The former Fox News host generates tens of millions with his indefensible style -- and staffers who unexpectedly achieve a higher standard.
The Glenn Beck Program began Monday with its host driving a red golf cart while singing, as if to himself, "The hills are alive with the sound of music." As he stepped from the vehicle he removed a pipe from his mouth and stood before us in high definition, clad in a dark blazer with a 1789 crest on the left breast, a shirt and tie, tan slacks, and black athletic shoes with white toes. "These are the institutions you trust," he said, turning to a black chalk board with a list written on. Derived from a Gallup poll, it cataloged America's most trusted institutions, with the military at the top and the rest in descending order: small businesses, religious organizations, and doctors all rank highly. Less trusted are the media, banks, big business, big labor, and politicians.
"It's interesting when you look at this," Beck said, launching into his signature rhetorical maneuver, the inevitable half-baked conspiracy theory that ties everything on the chalkboard together. "It's almost like Congress, colluding with insurance companies, big business, organized labor, the banks and TV news, are all trying to consume the military, small business, police, church and religion," he posited. To bolster his thesis -- that the least trusted institutions in America are trying to destroy the most trusted -- he mentioned the Cartegena prostitution scandal that implicated members of the military and the Secret Service. "When have we ever questioned the Secret Service before?" he said. "Here these guys are trained, tested, and all of this is happening?"
This is the sort of programming I expected when I signed up for GBTV, the $9.95 per month subscriber-only network that Glenn Beck launched last September after parting ways with the Fox News Channel. While working for Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes, Beck was watched by roughly 2.2 million viewers each weekday evening, and earned an eye-popping $2.5 million salary. In contrast, his new venture has about 300,000 subscribers, plus a small stable of advertisers. And according to numbers first reported in the Wall Street Journal and generally regarded as accurate, the network expects 2012 revenues to top $40 million, even as Al Gore's CurrentTV is struggling and Oprah Winfrey's new cable network recently laid off 30 full time employees.
Elsewhere in the sprawling Glenn Beck media empire, his news Web site, The Blaze, is experiencing success. Forbes now looks prescient for predicting last summer that the Web could make Beck richer than television ever did. And The Hollywood Reporter named Beck "one of the 50 most powerful people in digital," along with Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, and the CEO of Twitter.
Of course, monetary success is but one way to judge GBTV.
What ought to matter much more is the quality of the content it produces, its influence on American politics, and what it says about the corner of movement conservatism that it occupies. Measured on those metrics, the network turns out to be a lot more interesting than you'd expect. Beck's show is as indefensible as always: error-filled, conspiratorial, lacking in rigor. One recent episode on coal resembled nothing so much as a paid infomercial for the industry. In another Beck wondered how anyone could possibly deny that Barack Obama is a radical Communist.
But other programs at GBTV are more rigorous, thanks to staffers whose output displays more integrity than their boss's. It's often on par with various programs at CNN, Fox, and MSNBC. Of course, GBTV isn't burdened by a news gathering operation. The bulk of its programming would still pass editorial muster on regular cable. Its production value is sometimes better.
What I care about most is content.
The most fascinating contrast on GBTV is the one between the Glenn Beck Program, presumably the show with the oldest audience, and Liberty Tree House, which is geared toward kids. Why wouldn't I want my grandparents to watch Beck's hour long broadcast? Because its paranoid portrayal of the world can only induce needless anxiety. Everything is a conspiracy. Individuals are powerless in the face of corrupt elites lying about their intentions. The only rational response, if you take Beck seriously, is a fatalistic pessimism of the sort that explains why Survival Seed Vault is an advertiser. GBTV doubtless prompts elderly viewers to darkly tell their skeptical grandkids, "Fine, don't listen to me. What do I know? Besides, I'll be gone anyway. And I'm glad I won't be around to see it, because you kids don't know what's coming."
On Liberty Tree House, the vibe couldn't be more different. Its enthusiastic host, Raj Nair, manages to exude a family-friendly cool of the sort that made Uncle Jesse on Full House and older brother Matt on 7th Heaven so likeable to elementary school kids. He pulls it off with enough quirks and self-awareness to be broadly appealing, too. Unlike his ultimate boss, Nair doesn't abuse the credulity of his most impressionable Web TV viewers. A typical show blends well-researched, biographical sketches of famous and obscure figures from American history with empowering features on pre-teens or young teenagers who've invented something or started their own business or made a positive difference in their community. Did you know that Johnny Appleseed was a vegetarian? Or that Benjamin Rush was "maybe the most admirable of all the Founding Fathers" because he advocated against slavery and was "truly Christlike" in his deeds? Or that a kid in North Carolina saved enough money to co-invest in a house?
As portrayed on Liberty Tree House, America is a country full of possibility where personal integrity matters more than making a profit, hard work usually pays off, and individuals are masters of their own fate -- able to change their lives for the better so long as they believe it to be possible and do what it takes. As much as I'd hate for my grandparents to watch the Glenn Beck Show, I wouldn't mind if my (as yet hypothetical) children watched Liberty Tree House. It draws on the best aspects of non-denominational Christian traditionalism and American history. It's no more heavy-handed than a children's show on PBS. And the takeaway is mostly, "Be inspired!"
Watching the Glenn Beck Show alongside Liberty Tree House, it's impossible to miss the contradiction between the attitudes exhibited by the entertainers movement conservatives patronize and the contrasting values that they hope to instill in their own kids. Why doesn't the children's programming on GBTV track Beck's show, teaching the kids that conservatives in America are unfairly put-upon victims of a malign liberal media? Or that they're ruled over by elites constantly engaged in far-reaching, shadowy conspiracies? Why doesn't it teach that in partisan politics, the end justifies the means, or that people who disagree with your ideological beliefs are to be mercilessly mocked, strategically misrepresented, and treated as if their motives are evil?
Deep down, Beck and his audience know these things are wrong. GBTV parents would also be creeped out if Raj Nair suddenly started cultivating a Glenn Beck-like demeanor. When Liberty Tree House wants informal jocularity, Nair says something like, "You might be thinking, what's so special about Benjamin Franklin. I mean, he looks like the guy from the Quaker Oats box or someone's hippie grandpa. But looks can be deceiving." For the same effect, Beck jokes about Obama eating dog, darkly muses, "I'm not 100 percent sure, but I am pretty sure that we don't all have to eat dogs," then turns to the caged birds inexplicably beside him on the set and says, "but maybe canaries, yeah?" It's as if David Lynch wrote a short about a creepy cable TV host.
A different contrast distinguishes Liberty Tree House from GBTV's reality show, Independence USA. It's about an eccentric fellow named Frank who wants his family to learn about surviving off the grid. Imagine a less bumbling, just as likable Tim "The Tool Man" Taylor crossed with the least threatening member of the Michigan militia. "I'm not crazy," he says at the beginning of every show -- he isn't expecting an economic collapse or catastrophic natural disaster to happen tomorrow, he just wants to be prepared because once you see it coming it's already too late. The show is balanced by his skeptical wife and children who indulge his extreme but well-meaning projects. Each one taps into very American ideas about self-sufficiency (supported by advertisers happy to help the viewer at home to outfit their own bunker). But what struck me most was the unremarked upon tension between the Liberty Tree House ethos (where kids are taught to love thy neighbor, to serve humanity like Christ, and to idolize a Founding-era doctor for staying in Philadelphia during a Yellow Fever epidemic to help his neighbors through disaster), with the "every family for themselves" ethos of off-the-grid survivalism.
It's best dramatized by Independence USA's February 22 episode, an entertaining look at what happens when Frank, likable* as ever, decides that he wants to build his own cannon. "If society were to collapse tomorrow I'm in a little bit better shape than my neighbor," he explained, "but now I've got to worry about my neighbor."
Said his wife, "It's insane."
His whole family seemed to think that relying on their existing store of firearms would be more useful in an emergency than fashioning their own homemade cannon.
Frank offered these counterarguments:
- If a flock of wild geese were overhead, shooting a cannon of shot in their midst could fell enough to fill the freezer with meat for a year.
- What would happen if you could no longer go to the store and buy a guns? You'd have to make your own weaponry.
- With a cannon, "When the have nots come for what the haves have we can repel that force no matter how overwhelming it is."
- "Imagine some son of a bitch trying to raid our garden or get our goats and you go out there with a cigar and say, BOOM! If they don't scatter they gotta be out of their mind!"
Don't be fooled by that bluster. It's evident that Frank would sooner feed his whole neighborhood in a disaster than shoot anyone with a cannon. But he built one anyway. Testing out how much gun powder and shot to use during the first test almost certainly posed a bigger safety risk than possibly existing in a post-collapse society without a personal cannon. But Frank's eager partner argued that "knowing we have the ability to do something like this is worth taking a small risk." Factoring in the fun of it? Probably true! Worth it in terms of safety figured using any reasonable assessment of statistics and probability? No. Hence the "don't try this at home, and if you do we aren't liable" message that kicked off the episode. In fairness, the show nods to that insight; it's undeniably fun to watch; and if more Americans had Frank's good-natured self-sufficiency, it would be a better place. If I worked at TLC I'd definitely try to steal away the show.
There is other GBTV programming. A once per week comedy show, for example. Also a "two guys talk about the news while taking phone calls" show. The program that immediately follows the Glenn Beck Show, titled The Real News (a winking disparagement of what comes before it?) is the last program I sampled. Its anchor runs through a mildly quirky version of the day's top stories. Then there's a free-wheeling discussion among regular panelists who skew libertarian more than conservative. They're younger than their cable TV analogs, run the gamut from very sharp to almost holding their own, and conduct discussions about subjects like executive power that are as good as what can be seen on other networks, when they even cover the issue. Perhaps their boss's penchant for conspiracy and the GBTV audience's openness to thinking the worst of their government is an asset when it comes to frank conversations about drones, surveillance and civil liberties, where government does engage in alarming excesses.
There's a temptation, if you think Glenn Beck is as irresponsible as I do, to dismiss everything that appears on GBTV. When I signed up, I expected to be horrified more often than I was. Perhaps that was naive. After all, CNN and Fox News were both complicit in giving Beck a platform for all sorts of indefensible content. Why wouldn't he be able to pull off a lot of shows as good as what they offer? I've yet to see anything that made me more uncomfortable than Lawrence O'Donnell yelling at Herman Cain for failing to do more for civil rights during his youth.
A conclusion would be simpler if I though as poorly of everyone else at GBTV as I do Beck, but as yet I don't. I perceive in some of what is broadcast there integrity I did not expect. That it profits a man I regard as an opportunistic charlatan makes me feel uncomfortably conflicted about the whole enterprise, but it doesn't change my assessment. All that's left is to admonish Beck: if you can assemble a staff that almost always conducts itself more honorably than you, there can be no excuse -- you know enough to do better! And to suggest to Beck's loyal audience that the gulf separating the values and behavior they want to inculcate in their kids from the ones modeled by entertainers like Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin is cause for reflection.
* Would I want to drink a beer with Frank? No, I'd want to brew beer with Frank. And use it to chase whiskey. Made from grains grown on his property. And distilled in a device he fashioned. Before being aged in oak casks shaped from wood gleaned from trees he planted. And irrigated with water from a well he dug.
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