Tuned In

Dead Tree Alert: The Fears of a Clown

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Illustration for TIME by Francisco Caceres; Beck: Nicholas Roberts / The New York Times / Redux

Illustration for TIME by Francisco Caceres; Beck: Nicholas Roberts / The New York Times / Redux

My Tuned In column this week peers into the hour of extra-strength apocalyptic demagogue-a-tainment that is Fox News’ Glenn Beck show: 

On March 23, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner unveiled the Obama Administration’s toxic-bank-assets plan. The stock markets cheered the news, sending the Dow up 497 points.

This meant one thing: it was time for Glenn Beck to break out the Jenga set. …

Read the rest here. After the jump, a couple DVD-extra bonus thoughts for those of you who can’t get enough of your Beck. 

* One reason I don’t write even more about cable news and its hosts than I do is that, generally, I can’t stand it—especially opinion shows. Whether I agree or disagree with the host—O’Reilly, Hannity, Olbermann, Dobbs—a few minutes of the hectoring and high-horse-mounting and I just want to change the channel; it’s painful. So I give credit to Beck for producing a really watchable show. I’m not sure how big a factor this is in its popularity—as opposed to his stoking viewers’ sense of grievance and impending disaster—but the simple fact that he uses self-deprecation more than shouting goes a long way. That and the fact that you really do wonder what bananas move he’ll pull next; there’s a kind of dawn-of-TV low-tech unpredictability to the show. 

* I came close to not even including Beck’s reference to the 1916 U.S. dime as evidence of creeping fascism, because I was so worried that it must be an April Fool’s joke that simply went over my head. He couldn’t possibly believe it, right? But having watched the episode and re-read the transcript (and the next day’s), I saw nothing that denied the claim about the dime, which had been bouncing around the Internet previously. Finally, I decided that, however serious he was, the simple fact that a major cable-news host was making claims that I literally could not tell from an April Fool’s joke—getting two million people to listen to a whacked-out theory on the order of the movie National Treasure—was in itself reason to mention it. 

* So what about that guy who shot the cops in Pittsburgh? There has been some argument that the shooting—by an evidently deranged guy afraid, among other things, that Obama would take his guns away—was fomented by right-wing talkers. Eric Boehlert at Media Matters extended the line to Beck, arguing that Beck’s extreme arguments against the government (I cite some of the same ones he does) fed the fire. (As anecdotal evidence, he also noted that the shooter, Richard Poplawski uploaded a Beck video clip.)

To me, there’s a big difference between saying that ideas have influence and saying that specific statements led to a specific act of violence. It’s a big accusation to say that someone caused the murderous acts of a crazy—as opposed to articulating the same beliefs. As you know if you read this blog regularly, I’m always skeptical when media-decency critics make this charge: that Dexter, or violent videogames, or rap music, or what have you, make people kill cops or get pregnant, etc. Likewise here; and if anything, there needs to be a higher bar of proof when it comes to political speech, even political speech I don’t agree with. 

Now, I considered writing all this in the column. But you can see how much I’ve written already. If I set out to explain the controversy—to an audience that may not have heard of it or even seen Beck’s show—summarize the arguments, and make my own counter-argument (in more detail than the hole-filled quick summary above), it would have taken most if not all of my column. And that, in turn, would have obscured the larger point that Beck is finding a large and willing audience for some truly dark and batty stuff. So, I saved it for the blog here.

* Now, having said that about the Pittsburgh case, I have to wonder what Beck thinks about his own influence. On the one hand, he gave a monologue on Monday defending himself over it, saying that it was ridiculous to blame anybody except the “nutjob” who did the shooting. On the other hand, it was interesting to watch him last Friday, the day of the mass shooting at a Binghamton immigrant-aid center. He seemed almost stricken, saying, “Quite honestly, when I first saw this, and I saw that there was a shooter at a place where immigrants met — I can’t lie to you. I honestly immediately said, ‘Oh, dear God. Please don’t let it be somebody who is like, “And all these illegals, they’re…”‘”

Was he worrying that the shooter would turn out to be an anti-immigration obsessive who would cite Beck as an inspiration? Was he simply worried that he, and Lou Dobbs and the other border-security shouters, would be accused of lighting the fuse? Could he possibly have had the thought that—whether a crazy person’s acts were his responsibility or not—he should maybe consider toning down his own rhetoric? 

Probably not, since in the same program he himself placed responsibility somewhere besides “the nutjob” who pulled the trigger: “There is a lot of stuff going on in our nation right now, and quite frankly, I think a lot of it is because we have un-pegged from God.” And last night he simulated pouring a can of gasoline on a guest’s head. Don’t ask the guy for a match.