Glenn Beck’s Legacy for Television News
With Glenn Beck’s upcoming departure from the cable news network that made him a household name and political player, it certainly seems time to reflect on the impact he has had on television news. Although Beck had been in cable news (CNN) prior to his arrival at the Fox News Channel in January 2009, it was the unfettered platform that the conservative network provided Beck to unleash his “Mad Prophet of the Airwaves” persona that enabled his stardom. What has transpired since that time is that Beck (with Fox News) has been an enormously influential force in redefining cable television news and the role it plays in the construction political reality. Thus, as he departs Fox News to create his own network (GBTV), here is a cursory look at his legacy:
1. News is Political Entertainment Too: Certainly the lines between entertainment television and serious public affairs programming have been blurring for decades. When we speak of “political entertainment,” though, Jon Stewart and Bill Maher typically come to mind. But Glenn Beck has demonstrated the meshing of entertainment and politics from the other side, that is, “journalism.” For Beck, politics and current events were simply the raw material for his spectacularly entertaining performances of right-wing ideology. With a wardrobe of Viking helmets and 3D glasses, demonstrative stunts (gasoline cans and boiling frogs), and a professorial chalkboard, Beck entertainmentized public affairs on a news channel, all while arguing that he was delivering valuable public information important to a democratic polity. As he ventured on comedy tours and political rallies outside the television box, he demonstrated further how politics and entertainment are largely one and the same, free and open to all performers who can capitalize on public passions and the audience’s desire to participate in such “non-fiction” performances.
2. News Creates Political Reality: Following J. L. Austin’s theory of performativity, speech acts—including the news—don’t just report on reality, they are capable of creating reality as well. A variety of political players have honed this to an art form in the contemporary political arena (Sarah Palin’s “Death Panels”), but Glenn Beck became a regular and reliable fount of such political reality creation. It doesn’t matter whether what he asserted was untrue—Obama as racist; Obama favoring the Muslim Brotherhood; socialism=fascism; Van Jones as “radical revolutionary communist;” Sharia law in America. It only matters that his viewers believed these things to be so, and they do so in part because of the authoritative platform from which Beck speaks. When numerous Republican presidential contenders assert their vigilance against the assertion of Shariah law during the first Republican presidential debate of the 2012 campaign season, one begins to see just how powerful such reality creation has become.
3. There Is No Such Thing as Too Crazy for Journalism: Through Beck, Fox demonstrated that if a host can draw and keep a large audience, that is sufficient for staying on the air, irrespective of the wildly irresponsible and bat-shit crazy statements, antics, and rantings Beck produced. While one might think such antics would hurt Fox’s credibility as a “fair and balanced” “news” network, in fact, Beck served a quite useful purpose in building its brand as a place where liberal ideas and pieties would be attacked with full force. What is more, with Beck defining just how far out the far right could go, he made others at the network—Steve Doocy, Bill O’Reilly, Megyn Kelly—seem sane and somewhat moderate by comparison. To stay with the analogy to the movie Network, Sybil the Soothsayer seems, well, completely natural and normal when placed beside Howard Beale.
4. Conspiracy Theories Constitute Legitimate News: Gone are the days when the John Birch Society peddled its conspiracy theories via newsletters, pamphlets, and other small time means of communication. With his “expert” guests, blackboards, documentaries, and readings lists, Beck demonstrated that a news network was the legitimate place for the presentation of all sorts of fanciful political renderings to millions of viewers. A self-taught man, Populist Beck nevertheless saw it his duty to connect the dots of an overarching grand conspiracy of liberal and progressive agents destined to subvert “traditional American values” from within. Beck’s blackboard was literally his canvass, and his viewers were cast a studious pupils ready to receive their lessons in order to save democracy. And here again, the overtly ridiculous nature of Beck’s conspiracy theories only made the network’s other grand conspiracy narratives offered up in its “news” programming—the Ground Zero Mosque, Obama’s birth certificate, Black Panthers intimidating voters—seem legitimate and not too far fetched.
5. News Credibility Is Not What You Think It Is: Irrespective of Beck’s wild assertions and conspiracy theories, Fox felt fully comfortable in having Beck appear across a variety of Fox programs in the morning, afternoon, and evening. Typically an appearance on another program suggests some level of expertise or credibility as a source. Fox smartly realized that Beck, like network contributor Sarah Palin, need not have any credibility as someone with a relationship to truth or facts, only credibility in his or her relationship viewers. If viewers trust in his or her opinions, then the credible truth is what viewers and hosts make it out to be.
Upon announcement of Beck’s departure, Fox noted that it would maintain a relationship with the host as he continued to develop future projects for the network. It is hard to fathom, though, how any such projects could be as significant as these fundamentally redefining aspects of that which now (legitimately?) comprises television news.