Days after watching Fox News pundit Glenn Beck wrap himself in the mantle of the nation's greatest civil rights leader for a "Restoring Honor" rally that drew tens of thousands to the National Mall, the point is made once again:
Beck is a master media manipulator.
The rally itself was as apolitical as organizers promised, with speakers choosing instead to turn the massive platform into a religious revival meeting. Awards were handed out to various notables, and speakers ranging from Martin Luther King Jr.'s niece Alveda King to Beck himself encouraged the audience to see God as the solution to the problems ailing the nation.
What problems? Beck was a bit vague on specifics; last November, when the host first announced this rally date from the Villages retirement community in Florida, his culprit was the nation's progressives. He was going to offer a series of educational conventions leading up to a massive rally on the National Mall to unveil his 100-year plan for thwarting Progressives' plan to turn America into a "socialist utopia."
Somehow, that plan never really got off the ground. Instead, amid criticism and controversy over using the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s historic "I Have a Dream" speech to press an agenda directly opposite the ideals King fought for over his lifetime, Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally became a celebration of the power of religion to transform the nation. The political rally for his Tea Party became an opportunity to surround himself with a multicultural array of speakers who seemed far more diverse than the mostly white audience.
But by creating such a massively controversial event on a typically slow news day, Beck also pushed his competitors into a corner. If CNN wanted to serve its brand as an unbiased news source, it had to cover his rally significantly, despite the fact that it also gave significant, complimentary face time to one of its own biggest competitors.
Indeed, as the rally was unfolding Saturday, C-SPAN (which aired the rally uninterrupted) and CNN covered the rally more than Fox News, which stuck with its originally scheduled programming rather than present continuous coverage. This meant Fox's competitors were spending a lot more time dissecting the massive crowd Beck brought to the Mall, presumably reaching viewers who might be interesting in checking out his show Monday to see more.
It's a sad development when political considerations keep a news channel from covering an event that was talked about all week and was likely the biggest news event of the day. Often, media critics complain about politically-oriented news channels over-covering events to serve their purposes; in the case of Beck's rally, you could argue Fox News under-covered it for the same reasons -- avoiding criticism for supporting one of its stars by downplaying an event of massive interest to its audience.
Why was a radio and TV pundit known for incisive political commentary hosting a supposedly apolitical rally starring conservative political star Sarah Palin? A cynical observer would suggest this rally channeled his fans' fear and need for a hopeful message while burnishing Beck's brand as a figure who transcends politics. With Palin, one of the political right's most successful kingmakers at his side, the host leveraged powerful symbols of religion, civil rights achievement and martyrdom, reinforcing his dialogue with his masses of followers and discrediting pundits who predicted a massive desecration.
At a moment when ultra-conservative Tea Party activists need to look more mainstream to independent voters before a crucial midterm election, Beck just handed them the blueprint for keeping conservative supporters in the fold while downplaying their most divisive beliefs.
Of course, Beck being Beck, he also contradicted himself. "We must get the poison of hatred out of us," he said at one point. "We must defend those who disagree with us." But in the past, Beck has called the President of the United States a Marxist, whose health care policy amounts to "reparations," insisting he is a racist who hates white people. He said on Fox News Sunday that "people aren't recognizing [President Obama's] version of Christianity." That sure felt like a veiled reference to persistent, mistaken beliefs that Obama is a Muslim, though Beck has criticized Obama's ties to controversial Chicago preacher Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Maybe Beck's move toward eliminating hatred could start with his own radio and TV appearances.
There will be the requisite conflicts over the size of each rally -- Beck cited estimates during his speech of up to 500,000 people. CBS News reported its own analysis at between 78,000 or 96,000, given the margin of error. Beck also announced his fundraising effort collected $5.5 million. But since the rally's expenses are to be covered first, it's unclear how much of that money will go to the Tampa charity as the beneficiary for the donations, the Special Operations Warrior Foundation.
I felt saddest watching media coverage of the two rallies side by side, as CNN often provided. In Beck's massive showcase, run with the precision of a TV broadcast, a sea of mostly white faces sat watching him opine about Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy as a civil rights leader. Miles away, Al Sharpton led another rally packed with black people aimed at providing a counterpoint to Beck's efforts, which was not covered live by C-SPAN. How sad that, 47 years after King revealed his dream to the world, we're still divided.
This is the "unity" resulting from Beck's actions. It's a frightening vision of the ultimate consequences from his words as a pundit and provocative media figure.
Unfortunately, his fans seem so caught up in the talk of religious healing, they have overlooked the true lesson of Beck's history and actions.
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