Friday, September 18, 2009

The Mad Profit of the Airwaves


So Glenn Beck is on the cover of the new issue of Time magazine.

At face value, there's nothing really wrong with this; the man's a pop culture phenomenon. The problem with the piece is, unfortunately, the same one that plagued Time's 2005 cover story on Ann Coulter: It heavily skirts the reasons why its subject is controversial in favor of just concentrating on the controversy itself (and the Beck article often doesn't even bother with that, with its author, David Von Drehle, penning the piece more as a fluffy love-letter than anything else). If you've heard this argument against the media before, that's because it's one of those offenses that's painfully ubiquitous; how many times in just the last year or so have you seen the media devote days of coverage or volumes of copy to the partisan battle over a particular incident without even bothering to dissect what all the fighting's about? It's this kind of disservice to the viewer, reader and the truth -- propagating conflict over understanding -- that drives people's hatred of the modern press.

Von Drehle manages to conveniently omit any of the really awful things Beck has said in the recent past -- about the families of the 9/11 tragedy he regularly and shamelessly exploits, about wanting to beat Charlie Rangel to death with a shovel, the bombastic comparisons of Barack Obama to Hitler -- choosing instead to paint Beck in the most innocuous terms possible: as an "immensely talented" carnival barker, populism's clown prince. Once again, there's nothing inherently wrong with admitting that Beck's shtick can be damn entertaining, but it's a pretty glaring breach of journalistic ethics to purposely overlook the reasons why a lot of people can't stand him (beyond simply the fact that he comes off as a weepy loudmouth with persecution issues).

Likewise, as Media Matters points out, the Time piece commits one of the most obscene and prevalent sins in modern American journalism: the false-equivalence. Right off the bat it claims that depending on whom you ask, left-wing or right, the crowd at the Beck-inspired 9/12 Teabagger rally in Washington, DC last weekend was either 70,000 or two-million strong. This is, of course, ridiculous, because there actually are official numbers for how many people were there; that 70,000 number didn't come from liberal sources -- it came from the DC fire department. Von Drehle doesn't mention this though; he makes it seem as if the whole thing is up for debate -- a matter of perspective. What kind of journalist does a story and doesn't bother to get an official and easily verifiable statistic?

My biggest issue with the Beck piece, though, is personal. Von Drehle, as so many have done before him when talking about Glenn Beck, invokes the legacy of the most important and prescient film about broadcast journalism and the media of all time: 1976's Network. I've mentioned more than once that Network stands as one of my absolute favorite movies, and with good reason: Not only is it a bona fide masterpiece of screenwriting and directing -- from Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet, respectively -- it's a movie that's almost impossible to wrap your head around these days, simply because what you see and hear in it seems incongruous with the notion that it was released more than three decades ago. It's that prophetic. The truth is that almost every grotesque, rotten and corrupt thing that Chayefsky predicted about the future of television news and the media in general has come to fruition in the years since Network debuted in theaters. There's never been a better movie made about the business of television, and I'm not sure there ever will be.

But whenever anyone thinks of Network the first thing that comes to mind is the film's doomed anchorman -- the so-called "mad prophet of the airwaves" -- Howard Beale. And whenever any hack writer pens a piece on Glenn Beck, he or she invariably compares him to Beale. The reality of course is that, beyond the ability to tap into a certain level of populist rage -- which almost anyone can do these days -- Beck doesn't have a damn thing in common with Beale, and to assume so misses the very point Paddy Chayefsky was trying to make (and I personally think that if you're a journalist and you don't get Network, you need to toss your laptop out a window and go sell Amway). The character of Howard Beale was literally going insane -- having a very ugly and public nervous breakdown -- and he was exploited by cynical, ruthless forces within his own network who knew that the sideshow nature of his downward spiral spelled ratings and revenue. Beck isn't crazy; he's only acting that way.

What's more, Beale didn't rant about just anything; his main target was the corporate takeover of what he called "the most awesome goddamned propaganda force in the whole godless world." That would be television. In the movie, his crusade against corporate oversight of the media begins just as a communications conglomerate has officially taken the reins of his network and its news department has been put under the control of the entertainment division (making the two seemingly antithetical entities practically indistinguishable, sound familiar?). Glenn Beck isn't railing against his overlords at News Corp (although the image of Rupert Murdoch taking a timid Glenn Beck into a darkened conference room and shouting, "YOU WILL ATONE!" at him is a damn funny one to ponder); he's making money hand-over-fist -- supposedly more than 20-million last year alone -- by pretending to be an everyman on the side of the little guy. Beck's a showman -- pure and simple. Beale raged against the artificial; Beck is the artificial.

And yet the unimaginative continue to bring up Beale in the same sentence as Beck -- and Beck himself continues to cite Beale as an inspiration.

I guess that means he won't mind if Murdoch has him shot dead on the air if his ratings ever drop.

23 comments:

babita781 said...

I can't seem to find any news outlet that will just give me facts without opinion. I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore! And I don't think Diane Sawyer will be my savior!

Kevin Davis said...

"Likewise, as Media Matters points out, the Time piece commits one of the most obscene and prevalent sins in modern American journalism: the false-equivalence. Right off the bat it claims that depending on whom you ask, left-wing or right, the crowd at the Beck-inspired 9/12 Teabagger rally in Washington, DC last weekend was either 70,000 or two-million strong. This is, of course, ridiculous, because there actually are official numbers for how many people were there; that 70,000 number didn't come from liberal sources -- it came from the DC fire department."

Sir, you forget reality has a well-known liberal bias.

Not Only, But Also Lee said...

We're still supposed to take Time seriously when their cover story last week was praising Jay Leno's awful new show?

Matt Osborne said...

"Beale raged against the artificial; Beck is the artificial."

Quote of the Day. Posting NOW.

Anonymous said...

You need your own show. That is all.

slouchmonkey said...

There was a piece on Yahoo yesterday about Beck. Same thing. Is it that I don't get it? I'm so sick of the, "...depends on who you ask..." shit. THERE WERE 70,000 FUCKING PEOPLE PRESENT. DCFD VERIFIED THE NUMBER.

oskar said...

Beck is simply a secular version of Jimmy Swaggart... or any other slimy TV preacher.

The Fox network, being "Fair & Balanced" should also air some pro-Communist propaganda.
Y'know, some angry bald guy with a goatee reading passages from Das Kapital & the like...
to the tune of "Marx & Engels, holy angels"

(can't remember the song that's from)

Che Grovera said...

My father subscribed to Time. I grew up on it, and I subscribed also in the prehistoric era before the internet. I switched to US News & World Report (oh, the heresy) in the early 90s because Time had become overripe and squishy-soft; I stopped subscribing to newsmagazines altogether when I started carrying a BlackBerry several years ago and realized that it was a fresher and more diverse source of the same material (not to mention even more portable and likely to be available at any given moment). I miss Lance Morrow...and nothing else.

I'm almost ashamed to admit that there was a brief time -- very early in his ascendance (why the fuck is the illiterate spell check underlining "acendance", for God's sake?) -- when I found Glenn Beck engagaing. His credulous act wore thin years ago, however. The circle-jerk irony of Time now doing a puff-piece cover story on a Fox personality just illustrates the depth of the rot.

Let's pray that there will be any journalists left to reclaim journalism from the media barons.

The Manimal said...

"Right off the bat it claims that depending on whom you ask, left-wing or right, the crowd at the Beck-inspired 9/12 Teabagger rally in Washington, DC last weekend was either 70,000 or two-million strong. This is, of course, ridiculous, because there actually are official numbers for how many people were there; that 70,000 number didn't come from liberal sources -- it came from the DC fire department. Von Drehle doesn't mention this though; he makes it seem as if the whole thing is up for debate -- a matter of perspective."

That right there is the problem in a nutshell: everything is open for debate nowadays, even the facts.

Russell said...

GODDAMN! Thank you so much Chez!

Everyone in the media has become a witless, un-nuanced jackass!

When these lazy men and women in the media use the Howard Beale line to color-up there piece on Beck it makes me "mad-as-hell" (sorry, I couldn't resist)!

You hit the nail on the head - the walking disease that is Glen Beck is the symptom that caused Beale to lose his sanity.

Two things kill me:

1. You see this comparison in newspapers and magazines that are so high profile that you know the asshole penning this tripe is, more than likely, a graduate of some Ivy League college... to be too stupid or too lazy to not see the contradiction of the Beale/Beck thing is criminal!

2. The idea that the news is a PUBLIC SERVICE that networks provide to create a civilized, informed society and which should NOT be subject to a profit margin is totally gone.

I'm so sick of everything in this fucking country being about fucking money!

Thanks for being a rational, smart thinker, Chez.

Anonymous said...

Yours, sir, is an awesome blog. Hooray for us.

Mo MoDo said...

Media Matters thinks the article isn't vicious enough (surprise). Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post defends Von Drehle and starts a inter-league squabble with Media Matters. Follow all the action here:

Anonymous said...

CSpan coverage of DC protest. It shows not only the main mall area but the overflow.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=64wgKsc2ZCw

MSNBC's coverage of the DC Protest. Also contains shot of the overflow crowd on 14th street.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F8kE_PzvOcI

My brother-in-law is a police officer. He tells me that the 70000 appears to be a VERY low estimate.

Peter L. Winkler said...

TIME's treatment of Glenn Beck is the same one they give to whichever big movie of the summer they choose to put on the cover. Inside there'll be a multi-page puff piece by their film critic enthusing over the movie.

It's all celebrity puffery. You don't think they're going to put Beck on the cover only to have an article tearing him apart, do you?

Beck is a novelty who'll wear out his welcome, especially if people ignore him. Remember Morton Downey, Jr.?

Eric said...

Well, what the hell, why don't we double it, "Anonymous," just to be on the safe side--

70,000 x 2 = 140,000.

Hm, that still doesn't equal 2,000,000. Strange. Well what if we triple the DC estimate. Just to be safe. On the assumption that 70,000 is a very low estimate. Lessee, carry the two, divide by the square of pi--

70,000 x 3 = 210,000.

Oh, hey, that's close! That has a two in it and... oh... wait, that's still off by a factor of... divide by the cube root of e and take the cosine--ten, it's off by a power of ten.

Meaning, in short, that for "2,000,000" to be right, the DC fire department estimate would not only have to be VERY low, it would have to be roughly 1/30th of the "correct" total.

It's not that I really want to quibble about the number all that much: as has been pointed out at Five-Thirty-Eight, 60-70,000 people would be a vast crowd, a huge turnout, an impressive number of people all riled up about something. But the 2,000,000 figure has been shown to be pulled out of somebody's ass, and it's annoying that it's now being used as an "alternate point of view" that carries it's own "truth" for some reason. I mean, I can pull a disprovable figure out of my ass pretty readily, too: five. That's my unofficial estimate. The DC protests drew between five and two million people. I've said it, so now Time has to report it as true. I'm not sure why a gathering of protesters smaller than the cast of Friends is newsworthy--I guess it was a slow weekend.

Seriously, though, I don't see why the protesters can't be proud of "70,000 and counting!" Plenty of movements have formed around crowds smaller by a factor of ten or even a hundred--700 people gathered for whatever.

oskar said...

anon 5:05 Must be those Liberals conspiring to hide the truth... quick,warn others before the YouTube vids are removed!!

kanye said...

I've always found the Arthur Jensen/Howard Beale boardroom scene to be the most compelling part of the film.

It's not at all difficult to imagine Jack Welch and Tim Russert playing that scene out in real life.

Sheriff Bart said...

Only reason I watch his show. Looking for the money shot.

CenPaMom said...

I can't believe Time wasted so much time writing about this complete MCP and asshole. As you know, I had the misfortune of working for this piece of shit when I was just starting out in radio...he described himself them, as host of KC101's morning show, as a "liberal freak." He is a perfect example of what happens when you change political ideologies in favor of the almighty dollar.
I feel for his young daughters (who I think should be in college or have graduated), let alone his more recent child from his second (and I think doomed) marriage.
His day of reckoning will come...and I hope I'm there to see it happen.
When will America wake up and see this damn phony for what he really is ? I hope it's sooner rather than later.

Anonymous said...

@ eric lol the parks and recs are saying 1.7 million. What you don't get is we don't give a shit what you are saying. lmao at all of you. It's over for you guys. See you in 2012. Just keep telling yourselves everything is ok. But it is obvious by your CONSTANT attacks that you are nervous. LOL

Chez said...

No, genius. Just really tired of all the stupidity that unfortunately seems to be coming from one direction.

CenPaMom said...

yep, Chez, you nailed it...plus, this whole crew was mad when Obama won the election, and even before that, they were still angry and mad when their GOP cronies, including George Dubya, was still in power...they're never happy or satisfied with anything !

Alex said...

"But it is obvious by your CONSTANT attacks that you are nervous. LOL"

HA!

Well I'd say you're right about the constant attacks except for the nervous part. See what you morons are doing is the equivalent of an obnoxious bully shouting "I know you are but what am I!" while we foolishly try and argue with you. Not foolishly because we're wrong, mind you, but because you simply get off on being an obnoxious jackass, gaining an increasingly smug sense of superiority in your willful stupidity.