Glenn Beck, after two months, has 2.3 million viewers
You are not alone,” Glenn Beck likes to say. For the disaffected and aggrieved Americans of the Obama era, he could not have picked a better rallying cry.
Mr. Beck, an early-evening host on the Fox News Channel, is suddenly one of the most powerful media voices for the nation’s conservative populist anger. Barely two months into his job at Fox, his program is a phenomenon: it typically draws about 2.3 million viewers, more than any other cable news host except Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity, despite being on at 5 p.m., a slow shift for cable news.
With a mix of moral lessons, outrage and an apocalyptic view of the future, Mr. Beck, a longtime radio host who jumped to Fox from CNN’s Headline News channel this year, is capturing the feelings of an alienated class of Americans.
In an interview, Mr. Beck, who recently rewatched the 1976 film “Network,” said he identified with the character of Howard Beale, the unhinged TV news anchorman who declares on the air that he is “mad as hell.”
“I think that’s the way people feel,” Mr. Beck said. “That’s the way I feel.” In part because of Mr. Beck, Fox News — long identified as the favored channel for conservatives and Republican leaders — is enjoying a resurgence just two months into Mr. Obama’s term. While always top-rated among cable news channels, Fox’s ratings slipped during the long Democratic primary season last year. Now it is back on firm footing as the presumptive network of the opposition, with more than 1.2 million viewers watching at any given time, about twice as many as CNN or MSNBC.
While Mr. O’Reilly, the 8 p.m. host, paints himself as the outsider and Mr. Hannity, at 9, is more consistently ideological, Mr. Beck presents himself as a revivalist in a troubled land.
He preaches against politicians, hosts regular segments titled “Constitution Under Attack” and “Economic Apocalypse,” and occasionally breaks into tears.
Michael Smerconish, a fellow syndicated talk show host, said that Mr. Beck “has a gift for touching the passion nerve.”
Tapping into fear about the future, Mr. Beck also lingers over doomsday situations; in a series called “The War Room” last month he talked to experts about the possibility of global financial panic and widespread outbreaks of violence. He challenged viewers to “think the unthinkable” so that they would be prepared in case of emergency.
“The truth is — that you are the defender of liberty,” he said. “It’s not the government. It’s not an army or anybody else. It’s you. This is your country.”
And always, Mr. Beck’s emotions are never far from the surface. “That’s good dramatic television,” said Phil Griffin, the president of a Fox rival, MSNBC. “That’s who Glenn Beck is.”
Mr. Beck says he believes every word he says on his TV show, and the radio show that he still hosts from 9 a.m. to noon each weekday.
He says that America is “on the road to socialism” and that “God and religion are under attack in the U.S.” He recently wondered aloud whether FEMA was setting up concentration camps, calling it a rumor that he was unable to debunk.
At the same time, though, he says he is an entertainer. “I’m a rodeo clown,” he said in an interview, adding with a coy smile, “It takes great skill.”
And like a rodeo clown, Mr. Beck incites critics to attack by dancing in front of them.
“There are absolutely historical precedents for what is happening with Beck,” said Tom Rosenstiel, the director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. “There was a lot of radio evangelism during the Depression. People were frustrated and frightened. There are a lot of scary parallels now.”
The conservative writer David Frum said Mr. Beck’s success “is a product of the collapse of conservatism as an organized political force, and the rise of conservatism as an alienated cultural sensibility.”
“It’s a show for people who feel they belong to an embattled minority that is disenfranchised and cut off,” he said.
Joel Cheatwood, a senior vice president for development at Fox News, said he thought Mr. Beck’s audience was a “somewhat disenfranchised” one. And, he added, “it’s a huge audience.”
Mr. Beck has used phrases like “we surround them,” invoked while speaking vaguely about people who do not share his discomfort with the “direction America is being taken in.”
His comments have prompted several bloggers to speculate recently that the TV host may have been promoting an armed revolt.
Jeffrey Jones, a professor of media and politics at Old Dominion University and author of the book “Entertaining Politics,” said that Mr. Beck engages in “inciting rhetoric. People hear their values are under attack and they get worried. It becomes an opportunity for them to stand up and do something.”
Sitting in his corner office overlooking Avenue of the Americas in Manhattan, Mr. Beck rejected such charges but acknowledged that some people see sinister meanings in his commentaries. He said the people “who are spreading the garbage that I’m stirring up a revolution haven’t watched the show.”
To answer his critics, Mr. Beck delivered a 17-minute commentary — remarkably long by cable standards — last Monday, answering criticisms, including one from Bill Maher that he was producing “the same kind of talking” that led Timothy McVeigh to blow up the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995.
“Let me be clear,” Mr. Beck said. “If someone tries to harm another person in the name of the Constitution or the ‘truth’ behind 9/11 or anything else, they are just as dangerous and crazy as those we don’t seem to recognize anymore, who kill in the name of Allah.”
Born in Mount Vernon, Wash., in 1964, Mr. Beck has long been a performer. His roots are in comedy — he spent years as a morning radio disc jockey — and continues to perform comedy on stages across the country.
He got into the radio business to “share my opinion in a humorous way,” but the times “are so serious now that I find myself sometimes being the guy I don’t want to be — the guy saying things that are sometimes pretty scary, but nobody else is willing to say them.”
In 2006, he joined Headline News. There, his show was taped, denying viewers some of the what-will-he-say-next quality of his live program on Fox.
On March 12 Mr. Beck introduced the 9/12 Project, an initiative to reclaim the values and principles that he said were evident the day after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. On a special broadcast he asked: “What ever happened to the country that loved the underdog and stood up for the little guy?”
When it was suggested in an interview that he sometimes sounds like a preacher, he responded, “No. You’ve never met a more flawed guy than me.”
He added later: “I say on the air all time, ‘if you take what I say as gospel, you’re an idiot.’ ”