Fox News' latest sensation Glenn Beck has invited comparisons of himself to Howard Beale, the barking-mad TV host in 1976's black comedy Network, who urged viewers to throw open their windows and shout, "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore."
Beck recently told the New York Times (3/30/09): "I think that's the way people feel. That's the way I feel." Beck has even played clips of Beale's scenes on his show (Beck, 3/23/09).
And Beck is not entirely unlike the deranged Beale; both men describe the world in paranoid and apocalyptic terms while attempting to play on populist sentiment. But Beale, even in full-fledged madness, could still be relied upon to occasionally say something truthful and worthwhile. It's unlikely that Beck would ever choose to speak truth to power the way Beale did when he learned that his cynical network was being bought by an even larger and more cynical conglomerate:
And when the 12th largest company in the world controls the most awesome goddamn propaganda force in the whole godless world, who knows what shit will be peddled for truth on this network!
Indeed, Beck's jumble of false, contradictory and disingenuous commentary in the service of corporate power seems precisely the kind of programming Beale envisioned in his worst nightmares.
The Beale comparisons began after Beck jumped from CNN Headline News to his current job at Fox. Through years as a talk radio host and then Headline News anchor, Beck had been more or less faithful to the standard hard-right, GOP-aligned politics of conservative talk radio-he is well-practiced in such obligatory skills as immigrant-bashing, warmongering and Islamophobia (Extra!, 11-12/08)-though his embrace of violent rhetoric and fascist imagery has always put him at the extreme end of the talk radio spectrum. Beck's record includes fantasizing about strangling Michael Moore with his bare hands, seeing Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D.-Ohio) "burst into flames" (AlterNet, 11/21/08) and warning that "Muslims will see the West through razor wire if things don't change" (CNN Headline News, 9/5/06).
But since his Fox launch, Beck has recast himself as a populist who eschews both major parties. In a profile about his new show, Beck exclaimed to the New York Times (3/30/09), "Whatever happened to the country that loved the underdog and stood up for the little guy?''
Along with his populist pretensions, the new Glenn Beck promotes ultra-right conspiracy theories and other apocalyptic and paranoid scenarios. For instance, Beck suggests Barack Obama is a "Manchurian candidate" because he uses a teleprompter (like virtually every other modern politician): "Who's writing every word for this man?...We have a fraud in office, at least that's the way it feels to me" (Think Progress, 3/25/09).
Beck has also suggested (Fox & Friends, 3/3/09) that the current government is taking us down the road to "socialism, totalitarianism, beyond your wildest dreams." Beck cited as evidence the Birchite rumor that FEMA facilities were being converted to concentration camps: "I wanted to debunk them," said Beck (Fox & Friends, 3/2/09). "We've now for several days done research on them. I can't debunk them!" (Beck later renounced his support for the rumor and took credit for debunking it-Beck, 4/6/09.)
What's more, this mad hash of right-wing populist paranoia is delivered in an urgent, hyper-emotional style, occasionally interrupted by the host's weeping. "I'm sorry," he cried on his March 13 You Are Not Alone special. "I just love my country. And I fear for it." That special, he said, was about unifying Americans in the spirit of "9/12," a reference to the way Beck says we all came together the day after the September 11 attacks. Beck seems to have forgotten that his warm and fuzzy feeling on September 12, 2001 turned fairly quickly to loathing, as he admitted on his radio show on September 9, 2005: "You know it took me about a year to start hating the 9/11 victims' families?"
But the entire premise of Beck's show is to divide the country through the routine use of "us and them" dichotomies. "It seems like the voices of our leaders and special interests and the media [are] surrounding us," said Beck during the special. But "the truth is," he said, "they don't surround us. We surround them. This is our country." The program played on popular economic fears and resentment over having to pay for corporate bailouts, framed in a larger portrait of a world in chaos: "It just seems like the whole world is spinning out of control," said Beck. "War. Islamic extremism. Europe on the brink. Even pirates now."
But don't look to the government, he warned: "Our government is supposed to work for us. But it hasn't heard us in a long time." The anti-government disdain that pervades his programs is "not about politics," says Beck. "You've been concerned about this country through the last administration and this administration-if you're like most people, both administrations."
Beck's claim that Americans feel betrayed by both the Bush and Obama administrations is one of the central lies at the core of his show-and not just because "most people" approve of Obama. (An April 1-5 CBS News/New York Times poll found Obama with an approval rating of 66 percent-exactly three times Bush's historically dismal 22 percent approval rating poll upon leaving office.)
More disingenuously, Beck clearly doesn't believe in his own "pox on both their houses" bit. If he did, his show wouldn't be a regular, friendly stop for former Bush officials, boosters and prominent neoconservatives. In his short run, Beck has already hosted Bush alumni Alberto Gonzales, John Bolton, Karl Rove and John Yoo. Other GOP and neoconservative stalwarts who have already appeared more than once in the show's first few weeks include Rudolph Giuliani, Ann Coulter, Jonah Goldberg, Byron York, Michelle Malkin and David Horowitz.
While Beck lobs softballs to Bushies, Obama and his administration come under unrelenting, if frequently nutty, attacks. In one monologue (4/1/09), Beck raised right-wing fears about how "they" or "the government" were "going to nationalize our banks...put the government in charge of private payrolls...move to nationalize our auto industry." He concluded that his earlier assessments of the nation's ills had been wrong: "Our government is not marching down the road towards communism or socialism.... They're marching us to a brand of nonviolent fascism, or to put in another way, they're marching us towards 1984-‘Big Brother,' he's watching." This monologue took place over a video backdrop of thousands of Nazis marching under swastika banners.
Beck was careful to say of his anti-government charges, "It doesn't matter which administration we have in office." But it obviously matters to him. If there is any evidence that Beck ever suggested, while the Bush administration was still in power, that it was "socialist," "communist," "fascist" or marching toward totalitarianism, we are unable to find it-even if he seems perfectly willing to throw the former president under the proverbial bus in the current, expedient moment.
It's much the same with Beck's populism. Subjects like poverty, homelessness and low wages don't even register as concerns on his show, which regularly features friendly interviews with champions of the corporate elite, including Stephen Moore, Amity Shales, Arthur Laffer and Ben Stein. The "populist" Beck attacked foreclosure victims at the top of his You Are Not Alone special and complained that the United States had "the second-highest corporate tax rate in the world."
If the anti-tax "tea parties"-with their mixture of populist rhetoric and corporate advocacy (Think Progress, 4/14/09), their lip-service to a bipartisan critique and their actual fidelity to the Republican Party-bear more than a passing resemblance to Beck's new formula, that's no coincidence. Beck's influence over this movement has been substantial, and he tirelessly promoted the "tea party" events on his radio and TV programs. (The tea parties were brought up in 22 of his TV shows from February 20 through the day of the protests, April 15-when Beck did his show live from a tea party at the Alamo.)
With few exceptions, what Beck's various campaigns and positions have in common is an antagonism toward the Obama administration, the Democratic establishment and anyone to their left. This is not only clear in the way Beck identifies with corporate interests and Bush stalwarts; his approach was made clear in an L.A. Times interview (3/6/09) in which he said Roger Ailes told him, "The country faced tough times...and Fox News was one of the only news outlets willing to challenge the new administration."
"I see this as the Alamo," Ailes said, according to Beck. "If I just had somebody who was willing to sit on the other side of the camera until the last shot is fired, we'd be fine."
Poor Howard Beale, on the other hand, was eventually taken to the woodshed by his boss, who ranted at him:
You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won't have it! Is that clear? You think you've merely stopped a business deal. That is not the case.... There are no nations. There are no peoples.... There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multinational dominion of dollars. Petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars, reichmarks, rins, rubles, pounds and shekels.
Following the scolding, Beale lost his edge and his ratings, and was eventually murdered on orders of network executives-with a narrator darkly intoning over the image of his lifeless body lying on the set, "This was the story of Howard Beale: The first known instance of a man who was killed because he had lousy ratings."
No worry for Beck, though: With more than 2 million viewers each day, he boasts the third-highest ratings in cable news.