By Dana Milbank
Last Friday, the unemployment rate dropped to 8.8 percent, as businesses added jobs for the 13th straight month.
On Wednesday, Fox News announced that it was ending Glenn Beck’s daily cable-TV show.
These are not unrelated events.
When Beck’s show made its debut on Fox News Channel in January 2009, the nation was in the throes of an economic collapse the likes of which had not been seen since the 1930s. Beck’s angry broadcasts about the nation’s imminent doom rode the wave of fear that had washed across the nation, and the relatively unknown entertainer suddenly had 3 million viewers a night – and tens of thousands answering his call to rally at the Lincoln Memorial.
But as the recession began to ease, Beck’s apocalyptic forecasts and ominous conspiracies became less persuasive, and his audience began to drift away. Beck responded with a doubling-down that ultimately brought about his demise on Fox.
He pushed further into dark conspiracies, urging his viewers to hoard food in their homes and to buy freeze-dried meals for sustenance when civilization breaks down. He spun a conspiracy theory in which the American left was in cahoots with an emerging caliphate in the Middle East. And, most ominously, he began to traffic regularly in anti-Semitic themes.
This vile turn for Beck reached its logical extreme two weeks ago, when he devoted his entire show to a conspiracy theory about various bankers, including the Rothschilds, to create the Federal Reserve. To make this case, Beck hosted the conspiracy theorist G. Edward Griffin, who has publicly argued that the anti-Semitic tract “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” “accurately describe much of what is happening in our world today.”
Griffin’s website dabbles in a variety of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, including his view that “present-day political Zionists are promoting the New World Order.”
A month earlier, Beck, on his radio program, had described Reform rabbis as “generally political in nature,” adding: “It’s almost like Islam, radicalized Islam in a way.”
A few months before that, he had attacked the Jewish billionaire George Soros, a Holocaust survivor, as a “puppet master” and read descriptions of him as an “unscrupulous profiteer” who “sucks the blood from people.” Beck falsely called Soros “a collaborator” with Nazis who “saw people into the gas chambers.”
Fox deserves credit for finally putting an end to this. Its joint statement with Beck’s production company, claiming that they will “work together to develop and produce a variety of television projects,” is almost certainly window-dressing; you can be confident Fox won’t have Beck reopening what his Fox News colleague Shepard Smith dubbed the “fear chamber.”
In banishing Beck, about whom I published a critical book last year, Fox has made an important distinction: It’s one thing to promote partisan journalism, but it’s entirely different to engage in race-baiting and fringe conspiracy claims. Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity may have their excesses, but their mainstream conservatism is in an entirely different category from Beck’s.
Fox has rightly, if belatedly, declared that there is no place for Beck’s messages on its airwaves, and Beck will return to the fringes, where such ideas have always existed. Because his end-of-the-world themes will no longer be broadcast by a mainstream outlet, there will be less of a chance for him to inspire off-balance characters to violence.
There are, happily, signs that the influences that undermined Beck are doing the same to other purveyors of fear. The March Washington Post-ABC News poll found that Sarah Palin’s favorability rating among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents had dropped to 58 percent from 70 percent in October and 88 percent in 2008. Her negative ratings among Republicans are higher than those of other prospective Republican presidential candidates.
In another indication of abating anger, a CNN poll released last week found that the percentage of the public viewing the tea party unfavorably had increased to 47 percent, from 26 percent in January 2010. Thirty-two percent have a favorable view.
Beck, in losing his mass-media perch, is repeating the history of Father Charles Coughlin, the radio priest of the Great Depression. Economic hardship gave him an audience even greater than Beck’s, but as his calls to drive “the money changers from the temple” became more vitriolic, his broadcast sponsors dropped him. He gradually faded from relevance as his angry themes lost their hold on Americans and his anti-Semitism became more pronounced.
It is a sign of the nation’s health and resilience that Beck, after 27 months at Fox, is meeting a similar end.
Dana Milbank’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.