Glenn Beck Isn't Lonesome
He's no "a face in the crowd," but he's mad as hell.

The American Spectator, March 2010

Glenn Beck, the demonstrative host of the eponymous program on Fox News Channel, identifies with Howard Beale from the 1976 film Network. Beale, played by Peter Finch, is a news anchor on a fictional broadcast network who, after having a nervous breakdown on air, becomes a raving populist and a big hit with viewers.

When I interviewed Beck recently for the Wall Street Journal, he quoted the fictional anchorman's most famous line: "I am mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore." Then he drew a distinction: "The part of Howard Beale that I liken myself to is the moment when he was in the raincoat, where he figures everything out, and he's like, 'Whoa, whoa, wait a minute! Why the hell aren't you up at the window shouting outside?' What the media wants to make me is the Howard Beale at the end, the crazy showman that's doing anything for money. That I don't liken myself to."

Some of Beck's detractors on the left, including MSNBC ranter Keith Olbermann, draw a more sinister cinematic analogy. Olbermann calls Beck "Lonesome Rhodes," Andy Griffith's vicious and cynical character in the 1957 movie A Face in the Crowd. Rhodes, an Arkansas drifter, is discovered by a local radio station and quickly becomes a national star and an adviser to a right-wing senator considering a run for president.

"I had never heard of Lonesome Rhodes," Beck tells me. "I had never seen the movie. . . . As soon as I heard that, I watched it. . . . Lonesome Rhodes and I, I guess, had a few things in common. He was a drunk. I'm in AA; he wasn't. He, at the very beginning, said things that he believed--I think. I'm not really even sure on that. I used to not say the things I believe."

Beck got his start in radio at age 13. "I was in Washington, D.C., on the morning show, by the time I was 18, programming a station by 19, number one in the mornings. . . . When I was young, I used to hear people say, 'He's a golden boy. Look at that guy. Can you imagine what he's going to be like when he grows up?' Well, I unfortunately bought into that. And I hadn't even found myself. Quite honestly, I was running from myself. But I knew how to work Top 40 radio."

His drinking problem helped plunge him into personal and professional crisis: "By the time I was 30, nobody would work with me. I was friendless, I was hopeless, I was suicidal, lost my family--I mean, it was bad. Bottomed out, didn't know what I was going to do. I actually thought I was going to be a chef--go to work in a kitchen someplace."

Instead he found a calling in talk radio. It was late in the 1990s: "I did one of my first shows at WABC [in New York]. I was filling in for somebody. . . . I used to have to write everything out and keep copious notes on everything. I overprepped everything. And I got to the end of my first hour, and I looked down at all the notes, and I hadn't touched the first piece of paper. It was all off the top of my head. It was me being me. That's when I knew: this is what I have to do."

He adds, "Now I've made a vow to myself--it actually comes from Immanuel Kant, the philosopher: 'There are many things that I believe that I shall never say. But I shall never say the things that I do not believe.' . . . The minute I violate that, I'm back to the old drunk Glenn."

The new Glenn abstains from liquor, but he is not sober in the sense of sedate or grave. His style is earnest but highly emotional; he is known to cry on air. This draws criticism even from some who generally find his views congenial. Last fall he drew friendly fire on an American Enterprise Institute blog from Charles Murray, a libertarian social scientist who conceded that "Beck is spectacularly right (translation: I agree with him) on about 95 percent of the substantive issues he talks about." But Murray does not care for Beck's manner:

Our job is to engage in a debate on great issues and make converts to our point of view. The key word is converts --referring to people who didn't start out agreeing with us. We shouldn't be civil and reasonable just because we want to be nice guys. It is the only option we've got if we want to succeed instead of just posture. The Glenn Becks of the world posture, and make our work harder.
Beck answers carefully: "I'm sorry he doesn't agree with me--doesn't agree with my approach." Then he notes the irony of a think-tank intellectual criticizing a populist media star for lacking broad appeal: "How many are reading his blog, and how many are listening to my radio show, television show, reading my books, going to conventions, seeing me on stage? I mean, I think, while I respect his position and his difference in opinion on presentation, I think one of us is probably reaching more people daily."

He continues, "Look, I know a lot of people will disagree with the way I present things. I am being myself--I am a guy who is a recovering alcoholic, who lived a pretty fast life, who works hard every day, quite honestly, not to use the F-word--it used to be an art for me. I am a work in progress. But I also am a businessman that looks to get the word out to the maximum number of people."

In person, Beck is affable and cheerful, responding good-naturedly, even eagerly, to criticism. It's a far cry from the liberal caricature of an angry hater--like Lonesome Rhodes, who self-destructs at the end of A Face in the Crowd when he calls his audience "idiots," "morons," and "guinea pigs," unaware that he is on an open mic.

There's another flaw in the comparison between Beck and Lonesome Rhodes. Consider its source: Keith Olbermann is no closer to the old ideal of the straightforward, objective newsman than is Beck, and cable television has yielded up a multitude of other personalities who blend news, strong opinion, and entertainment in varying degrees, including Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, Jon Stewart, and, until his recent departure from CNN, Lou Dobbs.

By contrast, the authors of A Face in the Crowd and Network imagined their protagonists as singular sensations who drew massive audiences at a time when viewing options were far fewer. At his peak, Lonesome Rhodes claims 65 million viewers, more than one-third of the entire U.S. population in 1957. Beck's Fox show, the third-highest-rated on the cable news channels, averaged 2.9 million viewers a day in 2009, according to Nielsen Media Research. Beck estimates his total reach in all media--including television, radio, the Web, the magazine he publishes--as 30 million a month. That's impressive, but still less than 10 percent of Americans.

The development of cable television, with its diversity and audience segmentation, seems to have been a necessary condition for the emergence of such programming. Charles Murray may be right that Beck mostly preaches to the choir, but the observation applies equally to Beck's competitors and their respective choirs.

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