Hal Crowther

The People’s Choice

A Media Megastar

Last winter my brother left me a phone message, recommending a rare visit to the world of television to check out a new face on CNN. Not just another radio rightwinger masticating headlines, he said, but a creature from an even lower rung on the ladder of life, working an act so addled and inept that he had to be kidding, had to be auditioning for the Comedy Channel — but who was, in fact, dead serious. A few weeks later, steering the remote in the direction of the Weather Channel, I stumbled across Glenn Beck and absolved my brother of exaggeration. I was amazed, of course, but mixed with astonishment was something that felt like pity. How many days before the gnomes in charge would reverse the bizarre decision that had brought this poor fellow to the surface here, to CNN and national scrutiny, and pull the lever that would send him plummeting back to the cable-access netherworld from which he had inexplicably escaped?

You have to see him to believe him, It’s a struggle to find useful comparisons. Late at night on one Manhattan cable channel, there’s a Bible show called “Open Forum With Harold Camping.” Harold wears an undertaker’s suit and a big yellow tie. He’s about 90 years old and seems to have had a stroke or two; his eyes are glassy, his voice and movements are robotic and his warnings of imminent Armageddon are generically cretinous. Next to Glenn Beck, Harold is the most improbable personality who ever scored his own TV show. But Harold’s excuses are extreme age and physical decrepitude, if not actual senility. Beck’s excuse, like his path to celebrity, remains a mystery. Where did they find him? On TV, a medium partial to handsome faces, he looks like the misbegotten love child Rush Limbaugh and Joan Rivers gave up for adoption—a soft fuzzy-headed, pop-eyed Big Bird with a wet, petulant little mouth that emits a braying, wheedling voice better suited to a Hyundai salesman than an entertainer. In a medium where even The Right affects expensive suits, Beck dresses like he’s still on the radio. He giggles like a prurient schoolboy when he’s pleased with himself, which is way too often. He’s graceless, rude, hysterically ill-informed and to all appearances a complete idiot. Even in “conservative” media, where the bar is set so low and ratings are stimulated by feeding raw meat to the Cro-Magnon fringe and driving liberals mad with indignation, some of the things Beck has said are exceptional.

He greeted the first Muslim elected to the US Congress with “Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.” His comment on last year’s California wildfires was “I think there’s a handful of people who hate America. Unfortunately for them, a lot of them are losing their homes in a forest fire today.” But my personal favorite, and an all-time Media Moron Highlight selection, was this wild swing at Al Gore in the spring of 2007:

“Al Gore’s not going to be rounding up Jews and exterminating them. It is the same tactic, however. … You got to have an enemy to fight. Then you can unite the entire world behind you, and you seize power. That was Hitler’s plan. His enemy: the Jew. Al Gore’s enemy, the UN’s enemy: global warming.”

Glenn Beck, ex-disc jockey, recovering drug addict and alcoholic, convert to Mormonism and the NRA, is American popular culture at its most incomprehensibly weird and offensive. He’s also a success, a hit, a phenomenon—-a rising star. By America’s traditional standards of accomplishment (never including the artistic or aesthetic), Beck, 44, is one of the hottest properties in show business. A year ago his talk-radio ratings earned him a five-year, $50 million contract with the Premiere network, a subsidiary of the Clear Channel conglomerate that also broadcasts Limbaugh. In January his TV show was to jump from CNN to the higher cotton at Fox News, where he’ll abuse liberals, logic and President Obama as part of a Troglodyte Trio with Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, the big bad wolves of brain-dead broadcasting.

In Beck’s profession — whatever it might be construed to be — there are at the moment no more mountains to climb. The cash and personal vindication these triumphs represent would be galling enough, for those of us familiar with his work. But the bitterest pill of all may be his “literary” career. The publishing industry is almost as frail and diseased as the newspaper business, and as certain a victim, in the long run, of America’s rapidly declining literacy. Most serious readers stopped complaining, years ago, that the bestseller lists were dominated by depressing trash. Still, this is ridiculous. A bad year for most reactionaries and Republicans was a great year for Glenn Beck, bestselling author. He began the year at Number One on the New York Times’ non-fiction list with An Inconvenient Book: Real Solutions to the World’s Biggest Problems. (Assassinate Al Gore?) A few weeks ago he rose to Number One on the Times’ fiction list with The Christmas Sweater, a personal holiday epiphany, as Beck describes it, turned into a novel of sorts with the help of two ghost writers. Other authors may have topped both lists, but I’m sure no one else has ever done it inside a single calendar year.

For all readers, and especially for hundreds of us who’ve sent out books of our own with medium-high hopes and watched them stall out in the low five or even four figures, it hurts some to see these ads announcing “Over half a million copies in print” for the hardcover adventures of Glenn Beck. He loves to rub it in, gloating with particular glee that he’s outselling Just After Sunset, the latest novel from Stephen King, a liberal who called Beck “Satan’s mentally challenged younger brother.” Instead of posting positive reviews, if indeed he has some, Beck’s book ads showcase cruel words from his liberal critics:

“Glenn Beck shouldn’t be on the air.”—Al Franken

“Finally! A guy who says what people who aren’t thinking, are thinking.”—Jon Stewart

Not one to hide his tiny light under a bushel, Beck promoted The Christmas Sweater with a 47-city tour of personal appearances, cruising our highways in a tour bus with the book’s dustjacket fresh-painted on both sides. There was also a Sweater stage show with a 10-piece orchestra and a “Broadway” gospel singer, closed-circuit simulcasts in selected movie theatres, TV tie-ins and hybrid media links too cutting-edge for me to understand. Philip Roth is no match for this author; neither is King, or John Grisham. This is publishing’s grim future, when every book is attached to a celebrity and every launch is a three-ring circus.

In these hard times we’re facing, people will complain about outrageous salaries for less deserving citizens. Plaxico Burress, the New York Giants’ wide receiver who went out drinking with a loaded Glock pistol in his pants, consequently wounding himself in the thigh and nearly vaporizing his privates, owns a $35 million contract yet may well be retarded. Outfielder Manny Ramirez of the Dodgers, who earns over $20 million a year, never matured much beyond the seventh grade. But Burress can catch the ball and Manny can hit the ball, in each case as well as anyone who plays his game. Glenn Beck, who with his literary revenues must out-earn both of them, is a different proposition. He can’t hit, he can’t field, he can’t run, he can’t talk, he certainly can’t think. He doesn’t even look good in his uniform.

Whatever it is he does, you might do well to study it, those of you who are out of work or underemployed. On its surface broadcasting is a simple game, an advertising medium ruled by ratings and numbers. Ears and eyeballs, as they actually say. At the time he was awarded his $50 million radio contract, Beck was averaging 250,000 listeners per quarter hour. That doesn’t sound like so many (Limbaugh averages 3.4 million), out of 300 million Americans. With such a pot of gold at stake, it seems that you or nearly anyone could come up with some gimmick, some bait that might lure the golden one-tenth of 1% to listen to you, too. Why couldn’t you compete with Glenn Beck?

The sky’s the limit for the one who can decipher and duplicate his appeal. In the lucrative but overcrowded format that includes rightwing talk shows and pure proto-fascist ranting, stars are revered for their infuriating arrogance, for obnoxious over-confidence that makes reasonable people groan and grind their teeth. All progressive Americans share the dream of strangling Bill O’Reilly with coaxial cable, or driving their SUV’s back and forth across Rush Limbaugh’s distended abdomen. What these stage villains do is mostly theater, mostly shtick. They sneer, they bluster, they brag; perhaps they’re not sincere. But there’s an art to it, a Mephistophelian performance quality that supports their notoriety. Not everyone can play Iago, not everyone can do Snidely Whiplash with élan. Look at the pantheon of the Far Right and there’s usually some hook we can grasp. Ann Coulter is essentially a kinky lounge act—Cruella Deville menacing Democrats instead of Dalmatians—but she’s also an anorexic blonde with a smart mouth and a daring hemline who sends out certain signals to the reactionary libido. To us Sean Hannity may sound like a Holy Cross linebacker whose helmet absorbed too many burly forearms, or the cop’s slow son who washed out of the police academy (actually his education didn’t go that far). But to many middle-class Catholics, he looks like a handsome, clean-cut Irish altar boy who chose this instead of the priesthood so he could take better care of his mother.

That leaves Glenn Beck, who after only six years on the national scene is well on his way to surpassing them all. Arbitron ratings show that he draws a slightly younger audience than Limbaugh or the Fox News fixtures—O’Reilly’s average viewer, according to the Nieman Foundation, is 71. He also shows a slight edge among women, who generally avoid these purple-patriot formats—but there’s no one, male or female, I’d dare accuse of finding Glenn Beck sexy. In spite of the dreadful things he says, he isn’t articulate enough to raise liberal blood pressure in the O’Reilly-Coulter tradition. Numb discomfort is what he provokes, much like what you’d feel watching a large snake swallow a rat.

I’m not talking about mediocrity. Mediocrity is so far above the place where Beck dwells, he can’t see it even by standing on his money. To make any sense of him, we need to go back to the roots of right-wing broadcasting, which are—in spite of all its authoritarian, capitalist, neo-monarchist rhetoric—essentially populist. Its core audience is made up of people who never sat in enough classrooms or read enough books to be able to separate reasonable convictions from irrational fears and prejudices. Conceptually insecure, they need constant reassurance that people with access to microphones and TV cameras—important players, to them—can be just as irrational as they are. If you can comfort and legitimize this audience, they reciprocate by buying your books without reserve, though it’s a question whether they actually read the books, or need to. It helps if these player/authors, in spite of their outrageous compensation packages, seem common as dirt. And they don’t come any more common than Glenn Beck.

He’s not faking. Unlike Limbaugh and Hannity, who were early college dropouts, Beck never matriculated at all (of the Rabid Right’s top tier, Bill O’Reilly is the only one with a B.A., and the only one who was ever a journalist). College is no guarantor of wit or wisdom, but many of the hazy, ungenerous notions Beck mistakes for ideas could have been cleared up in History or Poli Sci 101. He seems to be the beneficiary of the same sympathy that made Sarah Palin, a joke or a scandal to most educated voters, a heroine to blue-collar Americans who saw her as the girl next door. The Sarah Palin Syndrome—the Palindrome?—was also a boon to George W. Bush, who in spite of patrician origins was said to be the candidate you’d rather have a beer with, compared to Al Gore or John Kerry. (After five years of Iraq and Afghanistan, with the army and the treasury bled dry, the Constitution shredded and the economy on life support, it’s tempting to ask Mr. and Mrs. America, “Enjoy your beer?”).

The Palindrome is part of anti-intellectual America’s celebration of the ordinary, even the sub-ordinary — the theater of accessible fantasies. Hillary Clinton is too smart, Angelina Jolie too beautiful, Caroline Kennedy too classy for most men to imagine in the passenger seat of their personal vehicle — but Sarah Palin? If you didn’t date her or someone just like her, your brother did. Who couldn’t sing as well as Britney Spears? It takes a big ego to imagine yourself as FDR or JFK, but George Bush? No one aspires to handle a microphone and fill a TV screen like Edward R. Murrow, but who’s so humble he can’t imagine himself as the next Glenn Beck?

This syndrome is the dark side of democracy, deadly poison when it affects electoral politics. Personally I wouldn’t have voted for Barack Obama if I didn’t think that he was smarter than I am, at least smarter about the law and the things that might make him a competent president. Apparently many voters don’t agree. They’re more comfortable looking down on a president than looking up to him—or her. And they vote their comfort, which is one of the reasons this country has so few leaders and so many crises. Broadcasting isn’t rocket science and never was, but it’s a critical source of information and even more vulnerable to pure democracy than our elections. What can we say about a country where a man can do something he really shouldn’t do at all — in essence, encourage people to be selfish and narrow-minded—and do it very badly, without any style or skill, and earn $10 million a year for doing it? Why do high school graduates who’ve published more books than they’ve read get national pulpits to lecture us on foreign policy, trade deficits and genetics? As the recession deepens, maybe their ridiculous wealth will be their downfall; Glenn Beck is a pauper compared with Limbaugh, whose contract is worth $400 million, or Hannity, who signed an extension for $100,000,000. Of course another ex-disc jockey, Howard Stern, signed a half-billion dollar contract to talk dirty on satellite radio.

Chances are, they’ll survive the recession and the Republican eclipse, and whatever follows they won’t have to give the money back. To me these raging illiterates look like the last spasm before culture death, before the American experiment flat-lines. To others, to people I seldom meet, they look like the triumph of the little man, and even the harsh words they speak meet someone’s urgent needs—unfortunately. I wish good books, and even my books, could learn to fly off the shelves the way Glenn Beck’s silly ones do. But let him keep his money. Free speech is free speech, and it’s not certain that he could make a living doing anything else. Our great national misfortune is his good fortune, and he’s had his share of the other kind. His mother committed suicide when he was 13, a brother also killed himself, and one of Beck’s daughters has cerebral palsy. Fools suffer too.

A letter to the editor of The Progressive Populist described Sarah Palin as “the canary in the dummy mine.” Maybe that’s what Beck is too, the last voice singing, off-key, just before the air gets too evil to breathe. Broadcasting was my beat, back when I was a much younger man. I was one of those idealists who thought the airwaves were a precious national resource. Tune in Glenn Beck — just once, please — and weep along with me for what was and what might have been.

Hal Crowther’s most recent book of essays is Gather at the River. Write him at 219 N. Churton St., Hillsborough, NC 27278.

From The Progressive Populist, Feb. 1, 2009

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