For Cryin' Out Loud
Thursday, April 9, 2009; 10:20 AM
Stephen Colbert had a fine time the other day making fun of Glenn Beck's blubbery-yet-apocalyptic brand of commentary.
But Beck -- a big ratings draw for Fox News who was profiled last week on the New York Times front page -- is hardly the only guy emoting for the cameras. He just does it with more tantrums and tears than your average cable guy. And I don't see many programs showing footage of marching Nazis while the host is talking about Obama.
Still, the heyday of dispassionate TV types is long gone, at least on cable. We are in the era of thrill-up-the-leg punditry, of worst-persons-in-the-world commentary, of I'm-looking-out-for-you arguments, when Matthews and Olbermann and O'Reilly and Hannity and Dobbs are selling their opinionated personas.
What was the biggest event of the cable season? Jon Stewart's smackdown of Jim Cramer. Remember when Geraldo Rivera and Bill O'Reilly lost their tempers and yelled at each other about immigration? And when Anderson Cooper made a splash by emotionally challenging a senator during the chaos of Katrina?
It used to be that some anchors would try to get the guest to cry, or at least choke up. (On yesterday's "Early Show," CBS's Maggie Rodriguez asked the monosyllabic Levi Johnston, Bristol's ex-boyfriend: "Do you think it's heartbreaking the way it all turned out? Did you get your heart broken?" "Yes, I did," he replied.) But now some hosts have decided to eliminate the middleman.
"I thought there was no crying in baseball or television," Stephanie Miller told me on the air when I asked about one of Beck's weepy commentaries. Ah, but there is. And there's ratings gold in them tears.
New York Observer's Felix Gillette leads off with Beck in looking at cable's emerging style:
" 'It seems like the voices of our leaders and special interests and the media, they're surrounding us.' Glenn Beck, one of America's most popular television populists, was speaking to his audience on the afternoon of Friday, March 13, during an hourlong special. At this point, he was choking back tears. This was the money shot: the moment that gave the special its title. It was good. 'It sounds intimidating, but you know what?' he asked his viewers through the brave snuffles. 'Pull away the curtain, and you'll realize that there isn't anybody there.'
"Not long ago, television news was a no-cry zone. The top newsmen were celebrated for their emotional control in the face of gut-punching developments. War, death, terrorism, plague -- nothing rattled their composure. . . .
"These days, everywhere you look you see anchors seemingly on the verge of an emotional breakdown. CNBC's Rick Santelli recently flipped out on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and became an overnight sensation. Political analyst Roland Martin cried at the sight of Barack Obama winning the November election and is now guest-anchoring in prime time for CNN."
Time's James Poniewozik says Beck's show "teeters from humor to predictions of apocalypse to self-esteem sermons to fits of weeping. ('I'm sorry. I just love my country. And I fear for it.') This is what makes it so compelling: the breathless feeling that at any moment, everything could spectacularly collapse . . .
"Fear of what? Take your pick. Fear that the U.S. is on a long march to fascism. (As evidence, Beck cited -- on April Fools' Day but apparently seriously -- the inclusion of fasces on the Mercury dime in 1916.) That fat cats and bureaucratic 'bloodsuckers' are plundering your future. That Mexico will collapse and chaos will pour over the border. That America believes too little in God and too much in global warming. That 'they' -- Big Government, Big Business, Big Media -- are against you. Above all, that you, small-town, small-business America -- Palinville -- have been forgotten. Dismissed. Laughed at. Just like him."