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Far-right figures in prison get their message out by podcasting behind bars

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon's criminal conviction for refusing to answer a congressional subpoena from the January 6 committee could lead to fines or jail time, which prompts a question - if jailed, would he, could he continue his podcast? As it turns out, some on the hard right have been doing just that. NPR's Odette Yousef reports.

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Even after Trump dismissed him from the White House in 2017, Bannon continues to be known as the former president's chief propagandist.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "BANNON'S WAR ROOM")

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: War room. Battleground. Here's your host, Stephen K. Bannon.

YOUSEF: His primary platform has been his podcast. During his trial, it was among the top 10 of Apple News podcasts. The possibility that he could continue if jailed concerns Rachel Carroll Rivas because already several far-right figures are podcasting from behind bars. Carroll Rivas is with the Southern Poverty Law Center.

RACHEL CARROLL RIVAS: From those of us who have concerns about the hard-right anti-democracy march in the U.S., it would be very concerning to have Steve Bannon continue to be able to use his microphone to incite, inspire and encourage that anti-democracy movement.

YOUSEF: The far-right podcasting ecosystem is extensive, and the SPLC has found that it's played a big role in mainstreaming extremist ideas.

CARROLL RIVAS: And it's kind of a clear line for many people to, really, just be exposed and to network in to that hard-right movement.

YOUSEF: Like many other platforms made possible by the internet, Carroll Rivas says podcasts have shortened the time it takes for people to adopt fringe viewpoints and find like-minded communities.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hello. This is a prepaid collect call from...

YOUSEF: For some January 6ers (ph), prison can also be good PR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: ...An incarcerated individual at Alexandria Detention Center. This call is not private. It will be recorded and may be monitored.

YOUSEF: Some have created their own podcasts that spin their incarceration as examples of a tyrannical or deep-state government at work. Others call in collect as guests on far-right podcasts. They air the same conspiracy theories and lies that helped to propel the attack on the Capitol. Amy Spitalnick heads Integrity First for America.

AMY SPITALNICK: Of course, the goal of this, in many ways, is to continue driving attention, continue driving funds, continuing to promote extremism and hate.

YOUSEF: Spitalnick's group sued organizers of the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. That was a deadly gathering of neo-Nazis and white nationalists. One defendant, Chris Cantwell, was a podcaster. Throughout the pretrial and trial period, Cantwell was in prison and broadcasting. He only stopped when he was moved to a special unit where communications were restricted. The Bureau of Prisons wouldn't say why he was transferred. Spitalnick thinks it was because he harassed and threatened people online. But Cantwell has said the government was trying to silence political talk it didn't like. This is where things get tricky.

PAUL WRIGHT: Prisoners retain a First Amendment right to speak and to be heard.

YOUSEF: Paul Wright had a weekly radio show from prison in the '90s.

WRIGHT: The reality is prisoners have been doing this for a long time, for decades.

YOUSEF: Whether by radio or podcast, they've broadcasted from across the political spectrum. Now Wright heads a nonprofit to protect prisoners' rights, and he doesn't buy the idea that podcasts from extremists in prison should be of much concern. The bigger concern to him would be restricting that right.

WRIGHT: When you're setting up the government as the arbiter of what is or isn't acceptable speech, I'm pretty skeptical.

YOUSEF: Instead, Wright and others say the public ultimately should decide whether these hard-right prisoners are podcasting speech that's worth listening to.

Odette Yousef, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Odette Yousef
Odette Yousef is a National Security correspondent focusing on extremism.