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December 21, 2014

TV Moment of 2009: The Rise of Glenn Beck

by Gary Susman, posted Dec 17th 2009 2:30PM
At the dawn of 2009, Glenn Beck was a popular talk radio host with a failed primetime TV show on Headline News. By the end of the year, he was the leader of a political movement. Somewhere in between, he became the biggest star on Fox News, a thorn in the side of the Obama administration, the de facto news agenda-setter for the New York Times and the Washington Post, and a media personality who -- whether you loved or hated him (and there was no middle ground) -- would not, could not be ignored.At the dawn of 2009, Glenn Beck was a popular talk radio host with a failed primetime TV show on Headline News. By the end of the year, he was the leader of a political movement. Somewhere in between, he became the biggest star on Fox News, a thorn in the side of the Obama administration, the de facto news agenda-setter for the New York Times and the Washington Post, and a media personality who -- whether you loved or hated him (and there was no middle ground) -- would not, could not be ignored.

Beck's show didn't change much in the transfer from HLN primetime to Fox News afternoon drive time, but the hire made for the perfect match of host and audience. Fox gave Beck a ready-made choir to preach to, one eager to hear his message: "Everybody but me is lying to you, and I share your visceral loathing of President Obama and everyone and everything associated with him."

Beck soon became Fox News' most visible star, as well as its most outspoken. He was a lot less polished than Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity -- unafraid to weep on camera, crack jokes, and laugh at himself, all of which made him seem more like a populist everyman than anyone else on the channel. He was also unafraid to be an openly partisan advocate, to dispense with any pretense of being "fair and balanced," and to call for direct political action in the form of rallies and protests. Media observers compared him to Howard Beale, the ranting anchorman from the film 'Network,' or Lonesome Rhodes, the drunken yokel-turned-faux populist TV demagogue in the film 'A Face in the Crowd.' (See video below.)

Glenn Beck and His Role Models


Beck's influence soon became apparent. Publishers, especially those of the political thrillers he liked to tout, likened him to Oprah Winfrey for his ability to sell books. But he was also having an impact on real-world politics. He made it a goal to take down the Obama administration one scalp at a time, and by late summer, he'd had some success, forcing the resignation of White House green jobs advisor Van Jones by repeatedly broadcasting controversial remarks Jones had made in the past. He also aired a series of videos, made by conservative activists, which purported to show employees of nationwide community organizing group ACORN offering advice on how to break the law. Those videos resulted in Congress passing a law to defund ACORN. (Later, an independent investigation concluded that the videos had been doctored and that ACORN broke no laws, and a district judge ruled the law that singled out ACORN for punishment was an unconstitutional bill of attainder and ordered the group's funding restored.) Traditional media outlets took notice, with newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post deciding that they weren't paying enough attention to stories that Beck and his conservative audience deemed important, effectively ceding their editorial judgment to the Fox News host.

Beck's critics seized on his tactics of quoting people out of context and diagramming paranoid conspiracy theories. Comics piled on, making fun of his Vicks Vaporub-induced weeping, his incessant self-promotion, and even his health woes. Then there were his conflicts of interest: Beck's urging viewers to hedge against economic collapse by buying gold benefited gold merchant Goldline, a frequent Beck show sponsor for whom Beck has served as a paid spokesman.

Stephen Colbert on Gold Pitchman Glenn Beck
The Colbert Report Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Prescott Financial Sells Gold, Women & Sheep
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor U.S. Speedskating


By year's end, Goldline was one of the few sponsors (along with such Fox sibling media properties as the Wall Street Journal) that was still placing ads on Beck's show. Beck's remarks in July that Pres. Obama was a "racist" who "has a deep-seated hatred for white people" prompted a sponsor boycott that led to about 80 advertisers deserting his show.

At any other outlet, this sort of bad publicity and sponsor hemorrhaging would get a host fired; at Fox, it merely cements his brand value. It's not about whether Beck is right or wrong, offering truth or propaganda; it's about whether you're on his side or his critics' side. It's all about tribal identification -- the mere fact that he irritates the right group of enemies (the White House, the traditional media, anyone to the left of Sarah Palin) is proof enough to Beck's followers that his message is on track.

Of course, media punditry and partisan politics both may be arenas too small to contain Beck's ambition. In November, he announced a vague 100-year plan called "The Plan," whose details he would divulge in a rally/book launch at the Lincoln Memorial next year on the anniversary of Martin Luther King's 1963 civil rights march on Washington. In short, Beck, whose media empire includes his TV and radio shows, books, magazines, a website, and stage productions, is becoming an institution and plans to be around for a long, long time. Unless, of course, some even more populist and shameless upstart comes along, with an even more outspoken distrust of big media institutions, to knock Beck off his throne.

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