I am not the Eric Burns who heads Media Matters, the liberal watchdog group. I am the Eric Burns who used to host Fox News Watch on the right-wing partial-news-but-mostly-opinion network. In the past year and a half, since departing from Ailes and friends, I have been much more silent about media matters than my namesake.
I speak out now because it is the time of year when one is supposed to count blessings. I have several. Among them is that I do not have to face the ethical problem of sharing an employer with Glenn Beck.
Actually, Beck is a problem of taste as well as ethics. He laughs and cries; he pouts and giggles; he makes funny faces and grins like a cartoon character; he makes earnest faces yet insists he is a clown; he cavorts like a victim of St. Vitus's Dance. His means of communicating are, in other words, so wide-ranging as to suggest derangement as much as versatility.
He is Huey Long without the political office.
He is Father Coughlin without the dour expression.
He is John Birch without the Society.
He is an embarrassment to all true conservatives, men and women who believe sincerely, thoughtfully and sensibly that the role of government in American life should be limited.
Of course, Beck does not call himself a conservative; he is, rather, a libertarian, which may be defined as a conservative-squared, a person who wants the feds to collect no money in taxes, spend no money on programs, but make available all services that the libertarian deems necessary for his own convenience and safety.
It is remarkable that Beck has attracted the amount of attention he has. Remarkable because, every night, Fox's Sean Hannity and MSNBC's Keith Olbermann stage a duel of one-sidedness in political commentary that would have been the talk, and the shame, of a more civil era.
Remarkable because, every night, Fox's Bill O'Reilly stages an exhibition of contentiousness, mean-spiritedness and self-aggrandizement that would similarly have affronted civil viewers of the past.
Remarkable because, every night, CNN's Campbell Brown stages an exhibition of a different kind, one of honorable pugnacity, an exhibition that would have stimulated viewers of the past but instead makes her a part of her network's continuing decline in prime-time ratings.
Yet Glenn Beck surpasses them all. He is the talk of the talkers. It is he who causes commentators to comment, fans to swoom, foes to fulminate. And it is he who has motivated me to burrow up from my literary researches to opine on journalism one more time.
I ask myself what I would have done if I worked at Fox now. Would I have quit, as the estimable Jane Hall did? Once a panelist on my program, Hall departed for other reasons as well, but Beck was a particular source of embarrassment to her, even though they never shared a studio, perhaps never even met.
I think . . . I think the answer to my question does not do me proud. I think, more concerned about income than principle, I would have continued to work at Fox, but spent my spare time searching avidly for other employment. I think I would not have been as admirable as Jane Hall. I think I would not have reacted to Beck with the probity I like to think I possess.
But, in my defense, I would never have gone out in public without wearing those funny black eyeglasses with no glass, bushy eyebrows and a fake nose.
Eric Burns's next book is Invasion of the Mind-Snatchers: Television's Conquest of American in the Fifties, to be published in the spring of 2010.
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