Saturday, March 05, 2011

An Appreciation of Glenn Beck


This is not a post where I bash Glenn Beck. As a matter of fact, I have a healthy professional respect for Glenn Beck. That is because I have always viewed him as a performance artist, and an especially cunning and profitable one.

Steve Benen has a post today examining the fading phenomenon of Glenn Beck's books and broadcasts on radio and television. There are many sensible theories tossed around there, but my own theory is downplayed. I really do think it's an act.

Glenn Beck may hold conservative political views; he might not. I don't know. But I think the stuff at the chalkboard, the labyrinthine conspiracy theories, the appeals to his viewers to stock up on canned goods, selling gold, the studiously timed outrages, the famous photo shoot where he was seen having drops put in his eyes to stimulate tears, and the gargantuan persona of a man as fearlessly tasteless as Andy Kaufman on his darkest day -- yes, I think it is a show.

During Beck's days at CNN, I am guessing, he saw a niche market: a need for a certain kind of media personality in the talking head marketplace. He began playing that person while at CNN and moved over to the Fox partisan political network, where he exploded. There was an appetite for an entertaining anti-government, larger-than-life right wing reactionary.

The books sold, bolstered by studiously timed stunts and controversies. Who could not notice that when Beck had been out of the headlines for a while, kersplat!, he would be calling the President of the United States a racist, or staging a right-wing political rally on the date and location of MLK's "I Have A Dream Speech," or saying something perfectly designed to set off the liberal media in a new frenzy of Glenn-Beck-is-Icky-ness.

It has been a very successful show. But like any good show, it has a shelf life. It gets written out, repetitive. (A quarter of the way into 2011, Beck is still talking about Van Jones.) The public moves on to other spectacles. Advertisers dwindle, ratings droop, book sales recede.

And if I am right about Glenn Beck, and he is as smart as I believe he is, he has been putting away the money and will coast into a luxurious future with all options open to him. Maybe he'll kick back. Maybe he'll wait a while and then start milking the public speaker circuit.

My tongue is not in my cheek here. I really do think Glenn Beck has surpassed Stephen Colbert and punked the audience. One could not plan a more perfect exploitation of the media circus or more accurately have tapped into the sentiment of the public during the first decade of the 21st century.

Well played, Mr. Beck.

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