Inside the Collapse of the Mark Steyn Show
When conservative commentator Mark Steyn sued the company that canceled his new online TV talk show last month, he said he was doing it for his employees.
His staff didn’t buy it.
“It’s bullshit, frankly,” said Mike Young, formerly the show’s site supervisor. “They all hate him.”
Late last month the Canadian author sued conservative media startup CRTV for breach of contract following the network’s abrupt cancellation of The Mark Steyn Show after just two months on the air. Steyn demanded the court issue a restraining order keeping his show running while it adjudicated his breach-of-contract allegations, saying his “employees will suffer irreparable harm because they will lose their health insurance coverage as a result of [CRTV’s] actions,” in the judge’s summation.
Steyn was there, he said, to protect their interests, claims he reiterated on his website: “I didn’t feel the cameramen and production assistants and musicians and audio engineers should have to suffer because I was stupid enough to get into bed with CRTV.”
His employees tell a different story: They say Steyn ran the show into the ground. He generally wouldn’t even speak to crew members, they claim, and when he did, he verbally abused them. In one case Steyn referred to members of the northern Vermont-based crew, a former employee claimed under oath, as “a bunch of meth-heads.” A Steyn spokesperson denied he made that comment.
Steyn had crew members run personal errands, they say, spent CRTV funds on lavish meals and expensive personal purchases, and boasted of the large settlement he planned to extract from the company.
This account is based on sworn declarations, made under penalty of perjury and provided exclusively to The Daily Beast, from nine former Mark Steyn Show employees, and interviews with four of those former employees, three of whom spoke on the record.
Steyn did not respond to a request for comment on his former crew members’ allegations. His spokesperson Melissa Howes denied most of their claims. “It saddens us to hear these allegations,” she said.
A best-selling author and guest-host of The Rush Limbaugh Show, Steyn is an intellectual leader in the conservative cadres that have ascended with the rise of President Donald Trump’s reactionary populist movement. He is a fierce critic of illegal immigration, refugee resettlement in Europe and the United States, fundamentalist Islam, and political correctness.
Steyn’s commentary has drawn legal challenges in the past. He is currently fighting a libel lawsuit brought by geophysicist Michael Mann over Steyn’s 2012 claim that some of Mann’s academic work on climate change was “fraudulent.” Steyn also successfully fought allegations in Canadian court that some of his criticism of Islam violated Muslims’ human rights.
When CRTV, an affiliate of the website Conservative Review, took shape in mid-2016, he received top billing. Steyn’s show aired alongside programs hosted by some of the biggest conservative names in media, including talk radio host Mark Levin and author and columnist Michelle Malkin.
CRTV financed the construction of a television studio in Williston, Vermont, near Steyn’s home in New Hampshire, that crew members described as expensive and sophisticated. “It is absolutely beautiful. Imagine walking into The Tonight Show,” said Paul Kullman, who ran camera operations on the set.
Steyn’s deal with CRTV called for five episodes per week, each running one “television hour”—or about 45 minutes to allow for commercial breaks if CRTV opted to sell the rights to the show to a cable provider down the line.
From Dec. 21 through Feb. 8, CRTV claims, Steyn produced just 11 episodes longer than 40 minutes. In an email, Howes declined to comment on specific production numbers or the terms of Steyn’s contract but said she was “very confident we have more than met” those terms.
On Feb. 8, CRTV sent Steyn a breach of contract notice saying that he had not fulfilled its terms. It gave him 10 days to rectify his standing with the company by producing eight full-length episodes. According to CRTV, he turned in just four.
On Feb. 20, the company informed Steyn that his show had been canceled. It filed a demand for arbitration and directed Steyn to remove his property from the studio by Feb. 28.
Two days later, Steyn filed his lawsuit. He insisted that he had “complied with [his] contractual obligations” and that it was CRTV that had breached the terms. He asked the court to step in and prevent CRTV from canceling the contract and forcing him to vacate the studio.
The judge in the case quickly tossed out Steyn’s demand for a temporary restraining order (PDF). Steyn withdrew the lawsuit a few days later, before CRTV answered his complaint. They have since begun arbitration proceedings.
Former crew members were livid that Steyn had invoked their interests in his legal pursuits. “That is my main motivation behind talking to you today,” said Mike Dunn, the show’s director, in an interview. “To see them paint themselves in a good light using the staff as leverage, as soon as that started happening, the staff all bailed on them.”
“He never gave a shit about anybody on that staff,” Kullman said in an interview. “It’s bullshit that he says, ‘Oh, I’m concerned about my staff.’ He didn’t even know our names.”
Steyn generally went out of his way to avoid dealing with the crew at all, they say. “We only one time had a meeting with the staff and Mark,” Kullman recalls. “There are many staff members who never even spoke to him.”
Crew members say Steyn often refused to rehearse segments, showed up at the studio minutes before filming was scheduled to begin, and occasionally declined to show up at all, leaving crew members, some of whom had commuted hours to the studio, in the lurch.
Kullman remembers driving two hours through blizzard conditions only to discover that Steyn had canceled the day’s shoot. In a sworn statement, another crew member recalled Steyn emailing employees late at night telling them to come to the studio the next morning for an unscheduled shoot. “When we showed up, Mark Steyn canceled the shoot.”
Multiple crew members blame Steyn’s conduct for the show’s inability to meet CRTV’s production quotas.
“As a result of Mark Steyn’s lack of preparation and refusal to cooperate, it was impossible to produce four to five shows per week,” according to one crew member’s sworn declaration.
“Mark Steyn was incredibly disorganized, often did not show up on scheduled production days, and snuck out of the studio so that nobody would know his whereabouts,” another declaration recalls. “Because of this conduct, it would take a week to shoot an episode instead of the designated day.”
The crew was never given a production schedule, they say. They often didn’t know what they would be shooting until the day of the shoot. Because Steyn would frequently show up last-minute, they were forced to figure out content on the fly. When the inevitable hiccups in production occurred, Steyn would berate crew members who say they simply did not know what he wanted.
On two occasions, those tirades ended with Steyn firing an employee on the spot, according to Kullman’s sworn statement. “Anyone at any moment felt like they could have been fired by him,” he added in his interview.
When cameras weren’t rolling, crew members say Steyn was almost entirely inaccessible. His offices were on the second floor of the studio facility, and they say Howes, who is Steyn’s publisher in addition to being his spokesperson and an executive on the show, instructed crew members not to approach him there—and, when he entered the studio, not to make eye contact.
“People that worked downstairs weren’t allowed to go to the upstairs offices because it was too distracting for Mark. It was bizarre,” Kullman said. According to one crew member’s sworn statement, staff were even instructed not to enter the second-floor restrooms and instead told to use ones by the studio facility’s loading dock.
Crew members eventually resorted to lingering outside the makeup room, one of the few places that they might be able to discuss the day’s show with Steyn before cameras rolled. “Eventually that became off-limits too,” Dunn recalls.
The nine Mark Steyn Show employees who have submitted sworn declarations for arbitration proceedings have worked in the television and entertainment industries for an average of 19 years. Eight of them say they believe that Steyn “intentionally sabotaged” the show. “I really feel that he did not want this to succeed from the very first day,” Kullman reiterated.
Howes declined to comment on any of the allegations in the former employees’ sworn statements—only calling them “fanciful”—as CRTV’s attorneys had not yet officially filed them. But she pushed back on some of the allegations, including that Steyn would show up at the studio immediately before filming was scheduled to begin.
“What’s on screen...speaks for itself,” Howes wrote in an emailed statement. “That is not the appearance of a man who commutes two hours from New Hampshire, skids to a halt outside the door, and walks in to wing it. Were these accusations true, they would show on screen. They do not.”
“A lot of things can be said about Mark, but being under-rehearsed and unprepared is not one of them,” Howes said. “The shows speak for themselves. Mark is engaged and prepared and on his game.”
Asked whether Steyn had refused to participate in rehearsals, Howes denied “that Mark was not ‘rehearsed.’” But crew members say rehearsals weren’t just for him. “Even at the highest levels with the best talent there are rehearsals,” Dunn said. “It’s not just for the talent; it’s for the crew, it’s for everyone involved so they know what to expect so they can have a successful production.”
According to Dunn, “Mark was not interested in help with the creation of his show.”
Without that help, the show was always doomed, Kullman says. “There was no way we could possibly meet those contractual obligations [with CRTV] and it was all because of Mark. No one would work with him and no one could work with him because he was terrible to everyone.”
Most of Steyn’s interactions with the crew came through Howes, who led Oak Hill Media, a production contractor that CRTV hired in conjunction with its Mark Steyn Enterprises contract. In addition to her role as Steyn’s spokesperson, she runs Stockade Books & Music, which has published a number of his books and recordings.
“She was the speaking side of Mark’s tyrannical side,” Kullman says. “Basically she treated this whole situation like they were a king and a queen.”
Eventually staff found themselves running personal errands for Steyn and Howes, “including gassing up, washing, and changing the oil in their cars,” according to one former crew member’s declaration.
Howes defended her and Steyn’s use of staff for such tasks.
“It's not at all unusual for staff of high profile individuals to perform personal errands for them that enable them to focus their energies on their performance,” she wrote.
Other crew members say that Steyn used CRTV resources for lavish personal expenses. “Excessive amounts of food were brought in for lunches and refrigerators were stocked with expensive cheese and meats,” one employee recalled in a sworn statement. “They also used me to facilitate their wasteful spending by having me unnecessarily purchase expensive speakers, using the company credit card, for Mark Steyn.” CRTV confirmed that purchase.
As tensions with CRTV flared, Dunn recalls being assured that Steyn would extract a large settlement check from the company. “Mark said it would be the second largest check Vermont has ever seen if CRTV tried to buy him out,” Dunn said in his sworn statement.
Another crew member’s sworn declaration recalled Howes saying “that she and Mark Steyn would receive a large settlement from CRTV and would have ‘enough money to pay everyone for a long long time.’”
For some crew members, their experiences on the show were all the more disheartening given their previous admiration for Steyn, his ideas, and his skills as a political commentator.