Citizen Beck

Temperatures rise at Mercury Radio Arts as bumped Fox pundit takes his war to the Web’s wilderness

When Glenn Beck announced he would be leaving Fox News last week, he fixed his maniacal gaze on the camera, which was still for once, and delivered a cryptic promise.

“We will find each other,” he said. “I will continue to tell the story, and I’m going to be showing you other ways for us to connect.

“But I have other things to do. Not because it’s good or bad for business, but I think you out of all the people will truly get this: Our only business is the business of freedom and our country at this time.”

The speech was of a piece with Beck’s patent schmaltz. Viewers knew the announcement was imminent; the Fox News organization had been leaking vitriol for months, alerting press that his ratings were dipping, that he drove off advertisers by the hundreds.

But its earnestness, genuine or not, recalled a similar manifesto from Citizen Kane, slipped into the front page of the first edition of Charles Foster Kane’s Inquirer at the eleventh hour: “I will provide the people of this city with a daily paper that will tell all the news honestly. I will also provide them with a fighting and tireless champion of their rights as citizens and as human beings.”

Kane is no doubt a character close to Beck’s heart. He grew up listening to Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre of the Air. Beck’s modest production company, Mercury Radio Arts Inc., was named for Welles’ radio theater, and Beck once re-created Welles’ famous War of the Worlds broadcast stunt. And the loyal and ragtag crew of Mercury is poised to perpetuate Beck’s signature hysteria in a devilish style that would make Welles the prankster proud.

Like Welles’ radio entertainments, and not too far from Kane’s more propagandizing stunts, Beck’s brand of commentary is only feasible because it is not journalism (and because lawsuits for slander are difficult to win in the United States). Despite appearing on the Fox News channel—a putatively journalistic organization—Beck routinely couches his paranoid raves with disclaimers like “I’m not a journalist” or “Don’t take my word for it, do your own homework.”

But Beck is in the business of what these days passes for journalism. In August, Mercury Radio Arts expanded its Web outfit to include The Blaze—a news and opinion site aimed to attract a broader audience than Beck’s Tea Party diehards.

When its launch was announced, The Blaze was instantly dubbed the conservative answer to the Huffington Post. It was the simplest comparison to make. In November, former Huffington Post executive Betsy Morgan was brought on to manage The Blaze’s business operations. Morgan claims to be apolitical, and she told The Observer that for her the appeal of working for the Huffington Post and The Blaze is the same.

“When you join an organization like HuffPo or like Blaze and Mercury, there isn’t that set of historical rules,” she said. “I remember Arianna was like that, she’d never worked in a conventional company; it was imaginative and entrepreneurial.”

“This is best of all worlds. It’s small and intimate, but the reach is very big, it’s a national brand,” she said.

Since the HuffPo’s merger with AOL, Arianna Huffington has scrambled to shed the Post of its leftist reputation, telling the press that the site looks “beyond left and right,” because “the two-party system is broken.” But Morgan embraces The Blaze’s slant as that of a scrappy start-up. After all, there’s a target demographic that needs to be converted into a growing readership.

Rather than explicitly promote The Blaze—his name is nowhere on the home page, and the site is minimally promoted on—Beck cites it as a news source on his radio show. Bill O’Reilly recently did the same on The O’Reilly Factor. It’s akin to citing early Huffington Post items as news. Overseen by Editor-in-Chief Scott Baker, formerly of Breitbart TV, The Blaze’s miniscule editorial department of about five bloggers aggregate news articles and television clips, often material directly related to Beck or his televised vendettas.

Having gone live six months ago, The Blaze draws about 2.9 million unique visitors each month, according to Quantcast, a number that outpaces Talking Points Memo, Wonkette and Daily Kos. The gap between The Blaze’s operations and its influence is indicative of a dynamic crucial to Mercury Arts Radio’s success. A close-knit staff of 55 collaborates on each of Beck’s projects, be they books or live shows or Web videos, but Beck is the outfit’s single public face. Yet Mercury avoids responsibility for the controversy even as it shares the financial rewards of his inflammatory—and therefore viral—antics.

“Glenn includes you in a conversation, includes you in the dream and the framework,” said Kraig Kitchin, director of sales for The Blaze.

“It’s a really central part of the operation; we hang out, people talk through the issues together and don’t feel like he’s going to get mad at us if we disagree with him,” said Steve “Stu” Burguiere, Beck’s longtime co-host.

As his business got bigger, Charles Foster Kane abandoned his antitrust ideology, buying out his rival newspaper’s staff en masse like a group lot of antiques. Beck’s media company is growing, too, but for now his squadron remains more guerilla than colonialist.

The core of Mercury Arts Radio is mostly young, male and outsider. Mercury President Chris Balfe, 31, allied himself with Beck, then a Top 40 DJ, when he was just 18 by offering to build his website. Balfe dropped out of school and they founded Mercury together. Beck’s sidekick, Burguiere, 35, was working in radio promotions straight out of high school until he began interning for Beck. Within a year he was producing The Glenn Beck Show.

“What’s amazing about Chris and Glenn and the early people is that they didn’t come from mainstream media,” Morgan said. When you’ve been trained by the legacy companies, she explained, “you come out with a certain set of rules you’ve got to adhere to.”

By building a staff with shock-jock DNA—where personality is valued over ideology or objectivity—Mercury has within its ranks neutralized the political effects of Beck’s work. Morgan claims to be apolitical—though since she’s now worked at both ends of the spectrum, one might simply call her mercenary. She said there are staffers who identify as centrist or liberal, but in practice all spout the Beck party line.

Mercury’s young sound technician is a voice-over actor named Nick Daley, who is gay. He recently made a video for the LGBT advocacy campaign “It Gets Better” and posted it to his YouTube page. When a commenter implied Daley is a hypocrite for working for Beck (who has used wedding-cake dolls to illustrate how gay marriage leads to polygamy), Daley came to his boss’s defense.

“I’ve worked with him for 10 years, and not only has he been gracious and respectful to me, he’s gone to bat for me when an incident arose,” he wrote in the comments.

For all the independence Mercury Radio Arts has afforded him, Beck has not yet built the entirely self-reliant media empire of a Charles Foster Kane. He remains dependent, for example, on big deals with Simon & Schuster.

It is entirely customary for publishers to throw book deals at the loudmouths of television and radio, but it is rare that books become a radio and TV star’s cash cow, as they have for Beck. He was a best-selling author before his first television contract, and he is the only author to have debuted at No. 1 in four categories (hardcover fiction, hardcover nonfiction, paperback nonfiction, children’s).

Simon & Schuster publisher Louise Burke first sniffed out Beck at his 2003 pro-troops “Rally for America.”

“I do have an interest in conservative politics,” Burke told The Observer, and the crowd he had drawn impressed her.

Burke had just been named publisher at Threshold, then a new imprint of Simon & Schuster, and she was in need of some signature voices. In Beck, she found one popular and prolific enough to support several small imprints.

“I don’t think anyone else at Simon & Schuster was interested in publishing him,” she said of her lucrative find.

Beck’s nonfiction books are conceived in the Mercury offices, then proposed by Balfe to Simon & Schuster and largely written by committees of Mercury staffers. Beck is said to be closely involved throughout the process, down to the minutiae of paper and bindings.

In 2009, Beck entered a co-venture agreement with Simon & Schuster, trading smaller advances for a larger share of profits. The arrangement provided Beck an incentive to stay at Threshold, instead of, say, migrating to News Corp.-owned Harper Collins. It also put him in the echelon of commercial book talent inhabited by Stephen King.

Beck’s outsize success in the anemic publishing industry may in part stem from the talking head’s professed interest in the written word. Beck regularly touts his latest read on his Fox program. Like Oprah Winfrey, Beck has the ability to send a dusty title up the best-seller charts, like F.A. Hayek’s 1944 anti-government tract The Road to Serfdom (University of Chicago Press). But while Winfrey would spend months deliberating with publishing marketing departments about which books would get her book club’s seal of approval, Beck simply gabs on the radio about whatever he just finished the night before, without warning, leaving publishers racing to reissue whatever ends up on his nightstand.

Beck has said that he devours political thrillers. He often invites authors to interview them on TV, and made his first attempt at the genre, The Overton Window (Threshold Editions), last year. It debuted atop the best-seller list. His other favorite genre is history, especially biographies of the Founding Fathers.

It is tempting to psychologize Beck’s on-air rhetoric in terms of his reading habits. Perhaps he has so internalized the mechanics of the spy thriller genre that he can quickly chalk up a conspiracy plot from the most innocuous news item. Perhaps he has so romanticized the Founding Fathers that globalization feels like a real threat to his freedom. At the very least, his investment in these narratives defangs him somewhat. Jon Stewart never seemed to be having more fun than when he mocked Beck in his own style, leering into multiple cameras, inventing conspiracies about conspiracies and moon-walking out of the shot.

Charles Foster Kane ran, unsuccessfully, for governor. Beck’s fans and followers have already begun Internet pleas for a presidential campaign, but if he holds any electoral aspirations, he has so far kept them to himself.

But then again, it’s hard to take anything Beck says seriously, as he’ll be the first to tell you. “I could give a flying crap about the political process,” he told Forbes last spring. “We’re an entertainment company.” He likes to call himself a “rodeo clown,” and has often said on air, “If you take what I say as gospel, you’re an idiot.”

Beck’s most incendiary remarks (e.g., that President Obama has a deep-seated hatred of white people) might best be understood as performance art, but those who work with him blame the impulse to do so on cognitive dissonance. “When you don’t agree with someone, your first natural reaction is, ‘Oh, they must not believe it, he must be making it up, how could he say that, therefore it must be fake,’” said Kraig Kitchin, who picked up The Glenn Beck Show for Premiere Radio Network in 2001.

As if to prove Beck’s on-the-clock emoting is authentic, his supporters point to his frankness about his personal struggles.

“He is a former drug addict and a recovering alcoholic and a total open book to his audience,” Kitchin said. “He is so open with his emotions, so it may be different and may seem strange.”

This is, of course, a defensive strategy. Beck knows that the scrutiny directed at the darker details of his past, chronicled in Alexander Zaitchik’s Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance (Wiley, 2010), would amount to a scandal after which, as Charles Foster Kane’s blackmailer said, “he couldn’t be elected dogcatcher.” By owning it, however vaguely, he’s written himself an origin myth of redemption, at the hands of politically on-message saviors like individual perseverance, religion and marriage to his second wife.

“He honestly is one of those individuals with such fervor that that’s what attracts attention—sincerity,” Kitchin said. “His listeners know, in today’s entertainment, entertainers sometimes use absurdity or exaggeration without being false. It’s about tension. It’s why newspapers supersize fonts in headlines; it’s why Times Square has massive-size billboards.”

Kitchin told The Observer that The Blaze appeals to advertisers because the site “is a source where people come for the process of reaching the truth, and as sponsors of truth, readers disproportionately buy the products in a place they believe they can trust.”

Infotainment is only a problem when the revenue streams align with the content. Beck regularly predicted economic apocalypse and prescribed gold and food hoarding. His show was sponsored by a gold seller and a survivalist freeze-dried food company, as if Fox News were counting on his audience being idiots.

Although perhaps Fox was scraping the bottom of the barrel, since more than 100 traditional companies removed or refused to buy commercials during Beck’s one-hour program, with some reports placing the number as high as 400. It’s also this fact that makes the reports that Beck will follow Keith Olbermann and Oprah Winfrey and take over part or all of a cable network, trading millions of viewers for more editorial and financial control, hard to swallow.

The speculation is largely fueled by the departure of Fox senior vice president Joel Cheatwood. Like most of the Mercury Radio Arts colleagues, Cheatwood and Beck go way back, to when Cheatwood helped Beck create his first news show at HLN.

“The future is that we’re going to connect as directly as possible with our listeners,” Burguiere said. “Glenn just wants to make sure he gets out his views. He tries to understand the world from his perspective and that’s sort of our mission.”

By the end of Citizen Kane, it is clear that Kane has abused his capacity to connect with listeners, by coding his views into headlines, both on the global scale, in declaring the Spanish-American War, and personal, launching an opera career for his wife against her will.

“People will think what I tell them to think,” Kane says.

It’s around here that the analogy breaks down. That’s not Beck. He is, in the end, more entertainer than demagogue.

So perhaps the better analogy is with Orson Welles himself, who, in addition to writing and directing the film, played the role of Kane. Citizen was Welles’ Hollywood film, backed by the big studio RKO based on the success of Mercury Theatre of the Air. When Citizen Kane bombed, the studio lost their faith in Welles’ judgment, and took his second film, The Magnificent Ambersons, to the cutting room. It also bombed, and the studio terminated Welles. His years in the wilderness began, and he never made another masterpiece. Four decades later, his bloated visage could be seen on television hawking cheap California wine.

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