Is Glenn Beck Finished?
In his eight months at Fox, Glenn Beck has repeatedly prophesied the advent of both Socialism and Fascism. He's wished for Osama bin Laden to attack America. He's hosted 911 truther Alex Jones on his show, and helped fan the bizarre conspiracy theory that FEMA plans to imprison dissidents in internment camps. He paces, rants and cries on the air like a crazy person. Once, he pretended to set someone on fire.
Beck's weird theatrics and paranoid right-wing rants have earned him the 3rd highest ratings on Fox (Bill O'Reilly still regularly beats Beck, Sean Hannity beats him sometimes), even as liberals, many corporate media pundits and most non-crazy people shrink away with equal parts bewilderment, horror and disdain. The week before last Beck averaged 2.4 million viewers a day, edging out Hannity for the number 2 spot.
But a Color of Change campaign urging advertisers to drop Beck has already been so successful that Fox may have to reconsider whether Beck is worth it, despite his popularity with the right-wing fringe. At last count, 36 advertisers have pulled their advertising from Beck's show. These include: GEICO, Radio Shack, SC Johnson, Progressive Insurance and Sprint. Last Monday Wal Mart – hardly a poster-child for progressive politics – also dropped Beck's program.
Color of Change, an African-American grassroots organization devoted to ensuring that the interests Black Americans are represented in political life, launched their petition against Beck in response to the talk show host's predictably over-the-top, bizarre contribution to the debate surrounding the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates. On a July 28th guest appearance on Fox and Friends, Beck pulled a popular right-wing trick – whining about reverse racism when confronted with real racism – and absurdly claimed, "The President has exposed himself as a guy … over and over and over again … who has a deep-seated hatred for white people … or the white culture…. I don't know what it is".
Even Brian "we've diluted our gene pool" Kilmeade gaped in shock, and asked Beck how the President could hate white people when almost his entire cabinet was made up of them. Beck clarified his point: "I’m not saying he doesn't like white people. I'm saying he has a problem. This guy is, I believe, a racist."
Beck's comments set off a firestorm of controversy. "Has he gone too far?" headlines abounded. Talking heads slammed Beck for absurdly arguing that a man raised by a white mother and grandparents hated white people. Even fellow conservatives like Joe Scarborough expressed outrage. Like the standard fare peddled by many luminaries of right-wing hate talk, Beck's accusation insinuated the President's "otherness", hinting at some nefarious plot to bring about general doom by way of Islam/socialism/fascism/racism/ACORN.
For Color of Change, Beck had crossed a line into flagrant race-bating.
"What Beck has done is use his platform to stoke fear and incite a certain kind of paranoia that can actually lead to violence and really negative consequences in terms of public discourse. That's essentially his schtick" says James Rucker, co-founder and Executive Director of Color of Change.
In fact, Beck's comments are reminiscent of the shocking hate speech that popped up at McCain/Palin rallies during the election. As Rucker points out, "All [Sarah Palin] had to say was, "Who is this guy really? And you had this idea emerge that he was a Muslim, and so on. That resulted in people shouting "Kill him! Traitor!" That's essentially in so many ways is what Beck is doing."
One difference between then and now, of course, is that these days, riled up right-wingers with ties to militia groups are bringing weaponry to Presidential events.
Rucker says that the looming threat of right-wing violence -- stoked by conservative media stars like Beck -- inspired Color of Change members and many others to take part in the boycott.
So far, the campaign has amassed more than 160,000 signatures. Color of Change members also took to the phones, making up to 2,800 calls urging advertisers to sever their relationship with Beck. "I think people sensed there's something dangerous here, beyond it being offensive. So our members were like "Yeah. This is a problem."
Advertisers, however, were not as eager to dive in. At the start of the boycott Color of Change got the brush-off from many of the companies that sponsored Beck. "We had folks give us the following lines", says Rucker, "That 'We don't control the content of the program; we don't take political sides; we'll take what you're saying under advisement, thanks, Goodbye."'
"We'd simply say, that's obviously not satisfying. You're not addressing the fact that your dollars are enabling this" continues Rucker.
GEICO, for example, initially replied they were confident Fox would take care of the problem. Their confidence was misplaced. The bellicose network is not known for admitting fault and saying sorry, and their only official response to Beck's comments was to say that Beck's views do not reflect those of the network.
Rucker says Color of Change alerted GEICO to Fox's statement. An email exchange and several phone calls followed. Then, GEICO stopped answering the phone. In response, Color of Change posted a webpage asking "Why does GEICO support hate?" with a montage of Beck's worst comments, assembled by Media Matters. The site juxtaposed GEICO's statement that Fox would do the right thing, with the Fox statement making it quite clear that this was the last thing they planned to do. After telling GEICO they would continue to push with more letter-writing and calls, the company decided to deal with the problem and remove their ads from Beck's program.
"When we made it clear what is at stake in terms of there being a public conversation about their brand and Glenn Beck, they tended to decide they should address the issue", says Rucker.
Once advertisers started to pull out, their company spokespeople did not mince words. “Our position is simple,” said Carolyn Castel, Vice President of Corporate Communications for CVS Caremark, in email to Color of Change. “We support vigorous debate, especially around policy issues that affect millions of Americans, but we expect it to be informed, inclusive and respectful, in keeping with our company’s core values and commitment to diversity.”
Some advertisers even said their ads should not have run on Beck's show at all. "No P&G ads should have appeared on this program in the first place," said Martha Depenbrock, Brand Building Stakeholder Relations for Procter & Gamble in an email. "To be clear, if any of our advertising appeared on the Glenn Beck show, it was in error and we appreciate you bringing this matter to our attention. We will do what we can to see that it doesn't happen again."
As more and more advertisers drop Beck, others will be encouraged to stay away. "Once you've gotten a handful of large companies to distance themselves from the show," says Rucker, "Others are going to look at that and say 'They decided to steer clear, maybe we should too."
So is Beck screwed?
So far Fox has tried to play it cool, claiming the campaign has not led to a loss in earnings. A Fox spokesperson told Mediaite last week “The advertisers referenced have all moved their spots from Beck to other programs on the network so there has been no revenue lost.”
But whether or not that's true, the boycott puts Fox in an untenable position as it continues to gain momentum. Cable news ad buys are based on ratings. Since only O'Reilly and Hannity regularly beat out Beck in viewership, it doesn't make sense that a redistribution of advertising dollars to other parts of the network would keep everyone happy indefinitely (especially once current contracts expire).
Plus, at least one company – UPS Stores – has announced they will pull all of their advertising from Fox for the time being.
Jonathan Morris, a media analyst focusing on cable news says, "It's OK to lose a few [advertisers], and may actually be a good thing from a ratings perspective. But when it goes too far it's bad – and he's lost a lot of advertisers."
Kevin Sandler, a professor of media industries, agrees. "Advertising dollars always move around. And there's plenty of other people they can go to. But Fox has a lot to lose."
One thing Fox might lose is advertisers who actually pay them. As Jim Edwards on BNET notes, "Fox has been reduced to running “house” ads, spots for its partner properties for which it may or may not receive revenue." Advertisers that have stepped in include DirecTV, Honda, and the Oprah Winfrey's Oxygen channel. The Wall Street Journal, which of course, is, of course, a News Corps property, is also running ads on Beck's show.
And as the drain of sponsors results in less and less demand and competition for Beck's time slot, his fees will go down regardless of the ratings he pulls.
But there is much more at stake for Fox. In the past decade the conservative network has carved a profitable niche for itself by appealing to disgruntled right-wingers – an especially successful strategy with a popular Democrat in office. "In today's media environment," says Morris, "catering to extreme audiences is economically beneficial. Fox found that in this day and age, that's a profitable way to market yourself."
But Fox can't risk becoming too extreme. Despite the deep reservoirs of racism that remain in the U.S., flagrant, open racism is not too popular with the mainstream. As Rucker points out, "I don't think [Fox] is comfortable with or ready to deal with being considered the network that race-baits. There are consequences to that. There are a lot of folks that would be very deeply concerned and would really turn off Fox if that's what Fox becomes about."
What can Fox do? Tell Beck to shut up? Encourage him to keep spouting the crazy right-wing fodder that boosts ratings, but just abstain from stirring up racial hatred? Fire him?
Dropping Beck or having him significantly alter his M.O. are both pretty unsavory options for the network. Beck is very, very good at pandering to the right-wing fringe. "Among a lot of right-wing viewers, what Glenn Beck said [about Obama], they believe. He's targeting those people. He knows they're out there. And it's in Fox's interest to stay profitable" says Morris.
And Beck's devoted fans have not stayed quiet. From the start of the Color of Change campaign, there was a concerted effort in right-wing blogs to counter the boycott. On Tuesday, Beck's 912 Project – a weird assembly of right-wingers ostensibly devoted to "American unity" and the Constitution, but most recently linked to town hall violence – asked followers to sign a letter telling Fox to support Beck, and threatening companies that have dropped his program with a counter boycott.
On the 912 counter-petition site, where Beck's supporters (disturbingly) state their case, it's easy to see why Fox has thus far kept quiet. It's also clear that Beck's statements, which he often defends as "mere entertainment", are not taken lightly by his followers.
Scott W. from Odenville, AL, sees Beck as leader of a revolution, a somewhat unsettling take given the prevalence of right-violence in recent months:
Today we are facing some of the most troubling times ever in the history of The United States. A revolution has started, a revolution brought on by Mr. Beck himself as well as others. I believe Mr. Beck has played an undeniable part in "Awakening The Sleeping Giant" and because of him, we will turn this country back into the great nation it used to be!
Janet and John A., from O Fallon, MO see Beck as the last bulwark against the hordes of Socialists bent, of course, on destroying the country:
Before our very eyes, we are watching the systematic dismantling of America by socialists/marxists who have taken over our government. Nowhere on television but on FOX is the truth being told. FOX, thank you for the great service you do for our nation. Please stand firm against those who hate and want to destroy America. We must take this country back for our children and grandchildren. Americans, get off the couch and join our fight or you will have no one to thank but yourself when your freedoms have disappeared forever.
"Name not displayed", from Washington, PA, takes the outright racist route, implying that Obama is an undeserving beneficiary of affirmative action:
For a Columbia undergrad and a Harvard Law grad who worked the race card and all other USG giveaways to have his way paid through these almost financially impossible institutions, obama's brain seems to be stuck in High School OR he is deliberately trying to wreck 233 years of the best Economic Model in history: CAPITALISM. May he and his policies,all of them,fail. He's my President in name only. His policies are my greatest nightmare in real time.
Sandy O. of North East, PA beseeches Fox to stand behind Beck because "He is one of the very few whom is keeping us up to date on all the corruption in Washington. If Glenn is silenced we will never know what is going on behind the scenes."
Clearly, the effort seems designed to warn Fox that "silencing" Beck or dropping his program will not be taken lying down by the network's fervent followers.
Far more disturbing is the backlash against Color of Change, and the initial reaction to advertisers who dropped the program. Rucker says that at the beginning of the boycott, the spokespeople of some of the companies that pulled their advertising asked to be removed from press releases due to threatening emails and phone calls they received.
Color of Change members also got some horrifying responses. "I got the "Go back to Africa, monkey," says Rucker, "And variations of that, some of them somewhat threatening."
According to Rucker, many of the people protesting the campaign threatened to boycott the companies that dropped Beck, saying essentially "I'm done with GEICO, done with progressive. They're trying to threaten the pushback and people and organizations".
Meanwhile, Beck has yet to directly address the campaign. But he certainly hasn't given any indication that he's sorry. After spending last week on vacation, Beck spent a good chunk of his first show back on Monday smearing Van Jones, White House environmental advisor and co-founder or Color of Change. This doesn't appear to be a coincidence, and may in fact be Beck's way of pushing the entirely non-existent connection between Jones -- and therefor Obama -- and the Color of Change campaign. (In fact, Rucker says Jones had absolutely nothing to do with the petition.) Beck also used his radio show Monday to vaguely speak about "evil at play" in the Obama administration and hint they are trying to destroy him.
Given that no one really knows what Beck, or his far-right supporters will do next, it's probably in Fox's best interest to wait things out and hope the whole thing goes away. But Color of Change will continue to keep hammering at Beck's remaining sponsors, and others who fill the empty spots.
As long as Beck retains his plum prime-time slot, in his current form, Color of Change will not let up, Rucker says.
"There are a few outcomes I would desire," says Rucker. " I'd love to see him vanish from Fox. Or, maybe I think he could have a 'Come to Jesus' moment. He's a very Christian guy, he can realize what he's done (I wouldn't hold my breath for that) and actually change what he's doing. I think if he were moved from Fox to simply radio and had less reach, that would be a positive. If he stays on and all the advertisers are direct response advertisers it's clearly a marginal place. He's clearly outside the mainstream."
Rucker continues, "I'd protect his right to stand on the corner and say whatever he wants to say, but no one has a right to have a platform on television. That's not something he's entitled to."