A couple of days ago a post went up about some public schools using Prager University videos in the classroom. I knew nothing about the organization, but the videos feature right wing ideologues like Ben Shapiro and Candace Owens, which suggested to me it has nothing to do with education whatsoever. So I looked a bit more into the media company, because that’s what it is, and the humble man who has stuck his name on it.
What is Prager University?
PragerU, short for Prager University, is an American non-profit organization that creates videos on various political, economic, and philosophical topics from an American conservative or right-wing perspective. The organization was co-founded by Allen Estrin and talk show host and writer Dennis Prager. The organization relies on donations, and much of its early funding came from fracking billionaires Dan and Farris Wilks. Their current CEO is Marissa Streit.
Sociologist Francesca Tripodi described the effect of PragerU’s videos in a report for the Data & Society Research Institute. In a 2018 study, Tripodi used Candace Owens and James Damore as case studies in order to demonstrate that there is a YouTube algorithmic connection between Fox News, PragerU, and alt-right YouTube personalities. Tripodi wrote that PragerU relies on “search engine optimization and suggested content to elevate their messaging,” and that PragerU’s content “allows for those who identify as mainline conservatives to gain easy access to white supremacist logic.”On page 36 of her report, Tripodi noted that PragerU was very popular among the respondents who participated in her study. She noted that regardless of age, all participants in her study confirmed either having liked or shared PragerU videos on Facebook. Tripodi also noted: ‘Sites like PragerU create an opportunity to dabble in content that seems extremely innocuous, yet makes connections to the same kinds of ‘revelations’ pushed out by the alt-right.”
Who is Denis Prager?
Dennis Mark Prager (/ˈpreɪɡər/; born August 2, 1948) is an American conservative radio talk show host and writer. His views generally align with social conservatism. He founded PragerU, an American non-profit organization that creates videos on various political, economic, and philosophical topics from a conservative perspective.
Since 1999, he has hosted a nationally syndicated talk show on the socially and politically conservative Christian radio station KRLA in Los Angeles. KRLA is part of the Salem Media Group that carries other conservative hosts, including James Dobson, Randall Terry, Janet Parshall, Sebastian Gorka and Larry Elder; it is a key voice of the Christian right that seeks to change American politics as well as the way that individual people live.
Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic described how Trump’s adultery, character assassination of others, embrace of torture, bad behavior, whining, and use of profanity violate values and principles that Prager has upheld as essential to civil life and noted that Prager had said that endorsing Trump was in line with his principles because “[w]e hold that defeating Hillary Clinton, the Democrats, and the Left is also a principle. And that it is the greater principle”. Friedersdorf wrote, “[I]f that’s all principle means now, we haven’t much need for public moralists to write weekly columns with appeals to Judeo-Christian ethics and the importance of good character. Just pick the political party you like best and let the ends justify the means.
Some commentary on PragerU’s methods
When conservatives portray the “average young woman in America” as an obnoxious, capitalist-hating vegan, it’s no wonder Republicans can’t get young people to vote for them. Luckily, even conservatives recognized that the video was ridiculous. It’s just too bad that neither of the young people in the video had the sense to dissuade everyone who thought this was a good idea.
You don’t win the culture war by turning the other side into a caricature. But when your sole aim is to make a straw man of your opponent so you easily can knock it down, it doesn’t matter if your strategy has neither truth nor humor. All you have to do is “own the libs.”
At PragerU, police are not biased against black men, and man-made climate change is debatable. You’ll find takes on animal rights (against), the $15 minimum wage (against), the gender wage gap (doesn’t exist), and why the South turned Republican (nothing to do with race). Prager has hosted a few dozen videos himself, including “Just Say ‘Merry Christmas,’” his take on the “war on Christmas” genre, and “He Wants You,” an apologia for men who ogle women. He personally approves every item, edits every script, and courts “faculty,” including heavy hitters such as Dinesh D’Souza, Steve Forbes, and former White House press secretary Dana Perino. Some presenters, like Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, are credentialed. Others, like comedian Adam Carolla, merely speak with the confidence of people who are.
PragerU “students” don’t earn degrees, of course. Yet a dedicated viewer might walk away with the consistently conservative outlook of a charming, curmudgeonly 69-year-old radio personality who lacks the ratings of his blustery peers—the Sean Hannitys and Mark Levins and Alex Joneses—but boasts a more reassuring disposition. Despite his chosen profession and Brooklyn upbringing, Prager is no yeller. He welcomes guests with whom he disagrees and is respectful to all callers. “There was a time there when Dennis Prager and Bill Bennett represented to me what talk radio could become, which would be focusing on ideas and intelligent conversation,” says fellow conservative talker Charlie Sykes, who has guest-hosted Prager’s show.
Prager is convinced that at this historical moment—not in 1976 when he voted for Jimmy Carter, nor in 2006 when he was a sanguine Bush supporter, but right now—our society is collapsing, and a liberal Supreme Court nominee could portend the final flood. Last summer, he tweeted that Western media outlets “pose a far greater danger to Western civilization than Russia does.” Prager explained to me that because “the universities have all but shut down, not to mention demonized, nonleft ideas,” and the media “are not far behind,” it is his duty to provide a conservative take “on things that matter—economics, good and evil, America, Israel, religion, God, etc.” His goal is to imbue young people with “the principles on which America was founded,” and to demonstrate “why Western society will not survive the death of Judeo-Christian values.”
While it is not an accredited institution of higher learning, Prager University is most definitely an education. Scrolling through its 300-odd videos yields a survey of almost every divisive national issue in the United States today: racism, sexism, income inequality, gun ownership, Islam, immigration, Israel, police brutality, and, of course, speech on college campuses.
Much of Prager’s early funding came from the fracking billionaire Wilks brothers, early Ted Cruz donors who sat out of the 2016 general election. In addition to running their own church, the Assembly of Yahweh — where one of the brothers is a pastor who preaches that the Bible is historically and scientifically accurate — the Wilks brothers own the conservative website the Daily Wire and are reported to be considering a bid for Glenn Beck’s the Blaze. Two members of the Wilks family sit on the PragerU board.
PragerU’s critics have argued that the site is a gateway into the darker parts of the Trump internet, that its content is merely the polite tip of a menacing iceberg: the digital world of conspiracy theory, xenophobia, racism, and anti-Semitism whose rise accompanied Trump’s.