October 1, 2019
The PragerU YouTube channel home page, as it appeared on Oct. 1, 2019. Credit: screenshot by Richard DiCicco.
Spend enough time browsing political content on YouTube and you may start to see advertisements from a channel called Prager University. Stick around a little longer, and you might hear about a non-violent civil war churning in America, about the scientific fact of binary gender, or about the delusion of diversity. What you won’t hear is the truth.
Started by conservative talk show host Dennis Prager in 2009, PragerU has worked itself into the center of right-wing politics online, hosting young Republican idealogues such as Ben Shapiro and Candice Owens in videos that vilify multiculturalism and feminism. With 2.31 million subscribers and more than 788 million views, the channel defines itself as an “online video resource promoting knowledge and clarity on life’s biggest and most interesting topics.” It claims to gather “the world’s best thinkers,” delivering their ideas to the public in 5-minute doses.
While PragerU may wear its bias on its sleeve, it cloaks itself in the guise of an online university while erroneously presenting its political messages as fact-based academic lessons. Its hosts speak directly and soberly into the camera like a university lecturer would; orange and blue graphics evoke the color scheme of a university, and the videos on prageru.com include printable “study guide” worksheets. In truth, it lacks any accreditation or campuses.
“As much as we try to deny the need for real, masculine strength in society, there’s no denying its necessity,” says pundit Allie Stuckey in the video “Make Men Masculine Again.” “Healthy families and strong communities depend on the leadership and bravery of good men. Yet, the current trend is to feminize young men in the hopes of achieving some utopian notion of equality and peace.”
On the PragerU website, the organization provides sources for their hosts’ lessons, but several of the links for Stuckey’s claims point to her own Conservative Millennial Blog (which no longer seems to be online). Another claim—“when masculine energy is properly harnessed, it is a tool for good, not for harm”—links to Glenn Beck’s The Blaze as its source, which just reprinted Stuckey’s opinion from an unrelated video.
While PragerU’s conservative opinions on gender roles are ultimately couched in subjective arguments, its lessons on climate change, the electoral college, and American history have proven to be misleading at best.
In format, PragerU isn’t much different from another “explainer” site: Vox. Like Vox’s video content, PragerU’s so-called lecturers speak in plain English over graphs, figures and quotations that purport to put complicated concepts into simpler terms. The difference is that PragerU blends fact and opinion, and promotes the mix as educational material.
Last year, Mark Oppenheimer, writing for Mother Jones, cracked open the channel’s video “Do You Understand the Electoral College?” which ballooned to more than 50 million views after the 2016 election. Oppenheimer notes that the video, in which retired lawyer Tara Ross insists that “pure democracies do not work; they implode,” fails to mention the slave-state appeasing origin of the Electoral College, while also claiming (without a source) that the institution is a bulwark against voter fraud. Few of the “facts” in the “Facts & Sources” section beneath the video link to academic or journalistic sources; many point to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
In orienting itself as an antidote to “liberal” universities, PragerU crafts its arguments first and worries about the facts later. Through these 5-minute videos, the channel has taken on just about every hot-button topic on America’s tongue and twisted it through a partisan lens.
“At PragerU,” says Oppenheimer, “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] 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.”
So what is Dennis Prager’s motivation for running his YouTube channel and website? Besides his monetized videos (which, at least for me on Safari’s private browsing mode, exclusively selected pro-military ads), Prager seeks to please his donors.
Dan and Farris Wilks, a pair of Texas billionaires who made their names in the fracking, oil and gas industries, were among Prager’s earliest benefactors according to Rewire News. That’s the same Farris Wilks who put down initial funding for Ben Shapiro’s right-leaning website the Daily Wire. Another report claims that hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding for PragerU come from GOP donors and conservative charities.
The simple story behind PragerU is that it’s a mouthpiece for conservative influencers, but it’s legacy as a viral video machine that reaches millions remains to be seen. For Dennis Prager, it’s a means to set the record straight on what he thinks America is really all about.
“Most Americans,” he wrote in 2016, “no longer know what America stands for. … Those who do are called ‘conservatives’ because they wish to conserve the unique American idea.”
Whatever that idea is, Prager seems to have trouble sourcing it.