Pee Stunt

11.29.12

Glenn Beck’s Obama Pee Stunt Shows He’s Still in Populist Huckster Game

Submerging an Obama doll in fake urine may have been a bid for attention, but out of the limelight the former Fox News host’s been building an empire that goes beyond right-wing paranoia to TV network TheBlaze, a $100 million radio deal, and 10-dollar bags of chocolate pecans.

It’s been mercifully rare since Glenn Beck’s departure from Fox News, but the conservative firebrand still occasionally slithers into the news cycle. In October, Beck inexplicably launched a line of Bill of Rights–themed blue jeans, resulting in a brief eruption of online mockery. After President Obama’s election victory, ears pricked up when Beck urged listeners of his radio show to stock up on guns, ammunition—and farmland. He is now making a cameo in the mainstream as an artist, submerging an Obama doll in a jar of (fake) urine—an homage to Andres Serrano’s controversial photograph “Piss Christ”—and selling it on eBay for $25,000 (Beck is too prudish to use the word “piss”—he prefers “pee pee”).

The valiant Beck is, he claims, defending freedom of expression, the stunt apparently precipitated by a controversial painting of Obama depicted as Jesus. In a rare moment of semi-reasonableness, Beck declared that he supported the artist’s right to blaspheme, just as the rest of us should support his right to dunk a plastic doll of the president in a mason jar of fake “pee pee.” But let’s set fire to this straw man: the painting hasn’t been “censored”—though the perpetually offended Catholic League President Bill Donohue weighed in—and is currently being exhibited in Boston. In other words, this is approaching non-story territory, and the cynic might suspect that Beck—exiled from the mainstream media—is trying to get our attention.

Searching for a list of contributors to Beck’s website, theblaze.com, Google offered the following related search: “Where did Glenn Beck go?” For those who exist outside of the paranoiasphere, it’s a reasonable question. Yes, he once commanded a terrifyingly large audience on Fox News—attracting, at its peak, 3 million viewers a day—and found himself on the cover of Forbes and Time. And while derided by serious people of all political persuasions, he was, in the recent past, a loud voice in the national conversation. But Beck hasn’t gone anywhere.

Beck’s career path is, in a sense, similar to that of actor and director Tyler Perry, played in reverse. Before becoming a bankable Hollywood star, Perry was a bankable star on the “chitlin circuit,” raking in millions of dollars from loyal, exclusively black audiences. Perry became a celebrity before ever trespassing the mainstream, taking his characters directly to his core audience. Beck took his audience from the mainstream and disappeared into the conservative circuit.

As Weekly Standard writer Jonathan Last noted on his personal blog, “While everyone else is writing about what Buzzfeed and Huffington Post are doing (which are also both interesting) it’s like The Blaze is tearing up the world and making money hand over fist in some alternate universe which is invisible to media reporters in the mainstream.”

And Beck’s numbers are impressive. His streaming television network, TheBlaze TV (formerly known as GBTV), boasts 300,000 paying subscribers. According to data published last month by Buzzfeed, the “surprising result” of a study conducted by social-media research website Newswhip found Beck’s theblaze.com to be the conservative website with the biggest “social reach”—i.e., the most stories shared on Twitter and Facebook. And in June, he inked a five-year radio deal with Clear Channel worth an astonishing $100 million.

With the dystopian sermons now quarantined behind a paywall, Beck has quietly expanded his menu of services beyond chalkboard scribbling.

For his own network, Beck recruited people who understood the media landscape outside of the conservative bubble, and hired pundits who avoid the grassy-knoll stuff. TheBlaze TV employs former Huffington Post CEO Betsy Morgan, former CNN executive director of program development Joel Cheatwood, CNN contributors Will Cain and Amy Holmes, MSNBC contributor S.E. Cupp, comedian-producer Marlaina Schiavo, whose politics seem more suited to MSNBC, and former ESPN host Raj Nair. To build a New York–based media empire, Beck has been surprisingly ecumenical.

With the dystopian sermons now quarantined behind a paywall, and media watchers no longer cataloging his every utterance, Beck has quietly expanded his menu of services beyond chalkboard scribbling. Visitors to his various websites will find a wide array of products on sale, from treacly Christmas books and didactic political fiction to an online marketplace where his followers can purchase a 14-ounce bag of Dark Chocolate Pecans ($10) or, if you desire to be stylishly warm when imprisoned in a FEMA camp, an alpaca barn jacket ($229). And now Beck is migrating back to television screens, having signed a deal with Dish Networks to broadcast TheBlaze TV programing—for a $5-a-month fee.

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Writer Michael Moynihan responds to the criticism of this article.

But don’t fear, Beck’s politics are still reliably bonkers (see his latest “Beautiful Mind”–style chalkboard chart here) and his aspirations slightly delusional (he expects TheBlaze TV to assist in “rebuilding the media”). He loves his country, he fears for his country, and wants to separate his fellow paranoiacs from their money while attempting to save his country. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this, nor is there anything wrong with Sarah Palin’s pursuit of television stardom. But one can hardly imagine ur-conservative media star William F. Buckley hawking gold or “gourmet quality” survivalist food kits, or showing up on the set of Dancing With the Stars. We live, after all, in the era of the “conservative entertainment complex.”

The long-forgotten television populists of the past—think Wally George or Morton Downey Jr.—entertained, outraged, and quickly faded into obscurity. But Glenn Beck is, unfortunately, not finished with America. As theblaze.com tells us, he has “accomplished some lofty goals but is still striving to transform the culture, education, and industry [sic] in America.” And you too can help with the reeducation and reindustrialization—but it will cost you $9.95 a month.