Glenn Beck and The Consequences of Crazy Talk

Broadcasters like Beck ought to take responsibility for some of their more incendiary remarks -- remarks which appear to be ginning up the darker, uglier, fanatical tendencies in an already militaristic, jingoistic, reactionary audience.
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Right off the bat, allow me to be perfectly clear: I don't want Glenn Beck or Sean Hannity or any of the other far-right talkers to be silenced or fired, that is unless their corporate bosses decide they ought to be silenced or fired. And if they are, I hope it's for a funny reason -- like Hannity getting caught on a surveillance camera peeing into the break room coffee pot, or Glenn Beck conspiring with Billy Bibbit to steal all of Charlie Cheswick's cigarettes.

That said it's becoming increasingly evident that the recent shooting sprees aren't just isolated incidents, but are actually part of a dangerous trend. And regardless of whether or not there's a direct connection with the usual cable news and talk radio suspects, broadcasters like Beck ought to take responsibility for some of their more incendiary remarks -- remarks which appear to be ginning up the darker, uglier, fanatical tendencies in an already militaristic, jingoistic, reactionary audience.

I don't think I'm alone in this. For example: this day and age where we have a lot of fanatics out there, I find the whole concept unbelievably irresponsible. Did you not think that there are people that are going to see this and maybe take an idea like that and run with it? Did you think about that? [...] You've got to -- do you not have a responsibility to think of the impact, the impressions that could be made on people?

That was Sean Hannity on October 26, 2006 interviewing the director of the mock-documentary The Death of a President, a film that dramatized the potential aftermath of a successful assassination attempt against George W. Bush. Hannity was saying in no uncertain terms that merely discussing a violent act might encourage a viewer to do something crazy, and so the purveyor of such a discussion is being dangerously irresponsible.

Oddly enough, I agree with Hannity in theory, though not in terms of context. Hannity and others on the far-right seem to crap their cages only when it comes to works of make-believe. Video games, Teletubbies, Spongebob. Yet real-life cable news networks, according to Beck and others, should be allowed to broadcast whatever insanity happens to achieve the biggest ratings regardless of taste, standards, ethics or professional responsibility.

To wit: on the Monday edition of his FOX News show, Glenn Beck was outraged that anyone would look to his militaristic rants and crying jags -- specifically his Obama-is-coming-for-our-guns hysteria -- as a possible contributing factor in last weekend's Pittsburgh shooting spree during which an ultra-far-right maniac murdered several police officers in cold blood because he feared his guns would be taken away by President Obama:

Blaming anyone except the nut job for what happened in Pittsburgh is crazy.

Okay, but here's the problem. The Glenn Beck who said this on Monday is clearly at odds with the Glenn Beck of Spring 2008 who blamed the video game Grand Theft Auto for "training our kids to be killers" and "our sons to treat women like whores."

I'm confused. I thought that blaming anyone except the "nut jobs" would be "crazy."

Although to be fair, maybe he wasn't really blaming video games after all. Glenn Beck of 2008 said:

I wanna make one thing clear before we go any further. I am not blaming all of society's problems on video games. That would be stupid to do.

Phew! That was close. For a second there, I thought he was going to say something really stupid.

It is the entire pop culture. It's music, it's movies, it's radio, it's television, it's all of it!

All of it! Not the "nut jobs." All of pop culture. In fact, Glenn Beck of 2008 didn't even mention "nut jobs" or the like during this particular rant. The entire pop culture is to blame for all of society's problems -- including the two forms of media in which Glenn Beck (both of them) works. Beck of 2008 went on to cite an American Medical Association report indicating that television alone caused a doubling of the homicide rate in America.

So I wonder what Beck 2008 would say about the following pre-scripted statement by Beck 2009 on his FOX News Channel television program:

There's only two ways for this movie to end. Either the economy becomes like the walking dead, or you drive a stake through the heart of the bloodsuckers.

For the sake of clarification, prior to calling for the "bloodsuckers" to be figuratively murdered, Beck showed a graphic of President Obama and other Democrats photoshopped to look like vampires. President Obama, according to Beck 2009, ought to have a stake driven through his heart. Figuratively, of course.

Responsible television indeed.

Now, I know it's a stretch to assume that Glenn Beck understands the difference between reality and fantasy but if we take him at his word, he seems to be suggesting that fictional video game characters and the people who design them ought to be held to a higher ethical standard than, you know, Glenn Beck. And the news. Most of us, however, understand the direct opposite to be true.

The news media, either in the form of commentary or hard news, has a responsibility to remain within certain ethical boundaries, primarily because it operates in the context of the real world -- not to mention the prestige of being the only industry to be specifically listed in the Bill of Rights. Viewers, listeners and readers, for better or worse, take the news seriously because it's packaged and sold as an authoritative, credible and accurate delivery method for understanding and observing events both seen and unseen.

So it stands to reason that people might take Beck or Michele Bachmann seriously when they say, in the context of a news network and with convincing zeal, that President Obama is a Manchurian candidate and a Nazi who's shoving dissenters and children into concentration camps, and therefore we have an obligation to become "armed and dangerous" in order to save America.

At the same time, however, this form of commentary happens to be constitutionally protected speech and press. But even First Amendment absolutists will admit that freedom and responsibility aren't mutually exclusive. If you broadcast these sorts of outlandish ideas -- especially in a news forum -- you have a responsibility to own both the speech and its consequences. And if Beck chooses not to own what he says, he probably shouldn't be so outraged when people call him on his insanity or his lack of credibility or his unethical behavior.

It's no secret that Beck fancies himself as a real-life Howard Beale. He's deluded himself into cherrypicking just the heroic "mad as hell" rant while conveniently overlooking that Beale was a tragic, suicidal man who was suffering from an extended nervous breakdown. Beck has to know on some level that Paddy Chayefsky's eerily prescient screenplay for Network wasn't written to glorify people like Beck -- it was a warning to us about the emergence of people like Beck. It was a warning to us about how the line between fantasy and the news was beginning to blur in the face of ratings and profit.

This anything-goes attitude appears to be the source of Beck's wildest rants. After all, the most dangerous aspect of Beck's show isn't necessarily what he says, it's that he appears to be inclined to say anything while enouraging his viewers to believe anything "even if it's wrong." Fine, if he's going that far out on a limb, then he needs to seriously consider taking responsibility for his nonsensical, inflammatory statements. And perhaps once he accepts the potential consequences of his words, he'll reconsider some of the more incendiary ones.

UPDATE: Coincidentally, Keith Olbermann aired a similar Beck 2008 vs. Beck 2009 bit during his Worst Persons segment, aired 35 minutes after I posted this column. Glad to see I'm not the only one to have observed the schizophrenic hypocrisy. Huzzah, Keith!

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