04.11.11

Glenn Beck's Toxic Legacy

The radio host, who appeared to suggest on his show Monday that only “hookers” depend on Planned Parenthood, may be departing Fox News. But the polarized media culture he’s thrived in—one that rewards politicians and TV types for inflammatory talk that draws an audience—lives on. Howard Kurtz on the lucrative lure of going too far.

By the time Fox News decided to bid farewell to Glenn Beck, he had descended deep into the fetid swamp of conspiracy theories.

And yet he was doing exactly what the network wanted—not with the content of his chalkboard rants, but with the incendiary nature of his commentary.

The name of the game in talk television and talk radio today is to register high on the outrage meter, because that’s how you build an audience, and Beck drew a huge one by cable standards. Half the country hates you, half the country loves you, but everyone in the echo chamber is talking about you. And it’s a formula that extends well beyond the media. Our society, not to put too fine a point on it, rewards inflammatory talk.

Beck was at it again on his radio show this week, saying that Planned Parenthood is patronized by hookers--thus announcing he has no intention of toning down his scorched-earth, factually challenged approach.

How many people had heard of Republican Joe Wilson before the South Carolina congressman shouted “you lie” during a speech by President Obama? It turned into a fundraising opportunity for him. Democrat Alan Grayson became an MSNBC fixture after he raged that the GOP health plan for sick people was “die quickly”—though it didn’t help him save his House seat. Maybe it’s contagious: During the government-shutdown theatrics, Democrat Louise Slaughter said the Republicans want to “kill women.” I’m all for vigorous debate, but doesn’t that sound a tad overdramatic?

The 535 members of Congress want to get their sound bite on the chat shows, or better yet get invited to make the rounds, and nuanced budget commentary won’t do the trick.

The 535 members of Congress compete in the same static-heavy environment as everyone else, a media culture that rewards finger-in-the-eye rhetoric. They want to get their sound bite on the chat shows, or better yet get invited to make the rounds, and nuanced budget commentary won’t do the trick.

If you’re on Twitter, you want to stand out enough to amass plenty of followers, and caustic tweets are more likely to be picked up and retweeted. Going too far in 140 characters is also a way to get fired, as some journalists have learned, not to mention Gilbert Gottfriend, who was dumped as the Aflac duck after tweeting jokes about the disaster in Japan.

How did we reach this point? The cable-news culture certainly plays a key role. Keith Olbermann, whose style included naming a mock-serious Worst Person in the World and who occasionally regretted bursts of over-the-top rhetoric, left MSNBC after a bitter falling out with management. CNN fired Rick Sanchez after he called Jon Stewart a bigot and suggested that the networks are run by Jews. A world in which Bill O’Reilly regularly anoints pinheads and patriots is one that thrives on polarization—and audiences that cheer for their side’s partisans.

In such a market, Beck was a natural fit. When he was still with Headline News, Beck told the nation’s first Muslim congressman, Keith Ellison, that he felt like saying “Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.”

During his 2 1/2-year run at Fox, Beck went from describing the president of the United States as having a “deep-seated hatred of white people” to likening reform Judaism to radical Islam to assailing a shadowy Middle East caliphate with ties to left-wing American groups. And he did this for most of his tenure to striking silence on the right. Only more recently did Bill Kristol and other conservative writers join the likes of David Frum in pronouncing such talk unacceptable. Too many in the opinion world have a disinclination to call out their own side.

It’s a short distance between Beck’s nuttier theories and Donald Trump, celebrity businessman and alleged White House aspirant, jumping on the birther bandwagon. Not long ago, anyone who spouted the nonsense that Barack Obama wasn’t born in Hawaii was dismissed as a fringe figure. But the networks keep giving Trump a platform to make these unfounded charges, with varying degrees of pushback from the anchors. The Donald is colorful and some Republicans believe the born-in-Kenya garbage, so the shows clearly hope to grab some Celebrity Apprentice-style ratings.

Fox will do just fine without Beck, and the radio host will have no trouble making a living, either. The larger problem is a toxic culture that encourages pundits and politicians alike to do whatever it takes to get noticed. And sometimes that means cranking it up to ultra-high decibels.

There’s no use whining about an environment that favors attacks and exaggeration over analysis and accuracy; it is here to stay. But too many of us play a small role as enablers. If the hosts and bloggers who indulge in the worst excesses didn’t put up the numbers, they wouldn’t get the most prominent perches. Maybe they’re providing what the audience wants. But even in this anything-goes atmosphere, as Beck eventually learned, there is such a thing as going too far.

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.