By KENNETH P. VOGEL | 12/5/09
For years a certain strain of conservative thought has held that there was one sure hedge against economic depression, civil disorder and liberal rule – gold. Now that belief has led to a kind of harmonic convergence between ideology and commerce.
Anyone tuning in to conservative talk radio or Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck shows is bombarded by commercials for gold, mainly in the form of collectible coins, with announcers intoning that inflation and deficits caused by big government spending are devaluing the dollar and making gold the best investment money can buy.
The dire tone sounded in the ads often echo the occasionally apocalyptic economic forecasts of the shows’ hosts, many of whom have endorsement contracts with the gold retailers, appear in their ads, or have had their executives as guests to trash the economic course set by President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats, and to preach the attractions of gold.
“There’s a natural synergy between conservative talk radio listeners and gold,” said Michael Smerconish, a Philadelphia-based conservative-leaning talk show host who signed a deal to endorse Goldline International, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based retailer when his show entered syndication in January.
And it’s become an increasingly profitable synergy for everyone involved – the retailers, the networks and an array of hosts including O’Reilly and Beck, as well as radio talkers Mark Levin, Michael Savage, Laura Ingraham, Dennis Miller, Fred Thompson and G. Gordon Liddy.
This year, Goldline boasted it had become “the exclusive gold and precious metals company” of both Levin’s show and the one hosted by Thompson. Other Goldline endorsers include Beck, Ingraham, Miller and Lars Larson.
The stable of pitchmen at Rosland includes O’Reilly and fellow Fox News host Brian Kilmeade, Judge-turned-talker Andrew Napolitano and Liddy, among others.
Since they all appear to view the future of the U.S. economy under Obama as at best doubtful and at worst on the verge of catastrophe, there is little difference between the views they express during their shows and the endorsing they do during commercial breaks.
Pitching for gold retailer Rosland Capital, O’Reilly declares the dollar “under attack at home, from a Fed that’s printing paper money like it has no value, and from China, whose actions are tipping the balance of the global currency system away from the U.S. dollar”
Beck, who has taken to comparing the state of the U.S. economy to that of modern day Zimbabwe or pre-Hitler Germany, has been urging his viewers to invest in gold, and bragging about his own gold investments since at least last year.
“I know that you’ve been listening and watching my shows,” he said in a promo incorporated into a “Beck talks” video on his website.
“If you’ve been watching for any length of time, and you still haven’t looked into buying gold, what’s wrong with you? I was going to say ‘are you just a reporter for the New York Times?’ but I don’t think they actually watch. They just write about it.
“I think you’re nuts. When the system eventually collapses, and the government comes with guns and confiscates, you know, everything in your home and all your possessions, and then you fight off the raving mad cannibalistic crowds that Ted Turner talked about, don’t come crying to me. I told you: get gold.”
But Beck has recently come under fire from liberals alleging a conflict of interest. The criticism spiked after he used one of his trademark blackboard illustrations to provide tips for weathering “the three scenarios that we could be facing: recession, depression or collapse.” In the case of a total collapse of the economic system, he recommended that his viewers construct “fruit cellars” and rely on what he called “the three G system. It’s God, gold and guns.”
The Democrat-aligned watchdog group Media Matters asserted the segment was a “reward” to his gold advertisers, while liberal MSNBC host Keith Olbermann charged that Beck is “in it for the money. He keeps trying to sell people gold, largely because a disproportionate number of his advertisers sell people gold.”
Peter Epstein, president of Merit Financial Services, which advertises on Beck’s show, says gold retailers expect favorable coverage from commentators on whose shows they pay to advertise. “You pay anybody on any network and they say what you pay them to say,” said Epstein. “They’re bought and sold.”
Beck, who through a publicist declined to comment for this story, addressed the Media Matters allegation on his Thursday show, saying “So, I shouldn’t make money?” And he made the point that he touted gold before he became a Goldline endorser, and urges viewers to study and pray before investing in it.
In fact, most of the gold ads in heavy circulation urge consumers to do careful research before investing in it and to consider it as only part of a diversified portfolio. But the ads and many of the shows on which they air also play on, and feed, deep-seated conservative fears that reckless government monetary policy could render the dollar worthless, leaving gold as the only valid currency of the realm, and potentially enticing the U.S. government to seize most private gold supplies as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt did in 1933.
“It used to be that the right had an affinity for gold because gold was the money of the British Empire and the British Empire was the strongest empire in the world, and conservatives in the old days identified with people in authority, the people who were more upper class,” said Michael Kazin, a Georgetown University history professor whose biography of William Jennings Bryan details the early debate over whether the U.S. should remain on the gold standard.
When Roosevelt took the country off the gold standard, Kazin said conservatives began embracing gold in a more populist way – as something “not subject to the whims or the depredations of government or central banks, which are seen by (populists) on the right and the left as involved in conspiracies to help their friends.”
As Smerconish put it to POLITICO, “Those who are most concerned about government growth are increasingly dubious about the value of a dollar and look at gold as something they can see, feel, touch, appreciate.”
Financial analysts, investment advisors and precious metal experts warn that the collectibles market can be among the riskiest ways to invest in gold, and some blame aggressive advertising and the boosterism on conservative shows for helping push nervous investors into bad deals.
“This rich advertising campaign that has sprung up in the last year has almost politicized gold and certainly has estranged it from what gold investing is all about,” said Jon Nadler, a prominent Montreal-based gold analyst for the precious metals dealer Kitco.
Nadler – who says gold can be a very effective “asset allocation device, saving vehicle and long-term prudent insurance position” – fled communist Romania in 1972 with gold ducat coins hidden in his clothing, later using the coins to help pay for his son’s Ivy League education.
But anyone interested in buying gold primarily as an investment vehicle would be wise to avoid many of the big-advertising American gold coin retailers, because they typically sell coins for many times the value of the gold they contain, according to Nadler and Dennis Gartman, editor of an eponymous financial news service.
Nadler’s firm, which does not advertise on U.S. television, sells bullion that it can either store for, or send to, consumers, while Gartman recommended investors buy the gold traded fund on the New York Stock Exchange, which invests in physical bullion – but does not provide it to buyers – and is intended to track the price of gold. Other funds invest in gold mining and production companies, and gold-intensive manufacturing.
Gartman said that many of the coin-selling firms that have increased their television advertising this year as the price of gold has soared (which stood near a record $1,200-an-ounce at the end of last week), have a markup “so egregiously high the only thing you can call them is shysters.”
Goldline, whose representatives did not respond to several interview requests, advertises on CNN, as have some of its competitors. The market for gold transcends political ideology, according to conservative radio talker Mark Levin, another Goldline endorser.
“I don’t think only conservatives want to diversify,” Levin told POLITICO. “With the spending and the deficits and so forth, diversification is a smart thing, if it’s done wisely.”
But the retailers have nearly saturated some Fox shows, particularly Beck’s ratings juggernaut, which this summer maintained a handful of gold advertisers – including Goldline, Rosland Capital, Superior Gold Group and Merit Financial – even as dozens of other advertisers joined a boycott after Beck called Obama “a racist.”
“I could care less what people think of him,” Merit’s Epstein said of Beck. “We advertise on Fox because it makes the phone ring.”
Though Epstein’s firm has advertised on CNN, he said gold resonates more with Fox’s viewers “because it’s the angry white man audience – it’s the conservative audience. … They are distrustful of the government, of the regime.”
Bill Haynes, president of CMI Gold & Silver, a Phoenix-based precious metal dealer believes prominent endorsers “are absolutely doing a disservice to their viewers, listeners, fans and supporters. There’s a little bit of paranoia in all of us who like gold – a lot of paranoia in some people, a little bit in all of us – and they pander to people who are really afraid.”
The Ripoff Report, a controversial website on which consumers can file anonymous posts alleging mistreatment at the hands of businesses, contains dozens of complaints filed since the beginning of last year against a handful of gold retailers alleging deceptively high premiums and misleading marketing techniques, some of which have prompted rebuttals from the companies themselves.
In one such complaint, Mary Sisak of New Castle, Pa., wrote in August that she contacted Goldline because she saw a television ad featuring Beck, and online endorsements from Levin and Thompson. After spending $5,000 on Swiss Francs, Mary said she learned she could have purchased the same number of coins for $1,600 less.
“How could I be mislead by Glenn Beck, Fred Thompson and Marvin [sic] Levin?” she wrote.
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