In late September, President Barack Obama conducted a series of five one-on-one White House interviews with reporters from CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, and Univision. For some reason—perhaps he's housing a secret civilian security force in the Roosevelt Room and doesn't want any fair and balanced reporters snooping around—the president didn't invite Fox to participate. For Glenn Beck, the host of the hottest show on cable news, this Oval Office slight offered an opportunity to provide some trenchant perspective. "Does the president consider Fox some sort of enemy?" he exclaimed, chortling with amiable resentment. "I mean, no, it can't be that, because, no, he'll sit down with our enemies. He's even offered to sit down with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And that guy, I mean, you call me nuts?"
The bit was Beck at his best: shrewdly self-marginalizing, bitingly funny, and executed with perfect timing. A radio veteran who got his first job in the business at the age of 13, Beck, it turns out, is also a TV showman on par with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. But while America's favorite fake newsmen have clear-cut identities as comedians, the question of how to categorize Beck is more perplexing.
When Beck was 8 years old, his mother gave him a record of old radio programs that included Orson Welles' famous performance of War of the Worlds. Apparently the fictionalized news report of an alien invasion became a foundational text for him, an archetypal example of how you could create crazy, vivid, apocalyptic drama out of mere words. To pay tribute to Welles' work, Beck starred in a live version of War of the Worlds that aired on his syndicated radio show on Halloween night in 2002. Shortly thereafter, an heir of the radio play's author sued Beck and his producers for copyright infringement and won an injunction that prevents Beck from ever performing the play again.
The injunction, however, doesn't prevent Beck from spinning his own doomsday visions every day. In January he jumped from CNN Headline News to the Fox News Channel and began experimenting in earnest. Comedy Central's The Daily Show had paved the way by showing you didn't have to stick to the same old tried-and-true conventions when presenting the news. Anchormen could be more expressive. You could use music and graphics and video clips more creatively. And if you could do so in pursuit of comedy, why not also in pursuit of melodrama?
In February, while discussing what it's like to be angry and enfranchised in America, legislated to the edge of Armageddon, Beck introduced a new visual technique: His image appeared simultaneously in two windows on the screen, one a typical headshot, the other a close-up of his eyes, the better to showcase his distressed but strong sincerity. On April Fool's Day, as Beck kicked off a segment on America's drift toward fascism, his image started shrinking until he was just a tiny torso at the bottom of the screen, looking over his shoulder at World War II footage of marching Nazis. "Enough!" Mini-Beck shouted. Then the screen went black behind him, dramatically framing his shrunken head and body as he continued his soliloquy. It was news commentary as expressionist theater.
Beck's subjects became equally avant garde. On one show, experts tutored the host on how to survive the kind of financial meltdown in which shopping centers were ghost malls and streets were crawling with functionally illiterate meth-heads. A week later, he started investigating the rumor that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was building concentration camps around the country. When that didn't pan out, he set about exposing the secret communist artwork adorning Rockefeller Plaza and other buildings in New York.
Whatever the subject of any given episode, a common theme always unites it with every other installment of the show: Something isn't right with America. The country is changing somehow, subtly but surely, right under our very noses, and hardly anyone else is noticing.
In August, Beck turned his attention to the mysterious entities—alien invaders, you might say—who had infiltrated the White House with barely any scrutiny at all: Obama's czars. Van Jones, Obama's adviser on green business initiatives, was a former member of a communist group and a self-described revolutionary, Beck reported. Next, he aired video footage of Mark Lloyd, diversity officer at the Federal Communications Commission, praising Hugo Chavez's "incredible revolution" in Venezuela. The Van Jones episode garnered Beck's highest rating in weeks, attracting nearly 800,000 more viewers than his previous show had. The Mark Lloyd episode, boosted by an endorsement from Sarah Palin to her Facebook followers, did even better, attracting slightly more than 3 million viewers, according to the Nielsen Company.
It was the first time Beck's program had broken the 3 million barrier, an incredible achievement for a cable news show airing at 5 p.m. After Beck unveiled more information about Jones, including the fact that the adviser had signed a petition that suggested high-level Bush administration officials may have deliberately allowed the 9/11 attacks to occur, Jones resigned from his position at the White House. Beck followed up with revelations about a National Endowment for the Arts conference call in which artists were encouraged to create works promoting President Obama's political agenda, and suddenly it seemed as if the crusading New Canaan populist might single-handedly save America from the attacking hordes of progressive pod people armed to the teeth with stimulus dollars.
Not everyone gives Beck's efforts positive reviews, even on the right. New York Times columnist David Brooks accused him of "race-baiting" after Beck said Obama is "racist" toward white people. Former Bush speechwriter David Frum called one of Beck's many vettings of a White House appointee (Cass Sunstein in this case) "beyond sloppy, beyond ignorant, proceeding straight toward the deceptive." "How on earth did this crackpot get a national TV show?" asked Dallas Morning News columnist Rod Dreher.
In Dreher's question we have what is perhaps the most concise history yet of media in the Internet era. With every new technological breakthrough, it gets easier and easier to push unregulated information into the national discourse, potentially exposing millions to misinformation masquerading as news. As President Obama exclaimed in a September interview with the Toledo Blade, it sometimes seems as if we're moving toward a future where there's "no serious fact checking" and "no serious attempts to put stories in context."
In theory, a charismatic paranoiac like Beck is the poster boy for this dystopian future. He's got a very loud megaphone. His communication skills are world-class. He's ideologically driven (even if no one can quite figure out what that ideology is). And he's willing to entertain some pretty dubious notions. But look at his track record so far. He couldn't sell FEMA death camps because the facts weren't there to back the story up. His exposé of communist art at Rockefeller Plaza went nowhere because even Beck's viewers realize an old relief of a naked farmer holding some wheat isn't much of a threat. The Van Jones story had legs, by contrast, because most of its facts were solid. With a change in background music and a few minor edits, in fact, Beck's first long piece on Jones could have served as an advertisement for the activist's achievements—in part because its script closely followed a 2005 newspaper article that was written as a positive portrait of Jones.
Context, meanwhile, is Beck's forte. He is constantly urging his viewers to connect the dots and look at the big picture, even when the picture exists only in his head. He is forever advising them to consider stories not as transient, random, isolated phenomena, as most newscasts do, but as parts of a larger, ongoing narrative that grows more and more meaningful (and menacing) the longer you study it. In a fractured, distracting mediascape, where thousands of outlets vie for our attention, it's a smart approach that others are sure to copy. Legally barred from re-enacting Orson Welles, Beck may have to settle for being the 21st century's answer to Edward R. Murrow.
Contributing Editor Greg Beato (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes from San Francisco.