Glenn Beck's well of ridiculous was deep and poisonous before he launched his Fox News show, but the inauguration of the 44th president of the United States -- and the permissive cheerleading of his Fox News honchos -- uncorked the former Morning Zoo shock jock's unique brand of vitriol, stage theatrics, and hyperbolic fright, making him an easy choice for Media Matters' 2009 Misinformer of the Year.
When he wasn't calling the president a racist, portraying progressive leaders as vampires who can only be stopped by “driv[ing] a stake through the heart of the bloodsuckers,” or pushing the legitimacy of seceding from the country, Beck obsessively compared Democrats in Washington to Nazis and fascists and "the early days of Adolf Hitler." He wondered, “Is this where we're headed,” while showing images of Hitler, Stalin, and Lenin; decoded the secret language of Marxists; and compared the government to “heroin pushers” who were “using smiley-faced fascism to grow the nanny state.”
Like his predecessor, Beck spat on scruples, frequently announcing his goal to get administration officials fired. He increasingly acted not as a media figure, but as the head of a political movement, while helping to bring fringe conspiracies of a one-world government into the national discourse.
And he all too frequently helped to set the mainstream media's agenda.
Glenn Beck's disturbing use of race and race-baiting
Appearing on Fox & Friends in June to discuss a White House “beer summit” between President Obama, a white Massachusetts police officer, and a black Harvard professor who had been arrested entering his own home, Beck uttered perhaps his most infamous words to date, calling the president a “racist” with “a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.” The statement drew widespread derision and condemnation, and Fox News immediately sought to distance itself from the statement. But Beck's divisive commentary was likely no surprise to his followers, coming as it did at the end of a week-long deluge of race-baiting that included the claim that Obama “has real issues with race,” and Beck's incessant talk of Obama's policies as a form of minority reparations. Just one month earlier, Beck had agreed that Obama was elected because of race and not policies, and in May he called then Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor a “racist.”
In the controversy that followed Beck's inflammatory charge that the president is racist, his Fox News show began to hemorrhage advertisers, and Beck began to beg his viewers to “call a friend and tell them to watch the show this week.” By September, Beck, who had become "tired of the race thing" and who claimed he doesn't “think the race thing works anymore,” apparently decided it was time to move on. He later would blame politicians for charges of racism and call “false cries of racism” “dangerous.” Beck then sat down for an interview with CBS' Katie Couric where he would express regret for the way he phrased the claim that Obama is a racist, but then emphasized that the issue of Obama's racism is a “serious question.”
In the months since Beck called Obama a “racist” with a “deep-seated hatred of white people,” at least 80 advertisers have reportedly dropped their ads from his Fox News show, yet he has faced no apparent repercussions from Fox News. Then again, Rupert Murdoch apparently agrees with Beck that Obama is a racist. (Or maybe not.)
Beck's red scare tactics
Beck introduced himself to Fox News viewers in 2009 by announcing that he was “tired of the politics of left and right,” which leads its participants to do insane things, like accusing political opponents of “trying to turn us into communist Russia.” Setting aside for the sake of brevity Beck's long history of calling progressive figures communists and Marxists, he almost immediately put lie to his professed aversion. Yes, taking to the airwaves the following week on his radio show, Beck concluded, “I do believe that Barack Obama is a socialist” who “has Marxist tendencies.” Beck explained:
BECK: He may be a full-fledged Marxist. He has surrounded himself by Marxists his whole life."
Alas, the remainder of 2009 would see Beck unleash a tirade against Obama's “full-fledged” Marxism, blaming “fearless leader, Comrade Obama” for overseeing the “destruction of the West” ; citing Obama administration policies and promising to show how “they line up with some of the goings-on in history's worst socialist, fascist countries” ; calling Obama's economic recovery package “truly stepping beyond socialism” and “starting to look at fascism” ; declaring that Obama is “so clearly” a socialist, citing his work as a community organizer as clear proof of such; claiming that Obama is “a Marxist who is ” setting up a class system"; and comparing health care reform to socialism.
Beck's red scare was not limited to Obama himself. During a May 28 discussion with Bill O'Reilly, Beck proclaimed of Obama, “His friends and nominees and everything -- they're all Marxist.” And over the course of 2009, Beck's McCarthy-esque list of known communists proved to be long and distinguished, including the Democratic and Republican parties, former White House communications director Anita Dunn, SEIU president Andy Stern, the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Communications Commission, FCC official Mark Lloyd, proponents of maintaining free market principals in Internet competition, Sonia Sotomayor, and media reform activists at Free Press.
By way of example, Beck spent most of his hour-long Fox show one October evening discussing video of then-White House communications director Anita Dunn, who had cited Mao Zedong as one of two political philosophers -- the other being Mother Theresa -- she cites to illustrate the advice that “you don't have to follow other people's choices and paths” or “let external definition define how good you are internally.” Ignoring the numerous political figures on the right -- including those who routinely appear on Fox News and Glenn Beck's very show -- who have cited Mao's teachings in the past, Beck distorted the video, claiming she “worships” “her hero” Mao.
By October 30, Beck -- who began the year decrying those who would denigrate the national debate by calling political opponents socialists -- had redrawn the battle lines:
BECK: I have said to you before, and we laid the case out last night. These are revolutionaries. You must decide, America, and your friends must decide. There's no sidelines here. You're either on the side of the revolutionaries for Marxism and a new Venezuela here in America, or the revolutionaries of 1776.
Beck's Law: If Obama did it, always say that Hitler did it, too
On June 30, Wal-Mart joined the Center for American Progress and SEIU in announcing support for health care reform efforts. The next day on his Fox News show, Beck made one of the countless Nazi and Hitler comparisons he made this year:
BECK: This is what happened in the 1940s. Look, this is what happened in Europe in the 1930s. It's what happened in Italy. It's what happened in the national socialist country of Germany in the 1930s under Hitler. These companies get into bed and think, “Well, we're going to be fine. We'll just take a little bit of this.”
Then, they're trapped. These are bullies that are pushing these companies. And these companies are naive, at best, that they think they can get into bed with the devil, and then be able to control it.
In his uninterrupted efforts to attack and smear progressives, Beck would repeatedly prove the accuracy of Godwin's Law. Beck called Obama's proposal to expand the foreign service, AmeriCorps, and the Peace Corps “what Hitler did with the SS” and compared the closing of car dealerships to what happened under the Nazis, warning, “Gang, at some point, they're going to come for you.” Incidentally, this would not be Beck's only reference to Martin Niemoller's lectures. Responding to Anita Dunn's criticism of Fox News' overt partisanship, Beck compared the channel to Jews during the Holocaust, with other media outlets representing the silent bystanders.
Beck's embrace of violent, anti-government rhetoric
Beck's adoration of theatrics reached a fevered pitch in April. After claiming, “I think it would be just faster if they just shot me in the head,” Beck created a classic cable news moment when, in criticizing the president's policies, he pretended to pour gasoline on an average American, stating, “President Obama, why don't you just set us on fire? For the love of Pete, what are you doing?” Beck would go on to use violent imagery throughout the year, distorting the face and voice of a “concerned parent” who attacked Dunn for her Mao reference as if he were a mafia informant, purporting to boil a frog to illustrate that “we've been tossed quickly into boiling water,” and invoking civil rights marchers having fire hoses turned on them to spur opposition to health care reform.
Rhetorically as well, Beck spent 2009 at the forefront of the emerging right-wing culture of paranoia, his persecution complex manifesting itself in claims that “they are going to silence voices like mine” and suggestions that “you” would “have to shoot me in the forehead before I will let you into my house to tell me how to raise my children; you will have to shoot me in the forehead before you take away my gun; you will have to shoot me in the forehead before I acquiesce and be silent.” This especially unhinged rallying cry continued:
BECK: [T]hey cannot move on these things, because they are building a machine that will crush the entrepreneurial sprit and the freedom that our founding fathers designed. This machine, whatever it is they are building, will crush it. Do not let them build another piece. So while I turn away, I want to make sure that I have at least 10 million eyes watching -- watching every single move they're making.
We know why they're doing what they're doing. Now you need to do what you do, and as long as that is peaceful, we will save our country.
Beck alternately suggested that former White House adviser Van Jones or ACORN would kill him and that SEIU would break his legs. He stated that he “fear[s]” that he'll be silenced by a “thug-ocracy” that includes ACORN, SEIU, and Obama. Beck compared the Obama administration to the bat-wielding Al Capone from The Untouchables, claiming, “You take these guys on, and they will bash your brains out” ; suggested that the administration was out to destroy him; argued that the Obama administration would use bombings of a Canadian pipeline to justify taking over oil companies; and suggested that government wants “more problems” so “they can use the iron fist and crush people.”
Beck claimed the 2008 election was a coup conducted “through the guise of an election” and warned that “the country may not survive Barack Obama” ; he hosted a guest who claimed the “only chance we have as a country right now is” for Osama bin Laden to “detonate a major weapon” in the United States. Beck charged the Obama administration with “putting a gun to America's head” through its approach to legislating, attacked White House advisers Cass Sunstein and John Holdren by stating that they “will be responsible for many, many deaths,” and said the White House and progressives are “taking you to a place to be slaughtered.”
Against the backdrop of this hyperbolic fright, Beck discussed poisoning Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, encouraged his followers to “hold a meeting” with politicians “in front of their house,” and encouraged people to attend a November rally in Washington to “see the whites of their eyes,” warning, “There is coming a point to where the people will have exhausted all of their options; when that happens, look out.”
Beck was simultaneously calling on his followers to eschew violence, since “one lunatic like Timothy McVeigh could ruin everything,” and claiming, “It's not time to pick up guns” or “blow anything up,” all while warning, “Somebody's going to do something stupid, and it will change the republic overnight.”
Beck uses Fox News show as tool for organizing conservatives
On March 13, Beck used his Fox News show to tearfully announce his 9-12 Project, weeping as he declared, “I just love my country, and I fear for it,” then stiffening his spine to add, “They don't surround us; we surround them.” Within days, Beck was denying interest in running for office, telling Fox News' Patti Ann Browne that “we would run out of missiles. Seriously, that would be the most overused phrase in my administration, 'What do you mean, we're out of missiles?' ”
As Media Matters demonstrated, the anti-government tea party protest movement operated as a de facto subsidiary of Fox News, and no one better illustrates the interconnected nature of Fox News and the tea parties than Glenn Beck. On April 6, with an image of his 9-12 Project flag waving behind him, Beck let his followers know where they could “celebrate with Fox News” at “FNC Tax Day Tea Parties.” Three days later, Beck announced that he would be participating in a tea party fundraiser prior to speaking at a tea party event and used his Fox News show to tie the tea party protests to Thomas Paine. Then, his persecution complex in overdrive, Beck declared that "[t]here are forces at play that are doing everything they can to make this -- tax day at San Antonio, the Alamo -- about me," informing his followers that he would not be giving the keynote address at the San Antornio Fox News Tax Day Tea Party, as had been originally planned. Beck would eventually marry his anti-government paranoia to his tea party advocacy, claiming that a Department of Homeland Security report on right-wing extremism was somehow directed at tea partiers.
Beck's political activity continued in August as he began aggressively promoting “the biggest 9-12 tea party yet, on Capitol Hill.” Beck's involvement with the 9-12 protest movement led CNN's Howard Kurtz to ask whether Beck is “a talk show host” or “a leader of a movement.” Underscoring Beck's role leading the 9-12/tea party movement, Fox News footage of the rally included signs paying homage to one of Beck's numerous conspiracy theories, that of Obama's nefarious “civilian national security force.” Beck would go on to dubiously claim that the protest was the “largest march on Washington ever,” a claim he based on “overseas” reporting; he would subsequently cite a university he could not recall to claim that 1.7 million attended his protest. To cap it all off, Beck laughably argued that President Obama should have given his Nobel Peace Prize to “the Tea Party goers and the 9-12 project.”
In the aftermath of his successful rally, Beck looked to more traditional ways to use his perch to engage in political activity. As the special election in New York's 23rd Congressional District drew to a close, Beck, along with several of his Fox News colleagues, aggressively campaigned for independent conservative candidate Doug Hoffman, on the grounds that GOP candidate Dede Scozzafava was too moderate, and thus did not pass their ideological purity test. He also offered to host a fundraiser for GOP Rep. Michele Bachmann, and encouraged his followers to “leave” the Republican Party as “the best way to get Republicans to change.”
Having used his radio and Fox News shows to cultivate a legion of followers, Beck now seems poised to push the movement forward, promising a new "multi-level" plan for his 9-12 project that involves more conventions, meetings with conservative “minds,” and a rally at the Lincoln Memorial. Becks' laudable goal: nothing less than to "save our country." And it seems the GOP and the tea partiers have finally answered Beck's call.
Beck's wild conspiracy charts
Regular viewers of the Glenn Beck show this year were treated to a litany of charts and graphs, purportedly laying out a myriad of suspicious connections among things with names like ACORN, SEIU, the Tides Foundation, and two brothers named Rathke. Oh, and occasionally fictional characters. These charts were frequently depicted as trees, and often represented by encircled words with lines showing how each circle is connected. Occasionally they involved defacing the U.S. flag.
Beck's conspiracy theories made room for Sotomayor and the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, the National Endowment for the Arts, White House adviser Valerie Jarrett, Che Guevara, Mumia Abu-Jamal, OnStar, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and "almost everything."
When Beck famously spelled “OLIGARH” to illustrate the type of political system the grandest of conspiracies was constructing, he simply claimed a day later that his misspelling proved “you can't spell 'oligarch' without the czars.” When he used a game of Connect 4 to illustrate one of his many conspiracy theories, he accidentally won before he could use the game piece representing Obama, but pressed on anyway, only able to make his grand point after cheating at a child's game in which he was playing against himself.
In Beck's conspiratorial world, union officials make decisions on whether to send additional troops to Afghanistan, community organizers are deliberately undermining the financial system, ACORN is designing “government-run health care,” and the whole cast of conspirators is establishing a "maximum wage" to redistribute wealth and fixing elections in New York and Minnesota. Oh, and New Orleans' response to Hurricane Katrina was an effort to hide ACORN corruption.
The irony, of course, is that for each of the illusory connections Beck draws between his political enemies, there exists an actual connection between Beck and some of the more controversial actors in the world of right-wing activism.
He's not saying there are FEMA concentration camps ...
One of the methods to Beck's madness is the attempted debunking -- a clever little trick whereby Beck professes his desire to prove false a wild conspiracy theory, but finds himself unable to, thereby lending it credibility without actually endorsing its veracity. A fine illustration of this technique can be found in Beck's efforts to “debunk” rumors of the Obama administration's FEMA concentration camps. On March 4, Beck appeared on Fox & Friends and declared, “We are a country that is headed towards socialism, totalitarianism beyond your wildest imagination.” He subsequently stated that he “wanted to debunk” the theory that FEMA was building camps, but added: “I can't debunk them.” His non-debunking continued:
BECK: It is -- it is our government. If you trust our government, it's fine. If you have any kind of fear that we might be headed towards a totalitarian state, look out, buckle up. There is something going on in our country that is -- ain't good.
On his Fox News program later that day, Beck claimed, “I don't believe in the FEMA prison,” and later stated, “If these things exist, that's bad, and we will cover it. If they don't exist, it's irresponsible to not debunk this story.” One month later, Beck hosted James Meigs, Popular Mechanics' editor-in-chief, to debunk the stories. To recap, Beck had first warned of “a country that is headed towards socialism, totalitarianism beyond your wildest imagination,” then had brought up the rumors of FEMA concentration camps that he “wanted to debunk” but could not. Later that day he professed, “I don't believe in the FEMA prisons,” but again suggested he could not debunk them. It was a month before he got around to definitively debunking them.
Beck rejoices after America loses bid to host 2016 Olympics
On September 28, White House officials announced that President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama would travel to Copenhagen in order to help the Chicago Olympic Committee present its bid to host the 2016 Olympics. One day later, Beck took to the airwaves, leading the charge in attacking Chicago as a city unfit to host the Olympics. In addition to asking "[w]hose agenda" Obama was “really pushing,” Beck complained that the Second City was too violent for the Olympics and said that Chicago was less favorably suited to hold the Olympics than Rio de Janeiro, Madrid, and Tokyo because of the city's history of organized crime:
Well, in the America that I grew up in, we would use logic. The way the IOC normally does it is do select the city which presents the superior plan. OK, that makes sense. All right, does the best job in organizing. Oh, Chicago is good at community organizing, and organized labor, and organized mafia. Oops. Did I say that out loud?
When the IOC subsequently awarded the games to Rio de Janeiro, Beck giddily begged his followers, “Please let me break this news to you. Oh, it's so sweet.” As his sidekick Stu began to make the news, Beck implored his followers to “savor” the moment, claiming, “We can always hope” that Obama is the first head of state to fail to secure an Olympics bid. Beck subsequently claimed to have “no problem” with Chicago hosting the Olympics.
Beck's slavery fetish
During a February appearance on Fox & Friends, Beck said of the economic stimulus plan, “It is slavery.” Beck's enslavement to that metaphor nearly rivaled his obsession with Marxists, Leninists, and 1930s Germany for his most ridiculous rhetorical flourish.
According to Beck, slavery was coming at the hands of government, ACORN, SEIU, student loans, the census, Dale and Wade Rathke, politicians, progressives, federal assistance, and debt. And, as one would expect, only the 9-12 protesters could defend freedom from the onslaught of slavery.
Beck leads the charge in misinforming on the news of the day
The Sotomayor nomination
In a May 1 statement on the retirement of Supreme Court Justice David Souter, Obama stated that he considered the “quality of empathy” one of the qualifications he would seek in a nominee. The morning of May 26, Obama announced Sonia Sotomayor as his nominee, and Beck immediately combined the right's willful ignorance of the long list of conservatives citing empathy as a desired quality in a judge with his own brand of racial invective:
BECK: They're just like, “Hey, Hispanic chick lady! You're empathetic?” She says yep. They say, “You're in!” That's the way it really works.
Health care reform falsehoods
In a February 9 Bloomberg commentary, long-time health care misinformer and former New York Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey launched the falsehood that a provision in the economic recovery act would allow the federal government to take over health care and “dictate treatments.” The following day, McCaughey appeared on Beck's Fox News show to repeat her false claim, and by Feburary 11, Beck had fully adopted the falsehood as his own:
BECK: So this is -- really, this is the beginning -- I mean, this is the way it happens in every society. I mean, you know, the extreme example is what happened in Germany, when -- they actually had a chart on how many potatoes you could, you know, make, how many hours you could work, how many fields you could till, et cetera, et cetera. And if you couldn't do very much, well, then, you didn't get, you know, the primo health care.
That's just the way it works when everybody has to share for the common good. Sometimes for the common good, you just have to say, “Hey, Grandpa, you've had a good life. Sucks to be you.” That's not compassion.
Indeed, throughout the 2009 health care reform debate, Beck has repeatedly tied reform efforts to Nazi efforts to kill the elderly and newborns, taken ownership of Sarah Palin's egregiously false death panels smear, and adopted the distortion that the uninsured would face time in jail under reform proposals. When a nonbinding task force in November recommended that women aged 40 to 49 years not get routine mammogram screenings, Beck was driving the conservative demagoguery machine, adopting the tired death panels smear to claim that these guidelines -- that are binding on no single entity or human -- were yet further proof that death panels existed.
Suffice it to say that the moment Fox News issued Glenn Beck its imprimatur to spread conservative misinformation, the national public discourse was destined to be slightly off-kilter, and the national media's self-proclaimed rodeo clown took viewers and listeners on one wild ride through distortions and falsehoods.