Broadcaster Glenn Beck's appearances last Saturday at Safeco Field, and in his hometown of Mount Vernon, generated a surprising amount of local media attention. I have an interest in Beck because he spent his high-school years in my hometown of Bellingham and he often makes on-air reference to Bellingham as his place of origin.
I can't take too much of the on-air Beck at one sitting. He clearly is more entertainer than journalist. He also clearly is intelligent but only sketchily informed and educated — pretty much still operating in the radio disc-jockey mode he successfully perfected prior to getting his big electronic-media chance with CNN and, now, Fox.
To understand Beck (as, for that matter, Keith Olbermann of MSNBC, Bill O'Reilly of Fox, Lou Dobbs of CNN, and other populist or ideological cable-news-channel personalities) it is important to know that they are not Old School electronic journalists of the Edward R. Murrow, Huntley/Brinkley or even Bob Schieffer mode but, instead, people who have a schtick. Their cable-news employers, along the way, have made calculated decisions that a certain kind of on-air personality, appealing to a certain demographic audience (young, old, liberal, conservative, libertarian, etc.) will enhance ratings and generate income.
Dobbs, a former Seattle news anchor, provides a good example. For years he was CNN's financial news anchor and generally expressed a pro-Wall Street view on the air. Then, a few years ago, he made the switch to raging on-air populist, expressing anti-immigration nativist views; opposing liberalized trade; blasting big financial houses, corporations, and labor unions; and suggesting cynical corruption on the part of Presidents Bush and Obama and congressional leaders of both major political parties. As Beck has done, Dobbs has cashed in on discontent among large numbers of voters/viewers/consumers with money to spend on his sponsors' products.
Beck probably is no more or less cynical than his peers. He may even believe the on-air ideological line he peddles to his viewers and listeners. Reading and learning more about his background, I tend to view him as a classic type — a person emerging from unhappy or traumatic growing-up experiences to carve a career where he will get the adulation he always wanted. These people are quite common in the entertainment industry and, for that matter, politics.
Beck's goofy brand of conservatism is harmful to serious public dialogue, but no more so than the various ideological rantings associated with the master of the schtick, Rush Limbaugh, or of their counterparts on the left-hand side.
Their popularity and huge audiences reflect the cynicism of the broadcast groups which sponsor them and the general dumbing down and growing irresponsiblity of media in the United States. A recent Pew survey, as others in recent years by many reputable organizations, underscored the degree to which Americans increasingly distrust and even discount entirely the "news" they see in all media — from daily newspapers to network news broadcasts to cable-news shows to local-level print and electronic media. The same surveys show citizens increasingly turning for information (and thus forming their views) on the basis of what they see and hear from biased sources and from online blogs which often purvey information which is outrightly false.
Those writing for media — for even as moderate and responsible a venue as Crosscut — will attest to the large number of comments and communications received in response to their pieces from readers proceeding from anger, bias, or ignorance. Crosscut's readership makes it less susceptible to such response than does that of many other sources. A reading of comments made in response to Seattle Times or online P-I stories, for instance, shows a high percentage falling into the angry/biased/ignorant category.
Beck is only a symptom of a far larger general problem in American society. Voters and citizens exposed to half-baked commentary and politically slanted "news" will increasingly be less able to make reasonable, informed decisions about the big issues facing them.