Glenn Beck, the blustering bully in our neighborhood
March 31, 2010 —
The quarterly Nielson ratings are in, and Fox News has absolutely crushed its cable news competition.
The surge is lead by Glenn Beck, whose numbers are up 50 percent over last year, giving him the second-most popular cable news show behind Bill O’Rielly. The pair are followed by Hannity, Special Report with Bret Baier, On the Record with Greta Van Susteren, and on and on. The first non-Fox show to make the list is Countdown with Keith Olbermann, which limps into the standings at 14th place in the ratings. CNN, by the way, is down 50 percent this quarter over last year (sources: mediabistro.com, Nielson Media Group).
One might assume that a national cable news channel can have a major effect throughout the country, influencing the national debate and reaching deep into the American psyche, even effecting discussions in small communities like ours here in the mountains.
If that’s true (and we’ll look at that in a minute), then what is it, exactly, that Fox News is trying to accomplish?
To me, it seems they’re out to subvert the process of common sense discussion. Take Beck as an example. Conservatives have several well-reasoned, thought-provoking leaders, but Glenn Beck has little chance of ever being mistaken as one of them. His stream-of-consciousness ramblings usually lead to dubious conclusions and even when they’re right on, one gets the sense that he arrived there accidentally, like the crazy uncle who refuses to admit he’s lost, then smirks with glee when he somehow gets the family to church on time.
Beck is a major figurehead of the larger Tea Party movement, which itself has yet to come up with any concrete policy solutions to counter current government policy, appears bogged down in the nascent stage of political development where it’s satisfactory to shout ad hominem chants of communism, socialism, no taxes, Nazi socialism, etc, in the general direction of all Democrats. The shouts seem to be getting louder, and ever-more disconnected from reality, and the money to be made by people like Beck, and Fox News in general, is spurring on a larger and larger volatilization of the cable news world, which brings a larger and larger audience share.
The left has done its best to provide equally partisan shows with Keith Olbermann’s Countdown, the Rachael Maddow Show, and low-budget screeds like those seen on Democracy Now.
But there’s something in the character of the far right that allows it to respond mightily to partisan programming: The number of households tuned in to Fox in the week of March 15-21st was 2,054,000. Compare that to CNN, with a mere 694,000 households and MSNBC with 641,000 households. Democracy Now doesn’t even show up on the radar.
But Fox News devotees shouldn’t cheer just yet.
Here’s some perspective on just how important Fox News actually is, and by extension, how important the Tea Party and other right wing groups actually are: Fox’s network share is two percent, meaning that only two percent of 114.9 million households in the United States tune in and listen to the openly propagandistic messages streaming from their headquarters in New York City. For some perspective, this is less than half the number of people who watched “Ugly Betty” on ABC on March 24, and roughly the same number of people who watched the CW’s “90210” series on March 23.
The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, which provide more in-depth news and more well-reasoned editorials (on both sides of the coin) than anything provided by Cable News, have a combined, paid, circulation of 3 million in their print version, or roughly 9 million readers (not including the millions of unique online visitors to their respective web sites). This is more than four times the size of Fox’s audience.
Also, Fox News’ 2 million households represents less than three percent of the eligible voting public (212,702,354 in 2008) and a whopping 11 million fewer people than are on the active mailing list of Organizing for America, the group formed of Obama supporters after his election, which has made supporting health care its number one goal.
By extrapolating the national numbers to Eagle County, and this is admittedly an educated guess, we can say that about 1,000 people in our Valley of 52,331 (our population according to the most recent census) actually give Beck the courtesy of watching his show. I can happily say that more people in the area are likely to read this post on realvail.com, which makes Beck’s meandering monologues seem more like a tiny little squeak, a shrill whine heard only by the already converted.
The only real effect of Beck, O’Reilly, Palin, and other Fox talking heads is that they are marshaling a small but vocal portion of the Republican Party’s base, turning them against the thoughtful, moderate Republicans who have something valuable to add to the national discourse, and leaving moderate Republicans citizens disenfranchised and under-represented.
What’s important to me here is not necessarily who wins the political battle, but how the battle is waged. An intelligent process will bring more intelligent leaders, a vitriolic, irrational process will bring … well, you get the picture. Despite Beck’s rise and Fox News’ record quarter, the effort to subvert common-sense discussion is failing and, in fact, backfiring. If Republicans want back into power, nationally and locally, they must turn to their more reasonable, thoughtful, leaders.
Tom Boyd is a freelance writer and co-founder of realvail.com.
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