Glenn Beck represents a truly troubling trend in television journalism. Since May 2006, the radio talk show host has had his own one hour nightly program on CNN's Headline News channel. While the network may have hoped that Beck's flamboyant style would increase ratings, the cost to their integrity has been staggering.
It is important to note, from the outset, that Beck doesn't stand alone. The insertion of the personalities and style of radio talkshow hosts into mainstream television news programming has been taking place for a number of years now. Their crude, cynical and cutting edge commentary, their feigning the role of the common man, and their inflammatory "us versus them" rhetoric is now standard fare on many of the major networks.
The result of this trend is evident on a number of levels. There has been a coarsening and dumbing down of our political discourse on several issues of national importance. When Beck refers to President Carter as a "fathead" or speaks of Saudi leaders as "nut-jobs," serious discussion is displaced by crude and demeaning jabs.
There is the additional problem that instead of educating the public, this new breed of television pundits reduces issues to their lowest common denominator, thereby reinforcing preexisting, uninformed biases. Never shy to share an unenlightened view, Beck, for example, will note "I'm not an expert, but..." and then proceed to make his case using a mishmash of clichés that reflect the prejudices of conventional wisdom.
While much of the same could be said about a number of other similar personalities that now populate the airwaves, Beck comes with a significant difference. I have carefully reviewed the transcripts of Beck's shows and his so-called, obsessive crusade against radical Islam left me both horrified and profoundly concerned. In just the past two months, for example, one half of Beck's shows have focused on matters Muslim. Beck insists that he is not opposed to all Muslims, only what he refers to as the "10 percent who are evil." He then counters this observation by stating that the vast majority of good Muslims have been cowered into silence by the extremist 10 percent, so that they too stand indicted by their cowardice. Only when they do speak out, Beck says, will radical Islam be defeated and the rest of us be safe from their scourge. The net result of this circumlocution is that the majority of Muslims are to blame.
When Beck is not venting his own prejudiced view of Islam, he invites on-air guests who amplify his views. They are of three types: Israelis, right-wing Americans with a long-established axe to grind against Arabs and Muslims, and lastly, a handful of Muslims who are largely alienated and self-styled outcasts who have found their shtick striking out against their co-religionists.
His right-wing guests or Israelis, like former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who was Beck's guest for an entire hour on a special program that aired three times in one month) are only too happy to reinforce Beck's views. His Muslim guests similarly serve to validate Beck's complaint about the broader Muslim community. In all of this, there is not even the pretense of balance.
The impact has been predictable and frightening. After I raised some concern that ABC's Good Morning America was hiring Beck to serve as a commentator on that once respected program, I received a taste of what Beck's impact has been. Emails from Beck's supporters have called me "an animal Muslim" (I'm a Catholic). They've told me that I don't belong in America (when in fact my family has lived in this country for over 100 years, serving in every branch of the military), and that I am shielding terrorists by refusing to protest against them (wrong on both counts, but my critics have obviously never read my denunciations of terrorism and terrorists).
And it is this that concerns me. We are, in fact, engaged in a troubling conflict against extremism fueled by religious fervor, both ours and theirs. What this period and this conflict require is intelligent discussion, not inflammatory rhetoric. To guide us through this, we need journalists like Walter Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow and Peter Jennings; we don't need flame-throwers like Sean Hannity, Don Imus and Glenn Beck. Unfortunately, it's the latter we are getting more of. And it is this I find disturbing.