No Comment — September 21, 2009, 10:16 am

Return to Glenn Beck-istan

Rick Stengel’s makeover of Time magazine continues apace this week with a cover salute to Fox News’s emerging superstar, Glenn Beck. Even in the days of Henry Luce, Time had a reputation for publishing provocative cover pieces of figures who were newsmakers: Joseph Stalin, Adolph Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh. By and large, the portraits were respectful but hardly glorifying. That was back in the day when Time practiced serious journalism.

Kansas City-based David Von Drehle, the former Washington Post style guy, wrote the Beck piece, filling it with the sort of gushing language a teenage girl might use to describe a rockstar. As Jack Shafer once noted, “Von Drehle navigates around clichés as swiftly as a slalom skier.” His subjects really have nothing to fear. A profile of the Roberts Court teaches us that Roberts loves the poetry of Samuel Johnson, but gives very little insight into the politics of the High Court or the tensions that now rattle it. A story profiling John Dingell, the 83-year-old former chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee ousted earlier this year in favor of crusader Henry Waxman, gave us an improbably tireless environmentalist–a portrait that seems odd for the automobile industry’s most effective advocate on Capitol Hill. Still Von Drehle exercises some professional caution approaching Beck: he dishes out a lot of silly blather, but he puts most of it in the mouths of self-described Beck fans.

Then we find this ramble, in which he seems almost to be impersonating his subject:

Beck is 45, tireless, funny, self-deprecating, a recovering alcoholic, a convert to Mormonism, a libertarian and living with ADHD. He is a gifted storyteller with a knack for stitching seemingly unrelated data points into possible conspiracies — if he believed in conspiracies, which he doesn’t, necessarily; he’s just asking questions. He’s just sayin’. In cheerful days of yore, he was a terrific host of a morning-zoo show on an FM Top 40 station. But these aren’t cheerful times. For conservatives, these are times of economic uncertainty and political weakness, and Beck has emerged as a virtuoso on the strings of their discontent.

Von Drehle’s piece is filled with the idea of red truths and blue truths. Start with the number of participants at the rally a week ago Saturday.

If you get your information from liberal sources, the crowd numbered about 70,000, many of them greedy racists. If you get your information from conservative sources, the crowd was hundreds of thousands strong, perhaps as many as a million, and the tenor was peaceful and patriotic.

In this case, as media critic Charles Kaiser notes, the “liberal sources” are the District of Columbia Fire Department, known for its conservative (and generally quite reliable) estimates of crowd sizes. The “conservative sources” are more mysterious. Right-wing commentator Michelle Malkin claimed that ABC News reported 2 million participants; ABC News quickly corrected her. Glenn Beck himself, on Fox & Friends, claimed 1.7 million participants. Beck attributed this number to the university of what’s it’s name, which, of course, could not be reached for comment. In the Von Drehle universe, helium might have two electrons, but then again, consulting the university of what’s it’s name, it might have 14. A more reliable answer probably lies somewhere in between.

What about the controversy that Beck sparked by calling President Obama a racist? More than sixty Fox advertisers pulled their spots from Beck’s show as a result of a public campaign. This gets a passing mention, but Von Drehle assures–relying on unnamed sources–that Beck is actually benefitting from all the attention and loss of revenue.

The Von Drehle treatment focuses so much on Beck’s marketing savvy, rather than the serious problems with enabling a voice like his, that an observer might ask what Time has in mind. Is this just an effort to peddle Time to Beck’s audience? That may well reflect the desperation of the newsmagazine industry. But I’ll wager that Time subscribers are wondering if they received a copy of People in their mailbox with a Time cover on it.

Jamie Foser provides a laundry list of the falsehoods that Time repackages and disseminates on Beck’s behalf here, and Charles Kaiser’s wittier take down can be examined here. If you’re in the market for a serious portrait of Glenn Beck, skip Time and turn to Salon, where Alexander Zaitchik’s promising three-parter launched today with a real eye-opener about his early life in Washington state.

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