Heck Not Beck
by David Weinshilboum
A Glenn Beck revelation: The most important way that we differ.
As an English professor at a local community college, I am very careful about introducing politically charged topics in the classroom. If you provide even a hint about where you stand on some issues, students who disagree with you can get defensive in a hurry. I tell students that I don’t care if their opinions differ from mine, so long as they can thoughtfully and logically explain their positions.
In addition to the potential for alienating students, there’s another reason why I play it close to the vest when discussing controversial issues in class: I don’t want students to merely mimic my opinions in their essays. Rather, I want students to write about what they genuinely believe. I encourage Socratic inquiry so students have a heightened understanding of themselves and the world in which they live.
These expectations might seem obvious to some. I believe, however, that it is hard for the average student to take a Socratic approach to issues of today. Why? Simply put, you don’t see much careful, thoughtful logic from alleged news outlets today. Instead we see talking heads—both liberal and conservative—shouting one another down. Logic, reflection, and dialogue take a back seat to emotional appeals.
Our news sources have evolved, in my opinion as a former journalist. Once, we had a finite number of news outlets that catered to a wide spectrum of political perspectives. Back then, careful unbiased analysis helped to maintain viewership/readership. Today, news and opinion has become a niche market. Several outlets cater to conservatives; others cater to liberals. It behooves these niche mediums to bend analysis so it pleases the audience. Quality analysis has taken a back seat to a sycophantic need to maintain ratings and ad revenue. Thus, the right demonizes the left and vice versa. Unsurprisingly, both President Barack Obama and Former President George W. Bush have been likened to Hitler.
That’s just the nature of mass media today. As editorializing has expanded, several voices have generated prominence by finding a partisan audience and entertaining them.
Oftentimes I find myself reflecting on what these alleged pundits say and do, and for the most part I am able to examine the punditry in emotionless, Vulcan-like logic. I’ve watched Chris Matthews repeatedly pander to his progressive choir; that’s his job. I didn’t bat an eyelash when Bill O’Reilly said that all Muslims were responsible for 9/11, though obviously I think his statement was a gross generalization and misrepresentation (sort of like saying all Americans support genocide because of what our government did to the Native American population a couple centuries ago). He accomplished his goal. He gained headlines; he got the attention that he craved.
While I am capable of calmly analyzing most political pundits, I found myself responding differently to Glenn Beck.
As many of you know, Glenn Beck, conservative entertainer and political pundit, recently left Fox News network. He took his show, picked up his toys, and headed for greener pastures. While his audience has abated in recent years, clearly this isn’t the end of Mr. Beck. The guy knows how to entertain and engage people. He has already amassed a sizeable audience that will follow him to another network and beyond.
Whenever I heard him speak, I found myself frustrated, angry. I was doing exactly what I tell my students not to do—give in to knee-jerk emotion. In many ways, Beck continues to do what virtually all other political pundits do: connect with their audience through verbal legerdemain and playing on people’s fears.
As weeks and months went by, I continued to wonder why Mr. Beck bothered me so much. After much reflection, I’ve come to understand why my reaction to Mr. Beck has been so primal—we are polar opposites when it comes to our audiences.
Like many celebrities, Mr. Beck suffers from a sort of megalomania; Mr. Beck’s ailment is an extreme case. Most political pundits want an audience. Mr. Beck wants minions, minions that will follow him in perpetuity. His web site seems to support my theory. Glennbeck.com claims that the man is “the fusion of entertainment and enlightenment.” He also has a university, Beck U, that paying members of his website can “attend.” Mr. Beck wants his audience to remain with him forever. He wants them to shun college and “learn” from his pay-per-view web U. He wants them to remain stationary, immobilized in his entertainment cocoon.
Every semester, I work with about 120 students. They are my audience, for better or for worse. I get to spend a few months with them and try to help them improve their reading and writing skills. When they’re done with me and it’s time for them to move on, they find another instructor with whom to collaborate, and move one step closer to their career.
Why do I respond so viscerally to Mr. Beck? He never wants to let go of his audience.
If you like Mr. Beck, go ahead and enjoy him. But please, move on to better things. There are no diplomas from Beck U.
David Weinshilboum, who is sometimes unsure whether his vote means anything, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.