Fair and unfair criticism of Glenn Beck

I have to open this post by saying that I have never seen Glenn Beck, not even for a second.  I don’t like the emotional school of journalism and, in any event, I prefer to read, not watch, my news.  I do appreciate Glenn Beck, however, for two things:  his ability and willingness to break the stories no one else will touch, and his commitment to classic libertarian (that is, “liberty from government”) principles.  I like that in a man.

Not having seen Glenn Beck isn’t the same as not knowing about Glenn Beck.  And one of the things I do know is that he probably ranks second to Sarah Palin in the amount of hatred he generates in the liberal heart.  To them, he is Satan incarnate and must be destroyed.  A perfect example of this is Nancy Franklin’s review of the Glenn Beck show in the most recent issue of The New Yorker.  I have to say that it’s a fascinating review, because Franklin’s whole problem with Beck, when you boil her article down to its essentials, is that she believes his political views are evil.  In that, it’s a startling contrast with Charles Murray’s review of Glenn Beck’s show, which approves of Beck’s politics, but disagrees with his periodically dishonest or careless tactics.  To me, the latter review is an entirely credible approach — and one to which Beck should pay attention — while the former review is just a meaningless bit of “I hate him” journalism.

To expand upon my point about unfair criticism (he has a terrible show because he’s an evil man) versus fair criticism (he makes valid points but cheats by using invalid tactics) let me quote from and discuss each review.  Here’s Nancy giving the game away in one of the very early paragraphs:

Some see him as a joke, and some see him as a danger, and some—especially those who like guns, don’t want health-care reform, and feel that their freedom is somehow threatened by every political initiative of the Obama Administration—are grateful to him, for his efforts to “take back America.” In March, Beck started the 9.12 Project—a forum for frustrated folks, meant to “bring us all back to the place we were on September 12, 2001.” On that day, the Project’s online mission statement says, “we were not obsessed with Red States, Blue States or political parties. We were united as Americans, standing together to protect the greatest nation ever created.” It’s true—we were. But nothing about Beck’s 9.12 Project has even a tinge of that post-9/11 spirit of generosity. One of the “principles” of the organization is “I work hard for what I have and I will share it with who I want to. Government cannot force me to be charitable.” Beck invariably uses his real or feigned bromance with the Founding Fathers to explain his crabbed selfishness; he justifies this “principle” with a quote from George Washington, which actually has an entirely different spirit: “It is not everyone who asketh that deserveth charity; all however, are worth of the inquiry or the deserving may suffer.”  (Emphasis mine.)

Did you get that? Nancy’s problem with Beck is that she firmly believes that Government should force people to be charitable. It’s totally evil of him to believe, as both the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence would have us believe, that government exists primarily to stand aside.  Foolishly, she tries to defeat this perfect libertarian principle by quoting George Washington in support of charity.  Now, I ask you, did Glenn Beck dis charity or did he simply say it’s not charity anymore when the government stands in front of you and takes your money at gun point?  Nancy, however, takes Washington’s classic Christian formulation and implies that Washington was in favor of socialized medicine.

This drumbeat is constant in Nancy’s review, even as she’s conceding that, well, maybe he was actually right:

Throughout the year, Beck has gone after Administration officials, repeatedly showing irresponsibly edited video clips, in which they say things that make them easy marks. Sometimes, though, the clips really do raise questions about someone’s judgment or self-awareness, even when you hear a longer version of the comments. Take Anita Dunn, the former White House director of communications. (She was filling the post this year on an interim basis and left last week.) Dunn gave a speech at a Maryland high school—Beck played a snippet so often that you could repeat it by heart—in which she clumsily used a quotation from Mao as a positive life lesson, and it’s no wonder Beck latched on to it. Van Jones, who was brought in by Obama to spearhead the creation of green jobs, was undone, in part, by Beck’s ceaseless screenings of his video past, and resigned in September. (The Administration should have known that some of Jones’s speeches, and other questionable parts of his record, would be made public; the Internet-savvyness of the Obama Presidential campaign seemed to vanish not long after the election.)

So, if I understand this correctly, Beck is a foul excuse for a journalist because he goes after Administration officials who say stupid things.  (Apparently this was a good tactic during the Bush years, but is an unfair tactic during the Obama years.)  Except that, actually, they really did say certain things and the administration should have known that they were hiring people who would make the American public see red, both in anger terms and political terms.

And so it goes.  Nancy doesn’t like Beck’s style (which I can understand, because I don’t either), but what she really doesn’t like is his politics — something she ought to have confessed at the top of the column, just as I confessed at the top of this post that I know of Beck only by reputation.

Charles Murray has a much more interesting, and devastating, take on Beck — why is it that the loudest, truest, strongest voice of classic libertarianism keeps cheapening himself, and taking the risk that he destroys his message, by careless and dishonest tactics?

It’s been like that for six weeks of watching. Beck is spectacularly right (translation: I agree with him) on about 95 percent of the substantive issues he talks about. He is a full-throated libertarian in a world of wishy-washy Republicans. The man is a gifted communicator. His style doesn’t happen to be one I like, but many times I’ve sat there on my sofa wishing I could make the same point as effectively.

But Beck uses tactics that include tiny snippets of film as proof of a person’s worldview, guilt by association, insinuation, and occasionally outright goofs like the fake quote. To put it another way, I as a viewer have no way to judge whether Beck is right. I have to trust that the snippets are not taken out of context, that the dubious association between A and B actually has evidence to support it, and that his numbers are accurate. It is impossible to have that trust.

So here’s the unbearable paradox. Beck really has had important effects on the way the Obama administration and its legislation is perceived. It is conceivable that if healthcare goes down to a razor-thin defeat, Beck will have made the difference. If that turns out to be the case, he will have made a far greater contribution to the survival of the American project than ink-stained wretches like me can dream of having. And I want to shut him up?

I don’t really want to shut him up. I want him to change. Take those enormous talents and make all the arguments that he can legitimately make. Keep the cutesy gimmicks (I understand that we’re talking entertainment here), but have an iceberg of evidence beneath the surface. Fox is making so much money from the show that it can afford the staff to do the homework.

Absolutely!  Yes.  That’s right.  And an honest reviewer would have said the same, while at the same time acknowledging that she also has a huge problem with his political ideology.  Instead, though, Franklin attacked his ideology and buried the core problem with Beck, which is his honesty.

I would love it if Beck and his staff would take Murray’s criticism to heart and clean up the show’s act.  The show is a useful tool but, as Shakespeare said, “”Reputation, reputation, reputation! Oh, I have/ lost my reputation. I have lost the immortal part of/ myself, and what remains is bestial. My reputation,/ Iago, my reputation!” Beck cannot simultaneously (and appropriately) savage the reputation of the amazing collection of radicals surrounding the president while, at the same time, routinely sacrificing his own reputation for honesty and diligent research.