Glenn Beck's Experimental Melodrama: The Fox News Star Terrifies America with His Realistic News Theater

Article excerpt

IN LATE SEPTEMBER, President Barack Obama conducted a series of five one-on-one White House interviews with reporters from CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, and Univision. For some reason--perhaps he's housing a secret civilian security force in the Roosevelt Room and doesn't want any fair and balanced reporters snooping around--the president didn't invite Fox to participate. For Glenn Beck, the host of the hottest show on cable news, this Oval Office slight offered an opportunity to provide some trenchant perspective. "Does the president consider Fox some sort of enemy?" he exclaimed, chortling with amiable resentment. "I mean, no, it can't be that, because, no, he'll sit down with our enemies. He's even offered to sit down with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And that guy, I mean, you call me nuts?"

The bit was Beck at his best: shrewdly self-marginalizing, bitingly funny, and executed with perfect timing. A radio veteran who got his first job in the business at the age of 13, Beck, it turns out, is also a TV showman on par with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. But while America's favorite fake newsmen have clear-cut identities as comedians, the question of how to categorize Beck is more perplexing.

When Beck was 8 years old, his mother gave him a record of old radio programs that included Orson Welles' famous performance of War of the Worlds. Apparently the fictionalized news report of an alien invasion became a foundational text for him, an archetypal example of how you could create crazy, vivid, apocalyptic drama out of mere words. To pay tribute to Welles' work, Beck starred in a live version of War of the Worlds that aired on his syndicated radio show on Halloween night in 2002. Shortly thereafter, an heir of the radio play's author sued Beck and his producers for copyright infringement and won an injunction that prevents Beck from ever performing the play again.

The injunction, however, doesn't prevent Beck from spinning his own doomsday visions every day. In January he jumped from CNN Headline News to the Fox News Channel and began experimenting in earnest. Comedy Central's The Daily Show had paved the way by showing you didn't have to stick to the same old tried-and-true conventions when presenting the news. Anchormen could be more expressive. You could use music and graphics and video clips more creatively. And if you could do so in pursuit of comedy, why not also in pursuit of melodrama?

In February, while discussing what it's like to be angry and enfranchised in America, legislated to the edge of Armageddon, Beck introduced a new visual technique: His image appeared simultaneously in two windows on the screen, one a typical headshot, the other a close-up of his eyes, the better to showcase his distressed but strong sincerity. On April Fool's Day, as Beck kicked off a segment on America's drift toward fascism, his image started shrinking until he was just a tiny torso at the bottom of the screen, looking over his shoulder at World War II footage of marching Nazis. "Enough!" Mini-Beck shouted. Then the screen went black behind him, dramatically framing his shrunken head and body as he continued his soliloquy. It was news commentary as expressionist theater.

Beck's subjects became equally avant garde. On one show, experts tutored the host on how to survive the kind of financial meltdown in which shopping centers were ghost malls and streets were crawling with functionally illiterate meth-heads. A week later, he started investigating the rumor that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was building concentration camps around the country. When that didn't pan out, he set about exposing the secret communist artwork adorning Rockefeller Plaza and other buildings in New York.

Whatever the subject of any given episode, a common theme always unites it with every other installment of the show: Something isn't right with America. The country is changing somehow, subtly but surely, right under our very noses, and hardly anyone else is noticing. …