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Glenn Beck: A Savvy Fraud Who Knows Just How to Please His Audience of Conservative Suckers

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Message Alexander Zaitchik
Posted on April 27, 2009, Printed on April 27, 2009 />
Fox News host Glenn Beck has done all the necessary spadework to position himself at the center of a brewing and increasingly paranoid right-wing insurgency. From challenging Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison to prove he isn't working with Al Qaeda, to taking tearful stands against Barack Obama's Democratic Reich, the self-described "rodeo clown"- is pushing his televised tirades and skits closer to the angrier, more unhinged fare of his daily talk radio show, now ranked third nationally, where he has been honing his confessional Molotov-throwing shtick for a decade.

Glenn Beck is deft at making himself an elusive and slippery target. As media watchdogs and satirists step up their attacks on Beck's blubbering baboonery, the host has countered with well-practiced public relations Aikido. He has embraced comparisons between himself and Network's Howard Beale, who rode an on-air crack-up to record ratings. On his shows and in print, he has claimed at turns to be "crazy,"- "borderline schizophrenic,"- and "just a clown."-

But is he really? After all of the Comedy Central satires, the studious cataloging of falsehoods and outrages, and the public back-and-forth about his mental state, the big questions about Beck--Who the hell is this guy? And is he for real?--remain largely unanswered and even unasked in any serious way.

Fortunately, Beck has actually gone far toward answering these questions himself. Between his thousands of hours of tv and radio recordings, his semi-annual stage tours, and a surprisingly frank memoir, he has provided enough information to piece together the puzzle of the "real"- Glenn Beck.

The first casualty of any study of Glenn Beck is the idea that he is cracking up, a la Howard Beale. Mental illness runs in Beck's family--his mother and brother suffered from depression and committed suicide, and he himself considered suicide in the mid-90s--but Glenn Beck is not crazy. His frequent choke-ups are no more the early signs of a looming crack-up than his bestselling-author status portends a National Book Award.

Glenn Beck has been fake crying for years. It started on his radio show in Tampa, where he first turned the confessional mode of the support-circle--Beck calls it "honesty"---into fodder for self-denigrating humor and ratings gold. After ten years, the fake crying is best seen as a corporate brand handle. It differentiates him from tough-guy competitors in a conservative media universe dominated by manly men and manlier women. Even Beck himself is becoming increasingly open about this. The plug for his upcoming "Common Sense"- comedy tour describes him as "America's favorite hysterical, fear-mongering, tv and radio crybaby."-

Those who take a single drop of Beck's tears seriously need simply watch recordings of his stage shows. As he paces the stage, Beck switches the tear-ducts on and off like a switch, sometimes as many as six times in a single hour. He even chokes himself up for slick produced segments like the trailer for the stage show based on his bestselling (and ghostwritten) Christmas novel, The Christmas Sweater. Then there is the memorable Freudian slip Beck dropped on Fox back in early February, while recounting the story of a missing girl. "Two years ago, I made the father a promise,"- Beck says, choking up, "that I would not let this story dry--er, die"-."- Any lingering doubts that Beck is just acting are were buried during his turn guest hosting Larry King Live last summer. Watch that clip, and you will see a master tailor of on-air persona at work. He is in full-control and almost unrecognizable.

To understand Glenn Beck, you just need to fade out the apocalyptic hysterics and pull back the Patton-size flag. Do that, and staring back at you are three words: Mercury Radio Arts. Therein lies everything you need to know about Fox's new megastar.

Mercury Radio Arts is Beck's production company. It is his pride, his joy, and his multi-teet cash cow. The company, whose tag line is "The fusion of entertainment and enlightenment,"- produces or co-produces his radio and television shows, his live events, and his many publishing and digital media projects, all of which promote and expand the Glenn Beck brand. Its full-time staff of 20 is not based in the small-town "Real America"- Beck claims to hold so dear, but in the cynical media capital of the world, Manhattan.

Beck founded Mercury Radio Arts in 2002, the year his talk radio show went national. The name is a respectful nod to the Mercury Radio Theater, the New York drama company founded by Orson Welles most famous for producing a 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds.

Beck's nod to Welles is a revealing one. Like Beck, Welles made his national name scaring the pants off of gullible Americans with a scripted, emotional act. (Unlike Beck, Welles was a staunch leftist and did not incorporate politics into his radio work.) Beck shares Welles' love of dramatic radio, and is very proud of the fact that he directed and acted in the first live commercial radio drama in 40 years for XM Radio. Everything Beck does should be seen in this light.

Beck's self-image as an entertainer is rivaled only by his self-image as a businessman. He admits as much in his 2003 book, The Real America, which alternates between shlocky by-the-numbers conservative homily and frank autobiography. Beck writes that while he admires Welles for dreaming big and revolutionizing radio, he is disappointed that he died poor. Beck finds more to admire in two of Hollywood's most flaming Democrats, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. After sketching the business architecture of Damon and Affleck's "Project Greenlight,"- Beck writes in near-awe:

That's four distinct forms of entertainment, four ways to reach their audience, four products that act as marketing and publicity for each other and four sources of revenue"-. This is what Mercury Radio Arts aspires to be "- We want to start with the Glenn Beck Program and find ways to "- maximiz[e] its ratings and revenue.

If Glenn Beck could have built up Radio Mercury Arts on the back of Howard Stern-style shock-jock persona, he would have done it. In fact, that's basically what he tried to do during his "lost"- decade railing fat cocaine caterpillars off the asses of small-town strippers. And for a while it looked like he was destined for Stern-like stardom. But despite a quick and promising start in radio--Beck was making six-figures and riding limos in his early 20s--he bottomed out in 1994 working a tiny market in suburban Connecticut. He flirted with killing himself, but cleaned up instead and found a new ambition, just as Newt Gingrich's Republicans stormed Congress and Clinton-era right-wing radio really took off, led by Rush Limbaugh. Beck's official biography is spotty on the mid- to late-90s, but he appears to have spent these years plotting his conservative talk radio success.

Beck finally got his big break in 1999. That was the year Clear Channel bought Tampa's WFLA, home to the popular liberal talk legend Bob Lassiter. Lassiter was squeezed out within a year of the sale and replaced by Beck, who jerked Tampa talk radio to the right. He is remembered by locals during this time for his skits depicting Satan writing love poems to Hillary Clinton, and for dangerously stoking anti-Democrat sentiment in Florida surrounding the tense 2000 election recount.

His new masters were pleased. Just weeks after the 9/11 attacks, 18 months after he took his first caller, Beck signed a national contract with Premiere Radio Networks, a Clear Channel subsidiary. Beck claims that before 9/11 he was "a big fat, lazy sloth who just wanted to sit on my couch eating HoHos and Doritos."- But that's unlikely. Beck must have been studying conservative talk radio during the late 90s. That, and honing his vision for Mercury Radio Arts, which he launched quickly after the money started flowing again in 2002.

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Alexander Zaitchik is a freelance journalist.
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