Clown in Context

Written by Dan Rivoli on . Posted in Posts.

Alexander Zaitchik didn’t want to write a book about Glenn Beck. To him, Beck is just the blubbering pundit whose crying fits are archived for posterity on YouTube. But he was tempted by a good (paying) gig.

The freelance journalist has traveled the world to document environmental devastation in Ireland and Peru. His prose delves into Congressional wonk-fests, giving immunity to telecommunication companies and Russian nanotechnology. A self-described “independent progressive,” Zaitchik says he never watched FOX News or listened to conservative radio before he landed a gig to research and write a book about Beck. He wrote pieces for The Nation, the Libertarian rag Reason Magazine, as well as the infamous Moscow-based The Exile, co-edited by Matt Taibbi and Mark Ames (Zaitchik is also a former New York Press editor-in-chief).

Though Beck’s ratings on television and radio put him in the middle of the pecking order among conservative pundits, Zaitchik researched the conservative provocateur for close to a year and found a compelling story that became Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance, recently released by Wiley.

“I realized how fascinated people were by him,” Zaitchik says. “It surprises me how little people know about him even though he is everywhere right now.”

In 2009, when Beck was pivoting from zany morning radio to TV, Zaitchik traded his globetrotting freelancing gigs for Ybor City”the only cool neighborhood” in Tampa, Fla., he explainswhere Clear Channel had set up shop and began to dominate the radio industry.

“Tampa was a very important city for that transformation,” Zaitchik explains. “It was also where [former Clear Channel programming executive] Gabe Hobbs was based, the guy who gave Beck his first talk radio job.”

Zaitchik interviewed Beck’s former friends and colleagues to detail his transformation from the schlock jock who viciously pranked his competitors to conservative media baron who vilifies easy targets like ACORN and President Woodrow Wilson. He watched and listened to an inordinate amount of Beck (“I basically tuned out a few weeks after I finished the last edit of the book”).


The triumph of ignorance refers to Beck’s enviablethough decliningratings for Glenn Beck, his FOX News show, and The Glenn Beck Program on the radio, plus his book sales, exorbitant speaking fees and paid product endorsements. Zaitchik details Beck’s crusade against obscure Washington, D.C., bureaucrats such as former green jobs czar Van Jones, the coke- and alcohol-fueled early days in his radio career and Beck’s dependence on the conspiracy theories of the John Birch Society and obscure Cold War-era anti-Communist crackpots.

But Zaitchik also explores other ignorant triumphs: the rise of the “morning zoo” radio shows, Clear Channel’s dumbing-down of talk radio and the Tea Party movement that organized around CNBC reporter Rick Santelli’s rant on the financial news program Squawk Box.

“[Beck's] career arc passed through all of these trends. His career in radio is a microcosm of what happened to the industry,” Zaitchik says. “He got into Fox right as it was getting a second breath with Obama. He was just right there at every point.”

Zaitchik and I met up to speak about his process and how Beck hijacked his life for close to a year. While we spoke we watched clips of Beck performances so we could get into the groove. The book may be done for Zaitchik, but Beck continues to haunt him.

NYPress: Was that the goal of this book?

Alexander Zaitchik: The goal was to understand who he was. It was not to write a slash-and-burn “Glenn Beck is a Big Fat Idiot” book. I wanted something more substantial, something that looked at Beck as an aspect of Obama-era conservatism and how he reflected that and informed it, and how he is bigger than just a rodeo clown.

When I flip through the channels and see Beck on, I can’t watch it for more than five minutes before wanting to rip my hair out. What was it like when you first started watching it and delved into the Beck world?

The initial fascination wore off pretty quick and then it got to the point where I was just watching how shameless and base his act was, and I started to get revolted. Quite frankly, people say, “You gotta pay me to watch this shit.” Well, I was being paid. I had that advance check dangling in front of me and the only way to get there was walking through the hall of horrors.

This book isn’t an encyclopedia of Beck’s worst moments.

That’s what the bloggers do. I don’t think the world needs that book. It would get pretty boring after about a hundred pages. Ultimately, I think it’s more important putting him in a broader context of the traditions and interests that he represents. Instead of looking at every speck of paint on the clown’s face, taking the clown for what it is and trying to figure out what it tells us about these other phenomena, like the state of conservatism, and where we are as a society.

Why do these conservatives try so hard to make more money than they could ever spend in their lives? You’ve been to Tea Party rallies, do these people care that he is making millions upon millions of dollars? Do they know?

They are definitely aware of it; Beck doesn’t hide it. He is actually perverse about the way he brags about taking a private plane to sign a million-dollar contract. Some of those folks have had enough of it. As you may have read, he has lost a third of his television audience from last year, and that might be just people who are disgusted about hearing how much money he’s made. But yeah, on the Right, extreme wealth is not like it is on the Left, where sometimes it’s seen as a sign of shame or proof of having exploited other people or gamed the system. With a certain kind of Calvinist worldview, it’s a sign of either being chosen by God or success with the capitalist system, which is perfect and also a gift from God.

The first thing I hear from people who like Beck is that he’s entertaining.

That’s a direct result of him being in radio. All these props, like, “We got a special phone here in studio. We’re waiting for the president to call!” It comes directly from, “We have a phone here in the studio, and we’re gonna call up Hooters!” It’s pranks, it’s jokes. The red phone is a prank, like “Where are ya, Mr. Obama?” Standard Top-40 radio was like, “Here’s one song, here’s the next song.” What the zoo did, which Beck helped pioneer, was say: “No, we’re gonna give you a party; we’re gonna give you bells and whistles.” He basically lost all shame in the Top-40 zoo world. He’s not afraid of being embarrassed. He’s willing to look like an idiot. And that’s priceless.

Do you think that the Left is too much on him, picking out every falsehood?

Yes! They completely fall for it. Too many people fall for it, but they should be going after the bigger concern that is the dead-serious conservative agenda that he pushes by dishonestly scaring the hell out of people, or trying to. I think there is an opportunity cost of going after every little thing that he, Sarah Palin or [Minnesota Congresswoman Michele] Bachmann says, and I think those costs add up. We could have been having really serious conversations, but instead we are picking apart every clown performance. I might be a weird messenger for that, but I was thinking about it constantly during the year of writing this book.

So what do you think of someone like Olbermann? Does he have his finger on the pulse?

He’s a little more shticky than other liberal hosts, but not by much. I don’t think there’s any competition with Beck in the clown category. Can you imagine if Olbermann came out and said that God had given him this message? Or that one book “held the key”? He’d be done. You can’t get away with that.

It’s also a book about media. You explore the “morning zoo” radio format, deregulation and consolidation of the industry.

That was an interesting subplot. Luckily, Tampa was a very important city for that transformation. Clear Channel came in and it was a great Petri dish to look at how Clear Channel transformed radio, especially AM radio. It’s really sad, because this town, Tampa, is just a mid-market city and, God, it had this fucking awesome radio. Totally unpredictable, people coming from all directions. It was funny, it was diverse, and now you turn it on and it’s like Walmart and McDonaldsonly you’ve put them on the radio: Levin, Limbaugh, Hannity, Beck. You just want to blow your brains out. And it was just sad to realize what was lost. The same thing happened to FM radio, where now it’s just the same five Led Zeppelin songs on every classic rock station. It’s all Clear Channel sending it out from one centralized play list.

Why do you think people call MSNBC talking head Keith Olbermann the Rush Limbaugh of the Left?

Olbermann is someone who’s a hard-charging liberal. He’s not afraid to serve up red meat and make very strong statements that confirm liberal bias, very powerfully. Olbermann might throw a Molotov cocktail every once in a while, but he doesn’t sit there with a flame-thrower. Again, no contest. The comparison is wildly unfair to Olbermann.

I feel like it’s not half as zany or silly, slap-your-forehead stuff like Hannity and Beck.

No matter how prejudiced a liberal may be there is no contest. There is no equivalent figure to Beck on the left. Can you imagine if Rachel Maddow held up Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States and said, “This is the Bible. You must buy this book immediately. It has everything you need to know”? She would be laughed at. She would be done. No one would take her seriously. Nobody on the Left says those things.

But why not? Wasn’t that why Air America went off the air: there wasn’t a lighting rod?

That’s a lot more complicated than people realize. There were a lot of bad business decisions made. The Left just didn’t get the purpose of radio. They thought it was about getting judges selected and not entertaining people.

What do you think is one of the biggest misconceptions of Beck?

The biggest mistake people make is trying to put him in one basket. He’s crazy. He’s a businessman. He’s an actor. He’s right-wing nutcase and a threat to the republic. It is very possible to be all of those things at once.

What do you think is the future of conservative media?

Well, I definitely don’t see it opening up. The trend is moving in Beck’s direction, closer and closer, into this kind of insular death spiral. The fact that they’re having this big debate over “epistemic closure” shows that the more sophisticated conservatives are not terribly pleased by it, because they know it’s a recipe for disaster, and they don’t feel like having a conversation limited to people who are in kindergarten, intellectually.

Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance, by Alexander Zaitchik. Wiley, 288 pages, $25.95.