The Former Chick-Fil-A Manager Paving the Crossroads of Conservative Media
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he is converting conservative hearts and minds on the web.
Gaston Mooney sat in the Louisiana living room of Phil Robertson, trying to get the Duck Dynasty reality TV star to join his recently formed conservative media empire. “He’s in his recliner, doesn’t have his shoes on, because he’s Phil, he’s authentic,” Mooney says. “He had just gotten done praying with a drug addict, trying to help minister to him, and he turns and says, ‘Hey, what do we have to talk about?’”
It was a little bit of a “pinch-me moment,” Mooney says. But it’s one the 35-year-old Blaze Media president is well prepared for. Since helping CRTV and TheBlaze join forces in December — a partnership that united the media projects of pro-Trump conservative Mark Levin and (former) Never Trumper Glenn Beck — Mooney has led Blaze Media in its competition against the Fox News digital arm Fox Nation to become the go-to source for conservatives online.
In building Blaze Media, available on at least 153 cable providers, Mooney has put a premium on attracting talent — from younger demographic draws like podcaster Allie Beth Stuckey to veterans like Louder With Crowder host Steven Crowder. “I give him all the credit. Gaston is a very good deal-maker,” says Eric Bolling, whom Mooney convinced to become Blaze TV’s senior political anchor and host of the show AmERICa.
‘Hate speech’ has become ‘I disagree with what you say, and I’m trying to restrict what you’re saying.’
Of course, if that talent is Blaze Media’s strength, it’s also the budding network’s biggest liability. “These more extreme voices” wouldn’t fly on television, says Dan Cassino, a political scientist at Fairleigh Dickinson University studying conservative media. Remember that Beck, despite his good ratings at Fox News, was eventually allowed to walk in part because advertisers were leaving his conspiracy-theory-tinged program. Fox let Bolling go amid a company-wide sexual harassment investigation. And Gavin McInnes, the Vice Media co-founder and founder of the White nationalist Proud Boys, had his planned Blaze show canceled shortly before the new year — “I can’t go into details,” Mooney says — but remains a regular guest on the network. Meanwhile, Ben Shapiro, the Daily Wire founder and podcaster, has so far rebuffed Blaze’s advances.
Wearing blue jeans and a Masters golf polo as we sit at Caviar and Bananas, a trendy, lightbulb-filled market in downtown Greenville, South Carolina, where he lives with his wife and three kids, Mooney looks like the high school student he was in the Birmingham suburbs, growing up watching Bill O’Reilly with his father, Arnold Mooney, now a state representative in Alabama, and playing war strategy games like Age of Empires and StarCraft.
After meeting his wife while attending Furman University, Mooney found himself in Washington, working in Congress and then for the George W. Bush administration Environmental Protection Agency. He left when Barack Obama came into office and was unemployed for six months before taking a job as assistant manager at a Maryland Chick-fil-A — after turning down a second interview with the FBI — in the hopes of one day buying his own franchise in the South. As he did everything from working the register to snaking the toilets, Mooney learned the important management skill of delegating tasks. But new Obamacare requirements, he says, made it tougher to run the business and led him to realize politics “was still in my blood.”
He soon found himself working for South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, one of the chamber’s conservative firebrands, and then for the Senate Steering Committee, a right-wing counterweight to leadership where he started keeping scorecards on where senators stood on key issues. In 2014, he launched the Conservative Review, and the scorecards became influential litmus tests for lawmakers. Mooney built the upstart media group’s digital network until it merged with TheBlaze in December. Critics say TheBlaze was getting bailed out after a year of layoffs and cutting costs, while Mooney argues that the move benefited both companies. “We had a lot of content, a large subscriber base, while TheBlaze had a sales team, a high-traffic website and a linear [TV] channel,” he says.
When Mooney surveys the industry battlefield today, he sees Facebook Live streams replacing satellite TV trucks, Sunday morning political shows matched by viral YouTube stars. As cord cutting continues, he raves about the potential in Roku and Amazon Fire users. With hundreds of thousands of paying subscribers, he says, he can outlast the competition. The biggest demographic for Blaze’s free content is 25- to 35-year-olds, while its biggest audience of television subscribers is 55 to 65. CRTV and Blaze combined, Mooney says, amassed well more than 2 billion video views in the past year. “If Gaston, and the other senior management at Blaze, can figure out how to make us the one-stop for conservative opinion, we win. We’re very close,” Bolling says. Adds the retired DeMint: “He’s now running what I think is going to be — and already is to some degree — one of the more important media sources for the country.”
While Fox Nation had some embarrassing moments in its early launch — poor graphics, guests who didn’t come out at the right time, dropped segments — Blaze “knows what they’re doing a little better,” Cassino says. “We are extremely pleased with the response to Fox Nation, especially considering we are only a 3-month-old platform,” replies John Finley, the executive vice president who oversees Fox Nation. “Clearly, [Cassino] only read snippets of reviews from left-wing publications that fall outside our target audience instead of actually watching the more than 800 hours of programming.”
Competing with the behemoth Fox brand is one thing. But Mooney admits that the trend of “de-platforming” — where social media platforms ban what they consider hate speech — keeps him up at night. Facebook removed videos discussing problems with Islamic refugees in Europe. YouTube demonetized seven videos on one of its channels in February, Mooney says, including reports about the “ISIS jihadi bride” barred from returning to the U.S. and a critique of media coverage of the Jussie Smollett hate crime hoax. These moves by platforms strike to the core of Blaze’s revenue model. Go too far and even services like PayPal could stop doing business with them. “Hate speech has become ‘I disagree with what you say, and I’m trying to restrict what you’re saying,’” Mooney complains.
Still, Mooney has little interest in toning it down. “There is some edgy stuff. Now it’s the point where conservatism is countercultural. In the culture of today, I think it’s the minority.” But he’s counting on it being a lucrative minority.
OZY’s 5 Questions With Gaston Mooney
- What’s the last book you read? Not counting any books with the kids before bedtime, although I do enjoy them, the last two books were Skyward, by Brandon Sanderson — on occasion it’s fun to check out a science fiction/fantasy novel or series — and Team of Vipers, by Cliff Sims.
- What do you worry about? Businesswise? I worry about de-platforming … Non-businesswise? How am I making the world a better place for my children and what eternal impact am I having.
- What’s the one thing you can’t live without? My family.
- Who’s your hero? Jim DeMint.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? I don’t have an official bucket list. I just try to live life and take advantage of opportunities. But I would put seeing the aurora borealis on the list.
Read more: This Fox host is mounting a #MeToo charge.
Correction: Conservative Review launched in 2014. A previous version of this article had the incorrect year.