PragerU relies on a veneer of respectability to obscure its propagandist mission
Despite the name, Prager University is not, to quote from the disclaimer pasted on the bottom of its homepage, “an accredited academic institution” -- nor does it “offer certifications or diplomas.”
Despite its claim that its videos are being “censored” by social media platforms, the site boasts that those same videos have racked up more than 2.45 billion views across YouTube and Facebook.
Despite -- once again, quoting from its homepage -- being “a place where you are free to learn,” it’s liable to leave you misinformed.
And despite being built upon this absurd collection of contradictions, PragerU is arguably one of the most influential right-wing propaganda networks put into motion since Fox News.
A 2018 BuzzFeed report told the story of one high school student whose political views did an about-face over the span of just a couple of months of watching PragerU videos. A PragerU brochure makes bold-yet-believable claims about its viewing demographics and its ability to sway their political leanings, noting that more than 60% of its YouTube viewers are under the age of 35 and 70% of surveyed viewers said a video had changed their minds. A March 2018 Mother Jones article called PragerU a “Right-Wing YouTube Empire That’s Quietly Turning Millennials Into Conservatives,” and the Los Angeles Times recently said PragerU was “having more success rallying young people to Trump’s side than many campaign committees aligned with the president.”
One could also argue that unlike websites like Breitbart, The Daily Caller, or The Daily Wire, which have well-earned reputations as hyperpartisan cesspools of misinformation, PragerU has been able to mostly avoid such stigma -- even though it shares a number of key associations with those sites.
PragerU cloaks its extremism in a veneer of respectability, and that’s crucial to its success.
The site, founded in 2011, is known for its polished and persuasive five-minute videos. Some videos focus on history, like the legacy of Christopher Columbus (apparently he’s gotten a bad rap) or the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt (the “New Deal” actually made things worse). Others tackle ongoing issues dividing the world such as religion (the West can thank “Judeo-Christian values” for its success) or the push for a $15 minimum wage (a bad idea!).
If you didn’t know much about the specific presenters, their bios give the impression that many of them are relatively mainstream right-leaning media figures. For instance, PragerU has videos hosted by multiple Pulitzer Prize winners, popular TV hosts, sports journalists, current and former Washington Post columnists, a Canadian former prime minister, a five-time Emmy Award winner, a nominee to head the Labor Department, a two-time presidential candidate, a former White House press secretary, as well as current and former faculty at respected institutions such as West Point, Stanford, UCLA, Harvard, and Princeton, among others.
Some of the site’s videos are … well, they’re fine. Comedian Yakov Smirnoff hosts a clip about the importance of laughter in healthy relationships. Col. Ty Seidule delivers a straightforward answer to the question of whether or not the Civil War was really about slavery (he says it was). Other clips, such as Adam Carolla’s ode to personal change, Jordan Peterson’s call to “fix yourself,” or Michele Tafoya’s “secret to success,” are just boilerplate self-help speeches we’ve all probably heard dozens of variations on in our lives. It’s the combination of respectable-sounding presenters with a handful of harmless clips that cover for the site’s hard-right ideology.
Peterson’s “Fix Yourself” video is a perfect example of PragerU’s ability to use gateway videos to pivot to something much darker.
Peterson posted “Fix Yourself” -- a standard clip about self-reflection and improvement -- in January 2018. But a few months later, he came up with a video titled “Dangerous People Are Teaching Your Kids,” in which he rails against professors who are “indoctrinating young minds throughout the West with their resentment-ridden ideology.”
These people “have made it their life's mission to undermine Western civilization itself, which they regard as corrupt, oppressive, and patriarchal.” This “gang of nihilists,” as Peterson puts it, is made up of “post-modern neo-Marxists” whose ideas “should be consigned to the dustbin of history.”
Peterson’s views make him an extremist, and he’s far from the only one with a PragerU platform. YouTuber Steven Crowder’s video about Columbus Day engages in wild historical revisionism and claims that criticizing Columbus is “an exercise in hating Western civilization, which is really just an exercise in hating yourself.” The site posted (and later deleted) a video by slur-slinging right-wing conspiracy theorist Owen Benjamin demonizing leftists. Author Douglas Murray appeared in a video claiming that the decision of European countries to take in refugees from the Middle East and North Africa was a form of “suicide, the self-annihilation of a culture.” Ben Shapiro’s treatise on Western superiority was built upon bad facts and bad arguments. Shapiro’s Daily Wire colleagues Andrew Klavan, Michael Knowles, and Matt Walsh railed against feminism, political correctness, and the very concept of self-esteem, respectively.
It’s no huge surprise that PragerU’s content often mirrors the views long championed by its namesake, Dennis Prager, a radio-host-turned-digital media mogul.
No one article can truly encapsulate Prager’s decades of political commentary, but he did a pretty decent job summarizing his own worldview in a March column in the National Review. In the piece, he explained why he didn’t believe the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to disrupt the 2016 election:
But the biggest reason I never believed the Russian collusion charge was that the charge emanated from the left. And the Left lies about everything. Truth is a liberal value, and truth is a conservative value, but it has never been a left-wing value. People on the left say whatever advances their immediate agenda. Power is their moral lodestar; therefore, truth is always subservient to it.
If you always doubt a leftist claim, you will almost always be closer to the truth. I employed that rule in concluding the collusion story was a fraud, and it served me well.
There’s a big difference between critical thinking and reflexive contrarianism. A 2011 blog post shines further light on how Prager sees the world:
Ever since I attended college, I have been convinced that either “studies” confirm what common sense suggests or that they are mistaken. I realized this when I was presented with study after study showing that boys and girls were not inherently different from one another, and they acted differently only because of sexist upbringings.
To Prager, if evidence doesn’t support his existing beliefs, the evidence must be wrong. This is instructive when it comes to understanding what kind of education one might get from a diet of PragerU videos.
Like many of his PragerU presenters, Prager himself is a far-right extremist on a number of issues. He’s claimed that the Green New Deal “will lead to bloodshed, loss of liberty, loss of human rights.” He has a long history of making false claims about HIV and AIDS -- specifically that it’s not something straight people need to concern themselves with. He’s compared a wife’s “obligation” to have sex with her husband whether she wants to or not to a man’s obligation to go to work even if he’s not in the mood. He’s argued that legalizing same-sex marriage would open the door to legalized incest and polygamy, compared the Supreme Court’s Prop 8 ruling to a coup, and said that banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity would lead to “fascism.” He’s also one of several conservative commentators who were adamant that the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard wasn’t motivated by anti-gay hate.
He’s stated a belief that people saying “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas” is a sign that “Americans today are less free than at any time since the abolition of slavery (with the obvious exception of blacks under Jim Crow).” Prager also argues that discussion of campus rape culture is “a gargantuan lie” pushed by feminists “to get votes.” In 2012, Prager equated the NCAA’s punishment of Penn State University for its role in covering for assistant coach Jerry Sandusky’s serial sexual abuse of young boys with the act itself, writing, “The lesson the NCAA is teaching young people — that history and truth don’t matter if enough powerful people don’t want them to matter — can be as injurious to society as the cover-up was to the victims of Sandusky.” In 2006, he wrote a column arguing that Rep.-elect Keith Ellison (D-MN), a Muslim, should not be allowed to be sworn into Congress unless he did so with his hand on the Bible, not the Quran as he planned on doing. In that column, Prager compared the Quran to Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf and L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics.
PragerU's funding largely comes from extremely religious GOP mega-donors with ties to the fossil fuel industry.
Thanks in large part to the backing of fracking billionaires and Daily Wire funders Dan and Farris Wilks, Prager was able to fund PragerU, creating an outsized platform for his extremist views.
An April 2015 report in Rewire put a spotlight on the organization and its plan to get its videos incorporated into public school lessons. At that time, according to Rewire, the Wilks family had given more than $6.5 million to PragerU. A brief look at some of their beliefs shows why they made for such a perfect fit for Prager:
In 2013, at a Pastors and Pews event sponsored by the American Family Association, Dan Wilks had this to say about education: “I just think we have to make people aware, you know, and bring the Bible back into the school, and start teaching our kids at a younger age, and, uh, you know, and focus on the younger generation.”
His brother Farris went on to add: “They’re being taught the other ideas, the gay agenda, every day out in the world so we have to stand up and explain to them that that’s not real, that’s not proper, it’s not right.”
A Reuters report about the brothers’ support of Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign helped further illustrate their extreme positions on things like LGBTQ rights and climate change:
In sermons, recordings of which were reviewed by Reuters, Farris Wilks has called homosexuality “a perversion tantamount to bestiality, pedophilia and incest.” “It’s a predatorial lifestyle in that they need your children, and straight people having kids, to fulfill their sexual habits,” he said.
Climate change, he says, is God’s will. “If (God) wants the polar caps to remain in place, then he will leave them there,” he told congregants at a service in July 2013.
With large chunks of money coming in from these extremely religious GOP mega-donors with ties to the fossil fuel industry, it’s not exactly shocking that the site would have videos with titles like “Climate Change: What’s So Alarming?” “Do 97% of Climate Scientists Really Agree?” “The Paris Climate Agreement Won’t Change the Climate,” “Fossil Fuels: The Greenest Energy,” and “The Truth about CO2.” PragerU also has an entire series about the Ten Commandments, which Dennis Prager describes as “all that is necessary to make a good world.” And George Will, Kimberley Strassel, and David French all have videos explaining why campaign finance reform and/or public disclosure laws are actually tyrannical, anti-democratic, and/or a way for progressives to ruin the lives of people they disagree with.
PragerU’s extremist, factually inaccurate propaganda has even drawn criticism from some on the right.
Whether it’s gaslighting viewers about President Donald Trump’s “very fine people” comments after the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally or engaging in some truly bizarre Vietnam War revisionism, PragerU has no apparent problem with blatant misinformation in its videos. Some of these distortions are too much for allies (and occasional allies) to handle.
Writing in The American Conservative, Paul Gottfried slammed a PragerU video by Dinesh D’Souza for labeling fascism a leftist worldview based on a factually bereft understanding of Italian philosopher Giovanni Gentile’s belief system:
[Prager and D’Souza] zoom to the heart of Gentile’s neo-Hegelian worldview in thirty seconds and state with absolute certainty that he was a “leftist.” We have to assume that Prager, D’Souza and the rest of their crowd know this intuitively, inasmuch they give no indication of having ever read a word of Gentile’s thought, perhaps outside of a few phrases that they extracted from his Doctrine of Fascism. Their judgment also clashes with that of almost all scholars of Gentile’s work, from across the political spectrum, who view him, as I do in my study of fascism, as the most distinguished intellectual of the revolutionary right.
According to our two stars in what has been laughably named “Prager University,” Gentile proves that “fascism bears a deep kinship to today’s Left.” After all, “Democrat progressives, in full agreement with Gentile, love and push for a centralized state, which manifests itself in stuff like recent state expansion into the private sector.” Among the questions that are left begging are these: “Do the modern Left and Gentile agree on the purpose and functions of the state?” “Would Gentile and Mussolini, who glorified Roman manliness, have rallied to the present Left in its support of feminism and gay marriage?” Did Gentile back in the 1920s favor the kind of “the stuff’ the administrative state is pushing right now?” The answer to all these questions, which of course wouldn’t be acceptable at Prager University, is an emphatic “no.” Control of the national economy by the Italian fascist state, down until its German-puppet version was established as the Italian Social Republic in September 1943, was about the equivalent of that of New Deal America.
In a blog post for the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, Alex Nowrasteh picked apart a PragerU video narrated by Michelle Malkin titled “A Nation of Immigration,” saying it is “poorly framed, rife with errors and half-truths, leaves out a lot of relevant information, and comes to an anti-legal immigration conclusion that is unsupported by the evidence presented in the rest of the video.” While it’s unsurprising that the pro-immigration Cato Institute would disagree with Malkin’s conclusions on ideological grounds, Nowrasteh’s dissection of Malkin’s factual errors is illustrative of PragerU’s reliance on omission to advance its narrative.
Reason’s Billy Binion has obliterated PragerU’s claims of censorship on multiple occasions. In one article, he rebutted Prager’s argument that “YouTube's decision to restrict approximately 20 percent of his online 5-minute video shorts on the grounds that they contain mature content -- thus hiding those videos from the approximately 1.5 percent of users who elect for restricted control” was evidence that PragerU was being punished for hosting “a conservative perspective”:
Unfortunately for this argument, Google records show that the Huffington Post, Vox, Buzzfeed, NowThis, and The Daily Show all have much larger swaths of content restricted under YouTube's policy. Seventy-one percent of videos from The Young Turks -- a leftist channel -- are blocked, dwarfing PragerU's share.
In a separate piece, Binion debunked Prager’s claims that Google search’s autofill suggestions were evidence of bias against PragerU.
It’s not enough to just say that PragerU isn’t an actual university. It’s outright propaganda, and those appearing on the channel are propagandists.
As an institution, PragerU has proved to be toxic, and it should be best understood as -- as its “About Us” page notes -- a “digital marketing campaign.” If one of Prager University’s goals really is to “[make] the world a better place, five minutes at a time,” it deserves a failing grade for its current output.