SUPPORTING GREAT TELEVISION

Glenn Beck and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

In Programs of the Year on December 31, 2010 at 7:30 pm

Beck and Stewart at their rallies. (Beck was photographed by Alex Wong/Getty Images; Stewart, Drew Angerer/The New York Times)

It would be all too easy to dismiss Glenn Beck and Jon Stewart as the Goofus and Gallant of basic cable television.

In a world that prizes simple narratives, both men fit neatly into familiar archetypes: Beck is the conservative blowhard whose weepy tirades against President Obama make him seem a little loony; Stewart is the sly satirist whose nightly critiques of Bush administration foibles made him a liberal darling.

Beck and Stewart don’t just occupy opposite ends of the political spectrum, either; they also operate on the fringes of prime time (read: mainstream) homogeneity: Fox News Channel shows Beck’s eponymous program weekday afternoons at 5, shortly before Brian, Diane and Katie deliver their straight-down-the-middle take on the day’s events; Comedy Central offers Stewart’s Daily Show weeknights at 11, after the crowds have dispersed from Dancing With the Stars and How I Met Your Mother.

Despite these differences – or maybe because of them – no two series did more in 2010 to demonstrate television’s enduring ability to influence the national agenda.

That’s why Glenn Beck and The Daily Show are TV Columnist’s first Programs of the Year.

***

A kook and his chalkboard. (Screen cap courtesy The Huffington Post)

Glenn Beck may be influential, but it is not good television.

Beck’s shtick – delivering breathless monologues while standing in front of a blackboard – isn’t very compelling.

I suspect some viewers who don’t know better surf past his show and mistake it for one of those public access telecourses that community college students watch for classroom credit.

I also believe Beck is a charlatan.

I’m convinced his crying jags are fake; the Washington Post reported as much in March, when Fox News staffers copped to watching Beck’s rehearsals and seeing him tear up at the same moments he later did during the show.

Beck is also notorious for plucking conspiracy theories from the right-wing blogosphere and presenting them to his audience under a “hey-I’m-only-asking-questions” varnish of neutrality.

Because in Glenn Beck’s world, nothing is what it really seems.

The environmental legislation that senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman introduced in the spring?

It wasn’t about combating climate change; it was really a vehicle to create a single world government.

The Federal Reserve?

It doesn’t regulate banks; it really exists to devalue the dollar so liberal financier George Soros can take over the world (don’t ask).

And Barack Obama? Well, we know what he’s really all about, don’t we?

Once Beck has ginned up public anxiety, he cashes in on it.

He does paid endorsements for gold products, encouraging his audience to buy them as a hedge against the global financial collapse that he says is imminent.

Beck’s Fox News and radio shows also accept advertising from companies that hawk the seeds, freeze-dried foods and survival kits we’ll need to make ourselves comfortable during the coming end times.

Beck’s paranoia also makes it hard to enjoy – much less respect – his show: During a June installment, after outlining another secret world-domination plot by Soros, Beck suggested the billionaire might try to harm him.

“I do have a bulletproof car, George,” Beck said. “I just want you to know.”

***

Beck says he sees himself primarily as an entertainer; the problem is that many people take him seriously.

Some 2 million viewers watch Beck on Fox News – an impressive number for a late-afternoon cable show; add the audience for his three-hour radio show and his daily following swells to about 11 million people.

This makes Beck one of the loudest – and most influential – voices in the national media cacophony.

But don’t take my word for it.

If you want to know about Beck’s influence, ask any of the tens of thousands of people who flocked to the Lincoln Memorial in August for his messianic Restoring Honor Rally.

Or ask Shirley Sherrod, the Department of Agriculture bureaucrat who resigned in July amid false allegations of racism; as Sherrod later told CNN, the USDA official who pressured her to quit said Sherrod should submit her resignation immediately because “you’re going to be on Glenn Beck tonight.”

Better yet, put your questions about Beck’s influence to the two California cops who were shot in July when they tried to apprehend Byron Williams, an ex-felon who was planning to assassinate officials from the Tides Foundation, an obscure human rights organization that Beck frequently criticizes.

In jailhouse interviews, Williams has denied Beck inspired his plot, but he has professed his admiration for the Fox News host, calling him “a schoolteacher on TV.”

This notion – that Beck is an educator – is especially distressing in light of the new University of Maryland study that found regular viewers of Fox News were more likely to believe false information about the issues in the midterm elections.

Examples: Fox News viewers were 30 percent more likely to believe that climate change is not occurring and 31 percent more likely to believe that most economists predict the health care law will worsen the deficit.

Neither is actually true.

Few have documented Beck’s hold on the conservative imagination as viscerally as New Left Media’s Chase Whiteside and Erick Stoll, whose online interviews with tea party activists underscore the intellectual bankruptcy within that movement.

As one woman told Whiteside and Stoll at an April “tax day” rally in Washington: “Glenn Beck’s very educational. You can learn a lot from him. He will actually explain things to you and he’s not making things up. It’s factual information.”

***

Stewart interviewed President Obama in October. (Photo by Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)

Glenn Beck’s sphere of influence in 2010 wasn’t comprised solely of the weak-minded and the economically anxious; it also included Jon Stewart and The Daily Show crew.

Several times this year, Stewart donned black frames, stood before a chalkboard and brilliantly lampooned the Fox News host, using Beck’s own twisted logic to discredit him.

It’s also worth noting that the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear – which Stewart and Comedy Central comrade Stephen Colbert hosted in the fall – was held a mere 63 days after Beck’s rally.

But Stewart didn’t merely mine Beck’s absurdities for comedic purposes; he used The Daily Show to expose Beck – and in the process, he continued the Comedy Central program’s evolution from a satirical news show into a nightly check on media excess.

Whereas Stewart once trained his unblinking critical eye on double-talking politicians, he now seems to concern himself primarily with a root cause of our broken politics: the corporate-controlled national press, which – in its zeal to ensure journalism’s continued profitability – leaves the public ill-equipped for meaningful civic engagement.

This elevation in The Daily Show’s ethos has been happening for years: In 2004, Stewart memorably visited CNN’s Crossfire and admonished hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala for contributing to the cheapening of the nation’s political discourse; in 2009, he used The Daily Show to deliver a scathing appraisal of CNBC’s irresponsible reporting in the run-up to the Wall Street meltdown.

This year, Stewart’s criticism of CNN’s Rick Sanchez helped trigger the buffoonish anchor’s dismissal.

The Daily Show’s intrepidity has made the half-hour series a better counterpoint to Fox News than the perfunctory “liberal” 24-hour news channel MSNBC, which seems to subscribe to the idea that the most effective method to challenge conservative media is to simply shout (see Schultz, Ed), showboat (Olbermann, Keith) or smirk (Maddow, Rachel) in the other direction.

In contrast, The Daily Show aims to honestly advance the national conversation, as demonstrated not only by the Rally to Restore Sanity, but also by Stewart’s advocacy for federal legislation to fund medical care for the cops, firefighters and cleanup workers who became sick after breathing toxic fumes at Ground Zero.

Stewart devoted The Daily Show’s December 16 telecast – the program’s final episode of 2010 – to the so-called 9/11 health bill, which had stalled in the Senate.

Six days later, the bill passed.

***

None of this is to say The Daily Show is no longer funny; it is – perhaps more so now than during its previous zenith, the 2008 election campaign.

Stewart’s supporting cast is stronger than ever: Samantha Bee, now one of the longest-serving correspondents in Daily Show history, remains sublime and John Oliver now rivals Colbert as Stewart’s most worthy foil.

But this remains Stewart’s show, as the New York Times noted when it compared Stewart’s advocacy on the 9/11 bill to Murrow’s campaign against McCarthyism.

I like this analogy for two reasons: First, Stewart is as fitting an heir to the Murrow mantle as anyone (yes, Murrow was a journalist and Stewart is a comedian, but these are absurd times), and second, if Stewart is our Murrow, then that must make Beck our McCarthy.

Historian David Oshinsky previously drew a comparison between Beck and McCarthy in his excellent review of Tears of a Clown, Dana Milbank’s book on the Fox News host.

The clash between Murrow and McCarthy helped shape Cold War politics, just as the contest between Stewart and Beck is likely to redefine media in the years after the Great Recession.

Will Stewart conquer Beck, just as Murrow vanquished McCarthy?

By this time next year, maybe we’ll know.

Advertisements
  1. […] over the power of political rhetoric – and since I just named Glenn Beck and The Daily Show my Programs of the Year – I watched both shows yesterday to see how they responded to the […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: