The threat Glenn Beck represents to the Left is political but not solely for the reasons perceived. The cadre of useful idiots speaking and writing against him offers no clue as to what is really at stake; the stridency of the ad hominem attacks merely belies the fact that the source of their outrage eludes them like an itch they cannot scratch. For what Beck has done is something far more subtle, precise and powerful. He has effected a change in the medium. The medium is television; the arena is information; and the specific format that has changed is the cable news show.
In order to grasp Beck’s significance, it is instructive to look at the previous instance in which the television news format got more than a makeover. When Jon Stewart hit on the idea for The Daily Show, an increasingly impressive roster of guests soon attested to the fact that something significant was happening. It wasn’t long before the likes of senators and former presidents were lining up to take their lumps, watching from the green room as Stewart roasted them before they came out for the interview and an opportunity to connect with the smart set on a new level. And never mind the book you’re peddling; an appearance on The Daily Show could easily become news in itself. Whenever too much is made of the show’s significance, Stewart takes pleasure in dismissing its importance by reminding us of his mandate: it’s fake news. But that’s just the point, isn’t it? Imagine if you could take the fakeness out of news, if you could dispense with the arrogance and self-importance of the presentation (see Ted Koppel), if instead of objectively–i.e., mindlessly–reporting, you could actually tell people what is really going on? What better vehicle for taking the fakeness out of news than… fake news! Stewart’s fake news doesn’t waste time talking down to you by even pretending to be news or important. It gets right down to taking the piss out of the headlines and delivering knowing comedic insight. How refreshing: an interviewer who talks back to his guests, takes them to task, offers advice, and even berates them on occasion. How refreshing to be treated not as a dumb viewer but as someone who “gets it.” (It doesn’t hurt matters that Stewart himself is smart, passionate and funny.) How truly refreshing to hear someone–finally!–point out the glaring, obvious thing that we’re all thinking. In other words, let’s all stop pretending that we’re not pretending. Drop the pomp and circumstance, add a heavy dollop of good-natured humor, and maybe we can all start relating to each other openly, honestly and intelligently. That’s the new bar set for Stewart’s guests and many rise admirably to the occasion. It’s almost as if things and people appearing on The Daily Show suddenly become… real! It’s almost as if television’s promise were that much closer to being realized.
Being a cool, deeply participatory medium, television plays better in certain formats over others. TV news traditionally has had a formal, hot format and consequently is prone to ridicule. Television’s inherent irony means the viewer is liable to switch off if he feels he’s being put on. The pretense of real news works fine in print but never played well on television. Stewart’s innovation in a nutshell was discovering how to do cool news. Want real news? Tune in to the Comedy Channel. That’s the sort of in-joke we can take seriously.
When one thinks of television’s finest hour, of those early moments when we glimpsed its potential as a medium, one thinks of the Kennedy assassination or the footage of fire hoses and attack dogs coming out of the Deep South. In these moments we felt television’s potential to involve us deeply, to galvanize us into action, to effect social change. In some sense, for example, the megaphone of the civil rights movement was television and it was television, perhaps, that gave Dr. King’s dream the wings it needed when he uttered it on the Mall. In between moments such as these, TV’s promise was floated in distance learning (now relegated to some distant hinterland at the far end of the dial); in tell-a-thons, band-aids and other fund drives for just causes; in televangelism; and in electronic town halls. A glimmer of TV’s unrealized potential lies in all these formats and in many ways the connectedness and involvement it promised are now sought on another screen where new “shows” such as Facebook and Twitter promise anew to move us from passive consumers of information to active participants in the drama of our own lives. And as for cable news, it looked like The Daily Show had really started something. Then came Beck.
Like Stewart, Beck did not hit on a winning formula easily. For both hosts, it took several tries on several networks before all the right elements would come together. Beyond that, the similarities pretty much end. Where Stewart can be candid, he’s still a personality. Where Beck can be funny, he’s always Glenn. Where Stewart has a traditional team of writers and scripted segments, Beck employs research assistants and speaks at length without notes. Where Stewart tapes earlier in the day, Beck airs live. Where Stewart’s show was quickly absorbed by the Mainstream Media that spawned it, Beck’s show was too unconventional for the MSM. But most importantly, where Stewart has conventional TV viewers for an audience, Beck has what might be described as TV listeners. Before coming to television, Beck started in radio. Yet The Glenn Beck Show is not radio on television in the way that Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern, or Imus are radio on television, where we watch them doing radio. What Beck has done is to take something essential about the radio experience and incorporate it into television. In so doing he has succeeded more fully than anyone else at breaking television’s proverbial fifth wall. And lo and behold, a new cable news show appears that is no show at all. Instead, it’s someone freely speaking truth to power with a reach and effectiveness that the Stewarts of the world can only dream of. And there’s the rub.
For while elites may grant access to power, no class is obliged to police itself more strictly or exercise more self-control than the media caste itself. They have plenty of ways of dealing with those who break the rules of the game. Yet the one thing that gets their goat more than any other is when somebody comes along and starts pointing out very loudly that there are in fact rules to the game. This is not much of a problem in unfree societies; however, in a free society exerting control requires maintaining the illusion of freedom. Without that illusion, it’s extremely difficult to channel or thwart the will of people who dare exercise their freedom. It’s like herding cats – which is another way of saying that “as contentious and frustrating and messy as our democracy can sometimes be,” were it not just that contentious and frustrating and messy, it would be no democracy at all. Herding cats is precisely the sort of exercise that government by the people is all about.
This explains why the lure of the conspiracy theory holds only inside the fishbowl: it is purely a product of the fishbowl. So, while Beck’s rabid detractors vilify him as a charlatan, a liar and a fake; a fear-monger and a rabble-rouser; a conspiracy-theorist working for conspiracists, an opportunist in league with shameless profiteers, an inflammatory puppet of insane conservative oligarchs, and a wolf herding sheep, the real danger Beck presents to the powers that be is precisely the fact that against the consensual conspiracy of the fishbowl he presents no conspiracy at all. The franticness of their vituperations resembles Christof’s desperation on The Truman Show. The larger message of the movie is that all who participate in the lie of Truman’s life are also its producers and will go to great lengths to maintain it although they may not in the end know why. All it takes, potentially, to pull the plug on the whole production is for one guy (the “true man”) to wake up and step outside the fishbowl. One could list a number of positive things Beck is doing but in its simplest terms, as one online commenter recently said, “Overall, I think he is making a tremendous difference in pulling a diverse group of citizens together simply by giving them a forum and method of cohesion.” Beck stepped off the set and left the soundstage a while ago. His “show” isn’t really a show because it isn’t airing in the fishbowl. It’s already out there in plain old ordinary America, where ordinary Americans congregate to share what’s on their minds.
The proof is in the pudding, so to speak. On August 28, 2010, in the clear light of day, several hundred thousand people showed up on the Mall for an event called “Restoring Honor.” As much as the Left tried to brand them all as Tea Partiers, to label them all Republicans or Right Wing freaks, they conformed to no known rubric in the fishbowl. As much as the Left yearned to dismiss them as a pack of dogs, here instead was a gathering of cats–individuals as different and distinct as the individuals in the Constitution that unites them. One notable aspect was that by and large they were citizens concerned with the direction their country is taking. They made time to attend and paid their own way. They were orderly and peaceful. Diverse as they were, perhaps the best to thing to call them is Americans, and leave it at that.
And leave it at that we could, were it not that shortly thereafter Jon Stewart announced he was holding a counter-event which came to be called “The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.” A week prior, when asked what the rally was about, Stewart had this to say:
The march is—like everything that we do, the march is merely a construct. It’s just a format, in the same way that the book is a format. You know, a show is a format, the book is a format to translate the type of expression that we do, whether it be a satire on the political events. It’s a format to be filled with the type of material that Stephen and I do, and the point of view.
So it’s not—you know, people have said it’s a rally to counter Glenn Beck. It’s not. It’s—what it is, is we saw that and thought, what a beautiful outline. What a beautiful structure to fill with what we want to express in live form, festival form.
Imitation, as they say, is the sincerest form of flattery. Astoundingly, it never appears to cross Stewart’s mind that he may be attempting to discredit the Restoring Honor event. What would have happened if shortly after Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech to the nation from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, a group had announced they were holding a counter-event in the same location called “I Have a Nightmare”? Radical notions of reverse discrimination aside, how is this any different? Incredibly, for Stewart, Restoring Honor was “just a format.” In other words, for Stewart, the medium is the message. What happened on the Mall on 8/28 was just a “beautiful outline,” a form devoid of significant content, a container to be filled with any “point of view” whatever. And here the limitation of the fishbowl reveals itself, for within the fishbowl the medium must always be the message, i.e., the medium must always conform to its own ideology. The crucial point Stewart fails to grasp is simply that Beck’s rally was real: real activism by real people who actually stand for something, as intolerably uncool as that may be to the arch purveyors of hip derision and satire. What Stewart doesn’t say but might as well have said is, “Hey, you know, we saw what Beck did and thought it was kind of cool, so we figured, ‘Let’s take that idea and parody it; let’s ham it up and make a mockery of it. Let’s just shit all over these good people’s intentions by lampooning the whole concept.’” Stewart’s aspirations fell short of the real activism he was merely aping. In the end it was sad, frankly, and not a little off-color to see Stewart and Colbert clowning around on sacred ground not for the benefit of “engaged citizens” but for “a crowd going to see a comedy act.” Stewart’s gimmick, his shtick, his format, wore thin and proved unable, finally, to transcend the televisual irony in which it thrives. In reply to the spectacle of the American people peaceably assembled, we got the leering smirk of television itself, the ironic, prophylactic sneer that seeks to preempt all criticism as well as any serious criticism of itself.
The Left that hates Beck is a Left in thrall to an ideology that is proving inimical to what is best for America at heart. The change The Daily Show demographic voted for is turning out to be something perhaps more sinister and austere than even they had bargained for. Those on the Left who mindlessly slander Beck without watching him could benefit from examining the roots of their desperation. Those who do undertake to watch him would do well to bear one thought in mind: if just one of the many well-researched facts Beck presents were untrue, it is a fair bet to say that he would long ago have lost the privilege of remaining on air.
-  Saturday Night Live still reliably features Weekend Update. ↩
-  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fourth_wall. The fifth wall is also discussed here. ↩
-  State of the Union 2011 ↩
-  http://standupforamerica.wordpress.com/2009/10/01/why-does-the-left-hate-glenn-beck/ ↩
-  http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=130704771 ↩
-  http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/2618749/posts ↩
-  See Mark Crispin Miller’s “Introduction: The Hipness Unto Death” in Boxed In: The Culture of TV, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, IL, 1988, pp. 3-27. ↩