In a column to be published in Sunday's Washington Post, Dana Milbank reports that Byron Williams, who allegedly shot at California police officers after he was stopped while on his way to kill people at the Tides Foundation and ACLU, received validation for his conspiracy theories from Glenn Beck. Milbank based his column on interviews Williams gave to Examiner.com and Media Matters for America.
From Milbank's column:
Glenn Beck has a friend in California.
"I would've never started watching Fox News if it wasn't for the fact that Beck was on there," says this friend, Byron Williams. "And it was the things that he did, it was the things he exposed, that blew my mind."
"I do enjoy Glenn Beck," Williams also says, "and the reason why I enjoy that is because . . . no other channel will speak about the same things that he's talking about, and if you go and investigate those things you'll find out that they're true."
Unfortunately for Beck, this satisfied viewer currently resides at the Santa Rita Jail near Oakland and stands accused of a freeway shootout with police. Williams pleaded not guilty to four counts of attempted murder of a police officer. But according to court documents, he said he had been on a mission to kill people at the liberal Tides Foundation, which happens to be a favorite Beck target.
In August, I wrote that while it's not fair to blame Beck for violence committed by his fans, he would do well to stop encouraging extremists. Now, Williams has granted a pair of jailhouse interviews, one with the conservative Examiner.com and one to be published soon by the liberal group Media Matters. These recorded exchanges, which I have reviewed, show precisely why Beck is dangerous: because his is the one voice in the mass media that validates conspiracy theories held by the unstable.
Milbank later added:
Williams, as you'd expect, is not an entirely reliable witness. At one point he complains that Beck "criticizes all the conspiracy theories," but at other points he hails Beck for embracing them. Still, this part rings true: The prisoner told the Examiner that he already knew about Tides before he heard Beck speak about it in June; rather, "to me it was more of a confirmation of what I already knew," he said.
Exactly. Beck, who has encouraged his followers to hear what he is saying "between the sentences" he actually utters, gave legitimacy to Williams's conspiracy theories.
Click here for an audio preview of Williams' interview with Media Matters.
This is not good news.
Richard "Pop" Poplawski has fans now.
You probably remember Poplawski, or if you don't it won't take much to refresh your memory. He's the aimless, unemployed 22-year-old man, living in a red-brick working class neighborhood of Pittsburgh, who went off on the morning of April 4, 2009, the 41st anniversary of the shooting of Martin Luther King Jr. When he was done firing his extensive arsenal including an AK-47 style semi-automatic, he'd fatally gunned down three Pittsburgh police officers who came to his house, initially, over a domestic dispute with his mom. There was a brief stir -- perhaps too brief, in hindsight -- when a friend told TV reporters that Poplawski feared that with Barack Obama in the White House the government would confiscate his guns.
Last week, I got an email alert that a man from just a few miles down the Allegheny River from where Poplawski carried out his murderous rampage was going to jail for violating his probabtion by stockpiling 10 firearms and a cache of ammunition. Federal authorities contacted local police after they learned online that 32-year-old Hardy Lloyd was a big fan of Poplawski:
In April 2009, the FBI started investigating Lloyd's website because he posted a message praising Richard Poplawski....
The investigation turned up a blog entry in which Lloyd talked about his shotgun. During a search of Lloyd's home, agents found 10 firearms as well as white supremacist literature and Nazi propaganda booklets.
This is how hate talk is increasingly viral in America in 2010. At the bottom of the chain, a cop-killer like Richard Poplawski becomes a hero to a clearly deranged man like Hardy Lloyd. But who were Richard "Pop" Poplawski's heroes?
Glenn Beck...to begin with. Also a host of foul-mouthed shock jocks including non-political ones like Opie and Anthony, and also the community on the white-supremacist websites like Stormfront.org, which is basically the Facebook of neo-Nazism and has remained popular in a time of despair. The role of Big Media and hate talk or whacked-out conspiracy theories is particularly disturbing. While individuals like Poplawski are ultimately responsible for their warped action, what is the responsibility of media millionaires, "high-def hucksters" who now jack up their ratings not just by being provocative but by speaking of violence or irrational conspiracies -- especially when the evidence mounts every day that these ill-conceived words broadcast from coast-to-coast are motivating America's most unglued?
This January, I spent several days in Pittsburgh investigating the Poplawski case and seeking to learn more about what really motivated him to kill three police officers. The research was for a chapter in my book, The Backlash: Right-Wing Radicals, High-Def Hucksters and Paranoid Politics in the Age of Obama, which comes out at the end of the month. I learned quite a bit -- including a couple of new details about the shooting and Poplawski's past that will be revealed when the book is published. But the main thing was that Poplawski's fears about the "Obama gun confiscation" was the proverbial tip of the iceberg when it came to his increasingly paranoid ideas that he seemed to glean largely from talk radio and from Beck.
"Rich, like myself, loved Glenn Beck," Poplawski's best friend Eddie Perkovic told me during a long interview in his narrow rowhouse on the steep hill running down to the Allegheny. (Perkovic had a lot of time -- he was wearing an ankle bracelet for house arrest because of an unrelated case.) Perkovic and his mom -- who also had a close relationship with the accused cop-killer, still awaiting trial -- told me that for months Poplawski had been obsessed with an idea -- frequently discussed by Beck, including in ads for his sponsor Food Insurance -- of the need to stockpile food and even toilet paper for a societal breakdown. Poplawski was also convinced that paper money would become worthless -- another claim given credence by the Fox News Channel host, particularly in close connection with his frequent shilling for the now-under-investigation gold-coin peddler Goldline International.
And there was another idea that not only worried Poplawski but which Perkovic and his mom still swore by in January 2010 -- despite widespread debunkings in the mainstream media -- that the government had established a gulag of what Perkovic called "Guantanamo camps" here in the United States, for the purpose of arresting and detaining law-abiding Americans. This was the idea that Beck famously declared on FNC on March 3, 2009, or one month and one day before the shootings, that "I can't debunk." Poplawski downloaded to the Web a video of Beck glibly discussing the possibility of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, abusing its powers with a U.S. Congressman, Ron Paul of Texas. Poplawski's mother later said in a swown statement that her son "liked police when they were not curtailing his constitutional rights." By then, Officers Eric Guy Kelly, Stephen Mayhle and Paul Sciullo II were already dead.
If would be easy to blow off the Poplawski case -- horrible as it is -- if it just a one-time thing. The evidence is mounting that this is far from the case, sadly. In recent days, we've learned about the incident involving an ex-convict named Byron Williams who loaded up a truck with weapons and -- saying he was on his way to an obscure outfit called The Tides Organization to launch a revolution -- wounded two officers near Oakland, Calif., before he was arrested. Research showed that no other media figure had discussed the Tides Foundation...except for Glenn Beck.
In fact, the notion that America is on the brink of a violent right-wing uprising is becoming such common currency that some outbreaks don't even leap to the national news, even when murder is involved. I would not even have learned of this alarming story had a friend not emailed it to me last week:
A Pennsylvania prison guard charged with murdering a man at a shooting range and stealing his semi-automatic rifle told police that he was stockpiling guns as part of a plan to overthrow the federal government, according to a police affidavit reviewed by Salon...
"Peake said he has been stealing guns for the purpose of aiding an organization that Peake refused to name. Peake said the organization is collecting guns for the purpose of overthrowing the federal government. Peake said he and Tuso together are members of this organization. Peake [said] that he would kill to defend his country and he was stealing weapons to defend his country."
When these stories begin to become routine, this nation is in big, big trouble. Not long ago, Bill Clinton gave a moving speech to mark the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, in which he spoke the connection between increasingly conspiratorial and angry talk on the radio and even TV networks like Fox and the incitement to violence. He said their words "fall on the connected and the unhinged alike."
The unhinged will always be with us. But highly paid media stars -- and their allies in Congress and elsewhere -- with followings in the millions floating bizarre theories and obsessing on violent remedies, are a new and most alarming phenominon.
These high-def hucksters can tone down this madness, starting right now. So why don't they?
In a column that will run in Sunday's Washington Post, Dana Milbank discusses Byron Williams' aborted attempt to gun down leaders of the Tides Foundation, a group often demonized by Glenn Beck. Noting our research indicating that Beck was virtually the only one on cable or network TV talking about the organization, Milbank writes:
It's not fair to blame Beck for violence committed by people who watch his show. Yet Williams isn't the only such character with a seeming affinity for the Fox News host. In April 2009, a man allegedly armed with an AK-47, a .22-caliber rifle and a handgun was charged with killing three cops in Pittsburgh. The Anti-Defamation League reported that the accused killer had, as part of a pattern of activities involving far-right conspiracy theories, posted a link on a neo-Nazi Web site to a video of Beck talking about the possibility that FEMA was operating concentration camps in Wyoming. The killings came after Beck told Fox viewers that he "can't debunk" the notion that FEMA was operating such camps -- but before he finally acknowledged that the conspiracy wasn't real.
Beck has at times spoken against violence, but he more often forecasts it, warning that "it is only a matter of time before an actual crazy person really does something stupid." Most every broadcast has some violent imagery: "The clock is ticking. . . . The war is just beginning. . . . Shoot me in the head if you try to change our government. . . . You have to be prepared to take rocks to the head. . . . The other side is attacking. . . . There is a coup going on. . . . Grab a torch!. . . . Drive a stake through the heart of the bloodsuckers. . . . They are taking you to a place to be slaughtered. . . . They are putting a gun to America's head. . . . Hold these people responsible."
Beck has prophesied darkly to his millions of followers that we are reaching "a point where the people will have exhausted all their options. When that happens, look out." One night on Fox, discussing the case of a man who killed 10 people, Beck suggested such things were inevitable. "If you're a conservative, you are called a racist, you want to starve children," he said. "And every time they do speak out, they are shut down by political correctness. How do you not have those people turn into that guy?"
Here's one idea: Stop encouraging them.
Glenn Beck has denied being "responsible" for a planned attack on the leaders of the Tides Foundation, a nonprofit organization Beck has repeatedly demonized. Beck has said that he "stand[s] by each one" of his attacks on the group and lauded his coverage of the organization.
On his Monday radio show, Glenn Beck highlighted claims that before he started targeting a little-known, left-leaning organization called the Tides Foundation on his Fox News TV show, "nobody knew" what the non-profit was.
Indeed, for more than a year Beck has been portraying the progressive organization as a central player in a larger, nefarious cabal of Marxist/socialist/Nazi Obama-loving outlets determined to destroy democracy in America. Beck has routinely smeared the low-profile entity for being staffed by "thugs" and "bullies" and involved in "the nasty of the nastiest," like indoctrinating schoolchildren and creating a "mass organization to seize power."
As Media Matters reported, the conspiratorial host had mentioned (read: attacked) the little-known progressive organization nearly 30 times on his Fox program alone since it premiered in 2009, including several mentions in the last month. (Beck's the only TV talker who regularly references the foundation, according to our Nexis searches.)
So yes, Beck has done all he can to scare the hell out of people about the Tides Foundation and "turn the light of day" onto an organization that actually facilitates non-profit giving.
And guess what? Everybody in America would have found out about the Tides Foundation last week if Byron Williams had had his way. He's the right-wing, government-hating, gun-toting nut who strapped on his body armor, stocked a pickup truck with guns and ammo, and set off up the California coast to San Francisco in order to start killing employees at the previously obscure Tides Foundation in hopes of sparking a political revolution.
Thankfully, the planned domestic terrorist attack never came to pass because California Highway Patrol officers pulled Williams over for drunk driving on his way to his killing spree. Williams quickly opened fire, wounding two officers during a lengthy shootout. Luckily, Williams wasn't able to act out the ultimate goal of his dark anger -- fueled by the TV news he watched -- about how "Congress was railroading through all these left-wing agenda items," as his mother put it. Williams wasn't able to open fire inside the offices of the Tides Foundation, an organization "nobody knew" about until Glenn Beck started targeting it.
On Friday, I discussed the case of Byron Williams, who on July 18 was pulled over by police while reportedly on his way to "kill people of importance at the Tides Foundation and the ACLU" and engaged in a five to eight minute shootout with ten officers before being shot, capture, and hospitalized. I noted that the Tides Foundation is relatively obscure, and wrote that "the question the media should be asking is why he decided to target Tides."
I also pointed out that while we don't know how Williams heard about Tides, Glenn Beck is virtually the only one on television talking about the organization, regularly bringing it into his conspiracy theories. Beck has mentioned the organization in at least 29 editions of his Fox News program, including twice the week before Williams' shootout.
Today, Glenn Beck acknowledged his role in purportedly "turn[ing] the light of day on" the Tides Foundation. After playing a clip in which Color of Change's James Rucker says that "No one knew what Tides was" until "they were on Glenn Beck's blackboard," Beck says:
BECK: Then he says, the reason why I'm trouble is because no one knew what Tides was before Glenn Beck's blackboard. Tides was one of the hardest things that we ever tried to explain, and everyone told us that we couldn't. It is the reason why the blackboard really became what the blackboard is, is because I was trying to explain Tides, and how all of this worked. Now, you'll notice that I'm a danger because no one knew what Tides was until the blackboard. Meaning that they need the cover of darkness. They must silence people that turn the light of day on to these organizations.
As I noted last week, in "turn[ing] the light of day" on Tides, Beck suggested that they were "using failing capitalism to destroy it" and creating a "mass organization to seize power."
On July 18, Byron Williams, an ex-felon with a history of violent criminal behavior, was pulled over by California Highway Police on I-580. Williams, who was apparently intoxicated, opened fire at the officers as one approached his truck. He continued firing as eight additional officers arrived. More than 60 rounds were reportedly fired during the five to eight minute shootout; two officers were reportedly injured by flying glass after a squad cars window and windshield were shattered by gunfire. Williams was arrested and hospitalized with multiple gunshot wounds.
Williams was reportedly heavily armed with a handgun, shotgun, rifle and body armor. Shortly after the shooting, a CHP sergeant said that "There is no doubt in our mind, given the body armor and the extensive amount of ammunition he had, that he was on his way to do a very serious crime against either someone or a group of people" And indeed, Williams reportedly told investigators that "his intention was to start a revolution by traveling to San Francisco and killing people of importance at the Tides Foundation and the ACLU."
The ACLU is a very well-known entity, but the Tides Foundation, which seeks to "promote economic justice, robust democratic processes, and the opportunity to live in a healthy and sustainable environment where human rights are preserved and protected," is much more obscure.
Williams may have been a disturbed individual who was destined to explode. But the question the media should be asking is why he decided to target Tides.
According to his mother, Williams "watched the news on television and was upset by 'the way Congress was railroading through all these left-wing agenda items.'"
We don't know what Williams was watching, or that television played a role in his decision to target Tides. However, if it did, according to our Nexis searches, the primary person on cable or network news talking about the Tides Foundation in the year and a half prior to the shootout was Fox News' Glenn Beck.
According to our searches, since Beck's show premiered on January 19, 2009, Tides has been mentioned on 31 editions of Fox News programs, 29 of which were editions of Beck's show (the other two were on Sean Hannity's program). In most of those references, Beck attacked Tides, often weaving the organization into his conspiracy theories. Two of those Beck mentions occurred during the week before Williams' shootout.
On July 14, Beck said:
You believe that America is the last best hope for the free world. Boy, was I a moron for believing that. Nope, there are a lot of people that believe that we are the oppressor. This man states it. He states in this book "The purpose is to create mass organizations to seize power." Wow! That almost sounds like the Tides Foundation.
On July 13, Beck said:
Well, they have the education system. They have the media. They have the capitalist system. What do you think the Tides Foundation was? They infiltrate and they saw under Ronald Reagan that capitalists were not for all of this nonsense, so they infiltrated. Now, they are using failing capitalism to destroy it.
By contrast, since January 19, 2009, according to our Nexis search, Tides was not mentioned on ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, or PBS. Not once. This search is not perfect -- Nexis does not include, for example, MSNBC's daytime coverage. But the contrast with Beck's coverage is stark.
All of Fox News' references in shows covered by the Nexis database to the Tides Foundation since Beck's show premiered are found below the fold.