In late September, President Barack Obama conducted a series of five
one-on-one White House interviews with reporters from CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, and
Univision. For some reason—perhaps he’s housing a secret civilian security force
in the Roosevelt Room and doesn’t want any fair and balanced reporters snooping
around—the president didn’t invite Fox to participate.
For Glenn Beck, the host
of the hottest show on cable news, this Oval Office slight offered an
opportunity to provide some trenchant perspective. “Does the president consider
Fox some sort of enemy?” he exclaimed, chortling with amiable resentment. “I
mean, no, it can’t be that, because, no, he’ll sit down with our enemies. He’s
even offered to sit down with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And that guy, I mean, you
call me nuts?”
The bit was Beck at his best: shrewdly self-marginalizing, bitingly funny,
and executed with perfect timing. A radio veteran who got his first job in the
business at the age of 13, Beck, it turns out, is also a TV showman on par with
Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. But while America’s favorite fake newsmen have
clear-cut identities as comedians, the question of how to categorize Beck is
When Beck was 8 years old, his mother gave him a record of old radio programs
that included Orson Welles’ famous performance of War of the Worlds.
Apparently the fictionalized news report of an alien invasion became a
foundational text for him, an archetypal example of how you could create crazy,
vivid, apocalyptic drama out of mere words.
To pay tribute to Welles’ work, Beck
starred in a live version of War of the Worlds that aired on his
syndicated radio show on Halloween night in 2002. Shortly thereafter, an heir of
the radio play’s author sued Beck and his producers for copyright infringement
and won an injunction that prevents Beck from ever performing the play again.
The injunction, however, doesn’t prevent Beck from spinning his own doomsday
visions every day. In January he jumped from CNN Headline News to the Fox News
Channel and began experimenting in earnest. Comedy Central’s The Daily
Show had paved the way by showing you didn’t have to stick to the same old
tried-and-true conventions when presenting the news.
Anchormen could be more
expressive. You could use music and graphics and video clips more creatively.
And if you could do so in pursuit of comedy, why not also in pursuit of
In February, while discussing what it’s like to be angry and enfranchised in
America, legislated to the edge of Armageddon, Beck introduced a new visual
technique: His image appeared simultaneously in two windows on the screen, one a
typical headshot, the other a close-up of his eyes, the better to showcase his
distressed but strong sincerity.
On April Fool’s Day, as Beck kicked off a
segment on America’s drift toward fascism, his image started shrinking until he
was just a tiny torso at the bottom of the screen, looking over his shoulder at
World War II footage of marching Nazis. “Enough!” Mini-Beck shouted. Then the
screen went black behind him, dramatically framing his shrunken head and body as
he continued his soliloquy. It was news commentary as expressionist theater.
Beck’s subjects became equally avant garde. On one show, experts tutored the
host on how to survive the kind of financial meltdown in which shopping centers
were ghost malls and streets were crawling with functionally illiterate
A week later, he started investigating the rumor that the Federal
Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was building concentration camps around the
country. When that didn’t pan out, he set about exposing the secret communist
artwork adorning Rockefeller Plaza and other buildings in New York.
Whatever the subject of any given episode, a common theme always unites it
with every other installment of the show: Something isn’t right with
America. The country is changing somehow, subtly but surely, right under
our very noses, and hardly anyone else is noticing.
In August, Beck turned his attention to the mysterious entities—alien
invaders, you might say—who had infiltrated the White House with barely any
scrutiny at all: Obama’s czars. Van Jones, Obama’s adviser on green business
initiatives, was a former member of a communist group and a self-described
revolutionary, Beck reported. Next, he aired video footage of Mark Lloyd,
diversity officer at the Federal Communications Commission, praising Hugo
Chavez’s “incredible revolution” in Venezuela.
The Van Jones episode garnered
Beck’s highest rating in weeks, attracting nearly 800,000 more viewers than his
previous show had. The Mark Lloyd episode, boosted by an endorsement from Sarah
Palin to her Facebook followers, did even better, attracting slightly more than
3 million viewers, according to the Nielsen Company.
It was the first time Beck’s program had broken the 3 million barrier, an
incredible achievement for a cable news show airing at 5 p.m. After Beck
unveiled more information about Jones, including the fact that the adviser had
signed a petition that suggested high-level Bush administration officials may
have deliberately allowed the 9/11 attacks to occur, Jones resigned from his
position at the White House.
Beck followed up with revelations about a National
Endowment for the Arts conference call in which artists were encouraged to
create works promoting President Obama’s political agenda, and suddenly it
seemed as if the crusading New Canaan populist might single-handedly save
America from the attacking hordes of progressive pod people armed to the teeth
with stimulus dollars.
Not everyone gives Beck’s efforts positive reviews, even on the right.
New York Times columnist David Brooks accused him of “race-baiting”
after Beck said Obama is “racist” toward white people. Former Bush speechwriter
David Frum called one of Beck’s many vettings of a White House appointee (Cass
Sunstein in this case) “beyond sloppy, beyond ignorant, proceeding straight
toward the deceptive.” “How on earth did this crackpot get a national TV show?”
asked Dallas Morning News columnist Rod Dreher.
In Dreher’s question we have what is perhaps the most concise history yet of
media in the Internet era. With every new technological breakthrough, it gets
easier and easier to push unregulated information into the national discourse,
potentially exposing millions to misinformation masquerading as news. As
President Obama exclaimed in a September interview with the Toledo
Blade, it sometimes seems as if we’re moving toward a future where there’s
“no serious fact checking” and “no serious attempts to put stories in context.”
In theory, a charismatic paranoiac like Beck is the poster boy for this
dystopian future. He’s got a very loud megaphone. His communication skills are
world-class. He’s ideologically driven (even if no one can quite figure out what
that ideology is). And he’s willing to entertain some pretty dubious notions.
But look at his track record so far. He couldn’t sell FEMA death camps because
the facts weren’t there to back the story up.
His exposé of communist art at
Rockefeller Plaza went nowhere because even Beck’s viewers realize an old relief
of a naked farmer holding some wheat isn’t much of a threat. The Van Jones story
had legs, by contrast, because most of its facts were solid. With a change in
background music and a few minor edits, in fact, Beck’s first long piece on
Jones could have served as an advertisement for the activist’s achievements—in
part because its script closely followed a 2005 newspaper article that was
written as a positive portrait of Jones.
Context, meanwhile, is Beck’s forte. He is constantly urging his viewers to
connect the dots and look at the big picture, even when the picture exists only
in his head. He is forever advising them to consider stories not as transient,
random, isolated phenomena, as most newscasts do, but as parts of a larger,
ongoing narrative that grows more and more meaningful (and menacing) the longer
you study it.
In a fractured, distracting mediascape, where thousands of outlets
vie for our attention, it’s a smart approach that others are sure to copy.
Legally barred from re-enacting Orson Welles, Beck may have to settle for being
the 21st century’s answer to Edward R. Murrow.