grammer, Scott Baio, etcetera), were particularly notable to me for their novel business approach to the space. Right-wing media had quickly become the province of down-market brands, vicious marketing tactics and old school business models. Early movers, like Breitbart, came to prominence with unenviable design, scorched-earth content that catered to social media algorithms, and a revenue plan entirely dependent on the declining C.P.M.s of programmatic advertising. These companies, very much like the campaigns and candidates that inspired them, were built for high impact, not the long-term. And yet there was Boreing, who had the inkling of an idea for an upmarket politically-adjacent lifestyle brand that would hawk its content wares to consumers like Warby Parker sold sunglasses: direct-to-consumer.
Chetwynd summarized the debates that he, Boreing, Shapiro, Steve Bannon and Andrew Breitbart would frequently hold during their secretive salons circa 2009. Their shared goal was to inject conservative values into American culture, but they felt stymied by distribution channels—television, tech platforms, etc.—that were largely controlled, in their view, by liberals. This provoked a series of existential questions. “What is the difference between a distribution company and the product it’s selling?” Chetwynd asked me rhetorically. “Which is more important?” It was an early inquiry into the definitional question that all media companies must ask themselves: Are you a brand or a platform?
The Daily Wire’s answer was a little bit of both. The company derives the majority of its revenues from subscriptions, not finicky advertisers, but it’s still reliant on major distribution channels like YouTube, where it has nearly 3 million subscribers, or the Apple store, which hosts the DailyWire+ app. It has also invested in a diverse set of conservative personalities. In addition to Shapiro there is Owens, who entered the broader culture via her friendship with Kanye West; Petersen, whose pop psychology has molded a generation of young, disaffected men; and Walsh, who played a massive role in fixating the G.O.P. in opposition to the transgender community. Key to the Daily Wire brand is that they frequently, and publicly, disagree with each other. (Owens refused to vociferously denounce West after his “I love Hitler” comments, while Shapiro, an Orthodox Jew, was apoplectic.)
For other conservative outlets, however, the brand vs. platform debate isn’t just a business question—it’s also an ideological Rorschach test. Sure, the Wire vs. Crowder spat highlights the huge sums of money that can be made in the alt-media space these days: $50 million was the Wire’s opening offer, as Boreing stated in his first response video. But it also underscores the fact that these businesses are only viable as long as they maintain the loyalty and respect of an audience that is highly attuned to perceived slights or insincerity. And perhaps Boreing tipped his hand a little too hard when he acknowledged that, yeah, cancelation may be cool, but it doesn’t pay the bills. “I think there should be a major profit gathering business out there, because this is something that conservative movement has needed for some time,” said Brandon Morse, deputy managing editor of RedState, referring to the Daily Wire’s $180 million recurring revenue business. “[But] it just seems a little antithetical to the conservative movement, to a movement of what is supposed to be independently minded people thinking independently, doing independent things.”
Indeed, while Crowder’s decision to secretly record Boreing hasn’t played well with his peers—“I don’t have three strikes for leakers,” said commentator Jack Posobiec, no friend of the Wire—many conservative influencers I spoke to agreed with the gist of Crowder’s complaint. After all, right-wing tech and media entrepreneurs have been trying for years to incubate a genuine alternative to Silicon Valley. Building a cancel-proof tech industry—from cloud computing (Parler) to social media (Truth Social) and streaming video (Rumble)—has been a long, expensive slog. But nobody, except maybe Boreing and Shapiro, wants to admit that it’s not enough for these businesses to align with their audiences’ values. They have to make money, too.
“This is how business works. This is how the media works. This is how capitalism works,” Shapiro said on his show last Sunday, repeatedly emphasizing his point: “We are not communist. We do not pay people in order to not generate revenue, we cannot run a business and keep it functional and employ 300 people and have the money to spend on all the wonderful projects that we like to do… we can’t do any of that stuff, unless we’re a profitable company.”
The Crowder dustup points to real dangers for the Daily Wire as it grows alongside its founders’ ambitions into a low multi-billion dollar valuation. The conservative media audience is factional and transient, with digital outlets and influencers constantly falling in and out of favor. The Daily Wire, like the Times or Netflix, is working to establish itself as a deeply ingrained, daily habit by expanding into children’s television programming and lifestyle products. But positioning themselves as rivals to the media companies they hope to disrupt puts them at risk of disruption, themselves.
The roiling, MAGA-adjacent audience is composed of people who have canceled Disney+ subscriptions over gay characters, boycotted Starbucks over cups that say “Happy Holidays,” and are currently blasting their gas stoves to protest creeping environmentalism. To many of them, the quality of the content matters less than the message its consumption sends, or the independence of the platforms it sits atop. “I know it sounds a little more unorganized,” acknowledged Morse, a friend of Crowder’s. “But at the same time, I’d rather have a little bit more of an unorganized presence that thinks independently and comes up with ideas freely, then have some entity that has a huge wad of cash that it’s sitting on, but it’s a huge amount of cash that was earned by obeying a leftist entity.”
Cooperating with the likes of YouTube and Facebook may be financially prudent for now, Morse continued. “But I do really think that at some point in time, [the movement] can come up with something a little bit more intelligent than ‘Okay, we’re just going to give into Big Tech, and we’re going to do whatever they say so that we can continue to generate profits.’ You’re enslaving yourself, is what you’re doing, and you’re enslaving the employees under you as well.”