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.