Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Have we had just about enough of Glenn Beck yet? Really. I have forced myself to watch this guy on FOX several times now. I did that because I am a journalist, and a cultural commentator [read: ‘blogger’], and I need to be up on who’s saying what to whom about what. Glenn Beck is saying not much to a lot of people about nothing.

Interestingly, Beck is not the first of his kind. He is just the latest. Does the name Joe Pyne ring a bell? No, I didn’t imagine it would. Pyne had a television talk show in 1960s in which he was known for insulting not only his guests, but individual audience members who could step up to the mic and comment on the topic at hand. I remember as a kid watching Pyne conduct his TV circus and being strangely drawn to the confrontational moments so common in each episode. Here’s a clip that shows a typical Pyne exchange. This time he was interviewing radical student activist Jerry Rubin:

Pyne died in 1970, but it would only be a historical nanosecond before one Morton Downey, Jr., emerged, also confrontational, and more often than not, offensive. With his ever-present cigarette burning between his fingers, Downey was loud, crass and sometimes uninformed. Like Glenn Beck. One could safely assert that Downey was Rush Limbaugh’s predecessor. Like Limbaugh, Downey was not a journalist, not really terribly well informed about the issues of the day and not prone to civil discourse. To give you an idea of Downey’s politics, one of his favorite and oft-used phrases on his television show as “pablum-puking liberal.” Here’s part of an episode of Downey’s show with guest Pat Buchannan:

What these media clowns had in common was a decidedly right-wing ideology, a lack of decorum and no filter between their brain cells and their speaking voice. What Beck adds to this mix is extreme narcissism. While his predecessors filled their shows with raucous audience participation and guests they could humiliate on air, Beck likes the camera all to himself.

Advertisers left in droves after Beck declared President Obama a racist. No matter. FOX chose to keep him on, because the ratings are through the roof. The ratings excel because the public at large is generally not as aggressive in its communication about major issues. There is some sort of twisted vicarious thrill a lot of people experience through a Glenn Beck. But are his chosen issues major? The other day Beck delivered a 10-minute rant about Obama’s plea for citizens to volunteer their time for worthy causes. Somehow Beck found something bad in that presidential request.

When words do not seem to have the emotional largesse that Beck desires, he resorts to tears. Evidently he can cry on demand. When he cannot cry on demand, such as in a recent publicity photo shoot, the makeup people carefully oil the skin under his eyes to make him appear tearful. When words and tears do not carry the necessary emphasis, Beck interviews someone remotely with their image appearing on a large screen behind him. When the interviewee says something disagreeable to Beck, he looks into Camera 1 and mocks the person by making sarcastic faces.

I envision Glenn Beck going home after work, sitting around in sweat pants and a t-shirt, eating potato chips and onion dip and watching “The Bachelor” or something equally innocuous. In the morning, I suppose he gets up and puts on his “Glenn Beck” disguise and goes back out into the world to simply piss people off for money. Reportedly lots and lots of money. I like what Jon Stewart said of Beck: “Finally a guy who says what people who don’t think are thinking.” That’s Glenn Beck.

So here we have a reformed drug addict and recovering alcoholic, the son of a drug addict/alcoholic divorced mother who killed herself, a college dropout who converted to Mormonism simply because his second wife-to-be said she wouldn’t marry him unless he had a religion. Beck simply knows how to yell a little louder than the rest of us and how to feign passion about issues that he seems rather unclear about. And if you just can’t get home in time for the late afternoon Glenn Beck show, and you don’t have three hours every single day to listen to Beck on the radio, maybe you can catch him on his standup comedy tour. That’s not a joke. He goes on tour and tells funny liberal people jokes. He packs them in, and they love it when he constantly repeats “us conservatives.”

Beck found a schtick that works in a time that was fully ready for a mediocre right-wing stand-up comedian to appear on a news network and belittle people who do not agree with him. Nothing about him is distinctive or original – not his tendency to yell over his guests’ comments, not his lack of solid research on the issues he attacks and certainly not his narcissism. At a time when the average American citizen feels his or her voice is not heard, Beck offers them a voice, even if he says things that in their hearts they know do not live up to their own moral code.
Pyne was a novelty late night guilty pleasure. Downey was a loud mouth, educated lawyer who pretended to be one with the working middle class. But Beck? Beck is a full-blown media superstar right now. So, what makes a tearful, semi-informed extremist into a bonafide superstar these days? See for yourself:


Murr Brewster said...

I had forgotten about Joe Pyne until you reminded me. He was so horrifying in those somewhat more civil times. And yet, I find myself equally horrified by his like today. We liberals are such pussies. Wouldn't have it any other way, though.

Paul A. Greenberg said...

My fear is that BEck is becoming more the norm than the exception in cable media. Pyne was an enigma. Downey was just a ratings whore. Beck is also a ratings whore, but there are several of his ilk who actually think of themselves as journalists (such as Bill O'Reilley). So, who loses when people like these guys populate the airwaves? Everyone loses, regardless of political ideology. Thanks for reading and thanks for writing...Paul

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