Welcome to the “fear chamber” or “doom room,” home to Fox News Channel’s political commentator and television news host, Glenn Beck.
Beck has become a media phenomenon. The radio DJ-turned-television host has attracted a remarkable following, resulting in a popular radio show, three New York Times best-selling books and a television program that has made him the object of scorn and praise alike.
No scripts or teleprompters seem to be necessary in the “doom room.” Beck’s off-the-cuff, extemporaneous and emotive style have rocketed his 5 p.m., EST, television news show on the Fox News Channel to the third-most-watched cable news show running over all.
If the medium of television has the unique ability to capture viewers’ attention, then for better or worse, Glenn Beck has mastered the medium. And as the ratings make clear, audiences find his show to be compelling, entertaining and engaging.
What exactly makes Glenn Beck’s show so appealing to his fans?
Like Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes in Elia Kazan’s 1957 film “A Face in the Crowd,” Beck has a special knack for captivating viewers via the medium of television. In fact, Beck emulates Rhodes’ offhand, improvisatory approach and charismatic ability to draw in audiences.
Utilizing his storytelling ability, one that is often couched in high humor and was honed during his years in radio, Beck has managed to create an informal, opinionated and seemingly spontaneous program. But Beck’s unrehearsed modus operandi often lands him in hot water. For example, commenting on the controversial arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Beck claimed on-air that President Obama has a “deep-seated hatred for white culture.”
Beck’s approach to news, which he describes as the “fusion of enlightenment and entertainment,” has garnered mixed reviews. Some viewers perceive Beck’s outbursts as bold, truthful rants that need to be part of the public dialogue. Others, however, view his harangues as unwarranted, incendiary ploys to attract attention and alienate certain groups.
The appeal of Beck’s program has a lot to do with his down-to-earth, self-deprecating demeanor ("You’ve never met a more flawed guy than me,” he insists). Bill O’Reilly describes Beck as “just a guy,” one whose ordinariness and modest upbringing clearly make him more easily relatable to the average American. And Beck reinforces this impression by avoiding a cranky or pretentious attitude and speaking with — rather than down to — his audience.
Indeed, Beck’s at-times tearful tirades, fusion of moral lessons, indignation and apocalyptic view of the future stand in stark contrast to the deadpan hosts of other news programs and strike a nerve with viewers deeply concerned with the status quo. With his “9-12 Project,” Beck even goes so far as to put forth values and principles that every concerned citizen should emulate to restore America to its original purpose. The project goals are straightforward: citizens are to embody values such as honesty, humility, charity, sincerity and gratitude. Moreover, Beck extols principles regarding the role of government, family and religion.
Clearly, Glenn Beck is not your typical teleprompter-reading news host. Beck admitted to CBS anchor Katie Couric that he was not a journalist, yet he disseminates news, information and opinions to a large portion of the American populace. What is he, then, if not a journalist?
Beck seems to borrow heavily from a variety of trades, functioning as a quasi-comedian, actor, news host, journalist, radio disc jockey, entertainer, author and preacher, just to name a few. He can be as funny and entertaining as the Comedy Channel’s satirical hosts Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, but he also possesses the gravity and moral certitude of a religious pastor.
More so than most journalists and news hosts, Glenn Beck knows how to effectively sell the news to his audience. Moreover, he uses the medium of television to make the process of news-gathering simultaneously entertaining and easy for his viewers. Of course, any semblance of objectivity goes out the window when a provocative and emotive character like Beck takes such a primetime stage.
If Beck is any indication of the future of television news, given his show’s popularity and high ratings, we will most likely see an upswing in the amount of emotion and entertainment infused in news production at the expense of careful, objective, balanced and thoughtful analysis among journalistic sources.
But do most viewers want thoughtful analysis? Or do they want to be entertained?
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at www.rutherford.org.