Theatrical pundit runs the risk of inciting violence

In an eventful year for television news, the biggest story has been the viewership gains by Fox News Channel. And Fox’s ratings surge is inextricably linked to Glenn Beck.

Since migrating over from CNN’s Headline News, Beck has not only brought a sizable audience to the heretofore sleepy 5 o’clock Eastern hour but helped lift ratings for FNC’s entire lineup. He has also altered Fox’s overall profile and chemistry in a combustible manner.

Just as the Bush administration brought out the worst in the left, the inauguration of Barack Obama has produced at times absurd levels of hysteria on the right. And nobody has been more hysterical than Beck, who, among other things, triggered a protest campaign by labeling the U.S.’ biracial president a “racist” with a “deep-seated hatred for white people.”

Not surprisingly, others have found Beck to be an irresistible topic of conversation. On CNN’s “Reliable Sources” liberal talk host Bill Press said that he was “amazed at how much Fox lets Glenn Beck get away with. I think he’s a ticking time bomb, and one day he’s going to explode in the face of (Fox CEO) Roger Ailes.”

Being Beck requires constant exasperation, with the latest brouhaha involving “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” in which a character attributed an act of violence to the influence of talk hosts like Beck, Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh, calling them “a cancer spreading ignorance and hate.”

Never mind that a regular character in the program disagreed with him. On Fox, any slight is the starter’s pistol for nuclear retaliation.

Where is the evidence for inciting any violence?” Beck demanded on his program. “Show it to me.”

But that’s disingenuous. If you spend an hour a day pounding home the notion that society as we know it is in peril — that America’s fundamental values are in dire jeopardy — it’s hardly a reach to envision a slightly warped mind perceiving that as a rationale to take violent action. Even FNC anchor Shepard Smith only half-jokingly referred to Beck’s studio as the “fear chamber.”

Longtime Fox News watchers are familiar with O’Reilly’s righteous indignation, Sean Hannity’s conservative talking points and Greta Van Susteren’s penchant for the salacious. Beck, however, embodies an entirely different animal — one whose unpredictability has been a significant part of why he’s drawn so much attention.

His shtick is so wildly theatrical, in fact, as to invite comparisons to fictional demagogues and ranters, from Lonesome Rhodes — the homespun huckster in Elia Kazan’s prescient “A Face in the Crowd” — to Howard Beale, the “mad as hell” anchorman from “Network.”

Yet Beck’s act is simultaneously timeless and very much of his time, including the modern twist of making it all about “the children” — describing himself, as he did last week, as “just a dad who is concerned about the direction of this country.”

There’s a risk when discussing Beck of sliding into hyperbole, which is unfortunate but difficult to avoid, because that’s such a part of his routine.

Fox, meanwhile, pretends Beck can be confined to the lone hour (plus a latenight encore) that he occupies — ignoring the clever way that the channel cross-pollinates its talent, as the host pops in on “The O’Reilly Factor” or “Fox and Friends” (the venue where he dubbed Obama a racist), sort of like the goofy uncle on an old sitcom.

This is hardly the first column written about Beck, and it won’t be the last. Outrageousness has become a renewable energy source, and the host serves it up in abundance, then proclaims himself a mere “rodeo clown” — a bit like a bully who collapses into a fetal ball when one threatens to strike back at him.

At Fox, which shrewdly considers a good offense to be the best defense, criticism of Beck has yielded the customary finger-pointing at the ample excesses displayed elsewhere to deflect attention from its own. So far, toting Beck’s baggage has clearly been worth the benefits; still, as Press noted, when you’re in the business of protecting a rodeo clown, there’s always the danger of getting gored.

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