There's a clear difference between how conservative news hosts and left-wingers are greeted by the New York Times. Check out Monday's front-page profile of radio host turned FOX News Channel phenom Glenn Beck by media reporters Brian Stelter and Bill Carter, "He's Mad, Apocalyptic, Tearful, And a Rising Star on Fox News."
The Beck profile read nothing like the warm greetings extended in the Times to MSNBC's latest leftist star, former Air America host Rachel Maddow, or even the rabidly anti-Republican conspiracy-monger Keith Olbermann.
"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.
The Times laid out the case for Beck as a conspiracy-monger:
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.
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."
The "FEMA Concentration Camp" story is pretty wacky, but not exclusively right-wing wacky, taking in extremists on both the left and right. In left-wing versions predating Obama's election, the camps were often run by energy industry giant Halliburton. Maybe Cheney handed the keys to Obama with the change of administration?
As for spreading dubious stories, ones wonders if the Times caught the March 2 edition of Countdown with Keith Olbermann. My Media Research Center colleague Tim Graham explained that Olbermann was spreading the theory that there was an "executive assassination ring" in the White House led by Dick Cheney.
The inside photo caption of Monday's Beck profile led off with criticism:
Critics of Glenn Beck says he engages in incendiary rhetoric, but he says, 'I'm a rodeo clown.'
Unlike the paper's previous profiles of left-wing personalities Maddow and Olbermann, most of which were free of any critical commentary from the right, Stelter and Carter's profile of Beck left room for three critics to hammer the host:
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."
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."
By contrast, there were no critics quoted against Rachel Maddow in several stories about the host:
- Brian Stelter's October 21, 2008 story on Maddow, "Fresh Face on Cable, Sharp Rise in Ratings," describing the high ratings for "her left-leaning news and commentary program."
- "Pundit in the Country," a soft magazine profile by Edward Lewine, in the October 19, 2008 edition of the magazine. Lewine chatted with Maddow about her country house and solicited answers to trivia about her favorite obscure liquor.
- A July 17, 2008 Maddow profile by Jacques Steinberg, when Maddow was on the eve of getting her MSNBC show, "Now in Living Rooms, the Host Apparent."
Not even the vitriolic Keith Olbermann could stir criticism in the Times, only admiration, in a November 2007 front-page story about MNSBC describing how his "special comments" attacking Bush's "criminality" had raised the network's ratings.
An admiring July 2006 profile of Olbermann by Bill Carter claimed the MSNBC host was "able to redden the neck of the time period's king, Bill O'Reilly." Carter did eventually get into some details about Olbermann's "personal demons and implosions" before noting Olbermann had "apologized for the e-mail exchanges, saying he had been stupid and should have known better than to engage in such confrontations."