Earlier versions of this column, including the print edition of Monday's Washington Post, misstated the percentage of news coverage of President Obama from May to mid-August that, according to a new study, was negative. The study found that 57 percent of the coverage was negative, compared to 43 percent that was positive. An earlier version of this column online also mistakenly referred to Kenya as President Obama's "native country" instead of his ancestral homeland.
Beck and the Mainstream
Monday, September 14, 2009; 1:09 PM
It has become a familiar chain reaction: Talk-show hosts whip up a noisy controversy, which hits higher decibels as it spreads to the establishment media, which costs some unfortunate soul his job.
But now the middleman -- the journalistic gatekeepers of yore ¿ may no longer be necessary.
By the time White House environmental adviser Van Jones resigned over Labor Day weekend, the New York Times had not run a single story. Neither had USA Today, which also didn't cover the resignation. The Washington Post had done one piece, on the day before he quit. The Los Angeles Times had carried a short article the previous week questioning Glenn Beck's assault on the White House aide. There had been nothing on the network newscasts.
"Where is the press on this?" Beck asked in late August during one of several rants against Jones. But it turned out the Fox News host didn't need the big news organizations to claim his scalp.
Beck's rhetoric may have been over the top as he denounced Jones as a "black nationalist" and "avowed communist" (Jones embraced communism in the 1990s but said he later changed his views). Yet Beck also trumpeted information that forced Jones to issue two public apologies within days. The first was for calling Republicans "a--holes" in a February speech, video of which was posted online by Beck backers. The second, more serious offense was that he had signed a 2004 petition charging "that people within the current administration may indeed have allowed 9/11 to happen, perhaps as a pretext to war." Jones said he didn't agree with that view, but his signature was on the "truther" document.
Although he began firing at his target earlier, Beck intensified his assault after a group co-founded by Jones, Color of Change, launched a boycott campaign that has led dozens of advertisers to withdraw from his television show -- a detail that Beck neglected to tell viewers.
As a proponent of creating "green" jobs, Jones was a respected figure within the environmental movement. But he was sufficiently obscure as a special adviser to the White House Council on Environmental Quality that major news organizations basically ignored him. Only The Post ran a profile, in December, and a story last month on his government work.
Beck, by contrast, drew an avalanche of coverage for calling President Obama a "racist" who harbors "a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture" -- the remarks that triggered the boycott. He also raised the race issue against Jones, touting a videotape in which the activist said last year that "the white polluters and the white environmentalists are essentially steering poison into the people of color communities." The other cable networks, meanwhile, gave Jones scant attention, with MSNBC's Keith Olbermann assailing Beck's role in the attacks.
Beck, who also hosts a popular radio show, is enjoying a ratings surge, averaging 2.25 million viewers on Fox. He regularly tries to deflect criticism by describing himself as a recovering alcoholic and "rodeo clown."
During his Aug. 26 denunciation of Jones, Beck said: "I have told my audience for years, after I sobered up, I admitted, I was a dirtbag, man. I was a dirtbag! I have tried my hardest not to be a dirtbag anymore. I still make mistakes."
When Jones's In a resignation statement was released shortly after midnight on Sept. 6, Jones said he was the victim of "a vicious smear campaign." Liberal commentators accused the White House of caving to right-wing pressure. Blogger Arianna Huffington called Jones a "remarkable man," even as she allowed he was "completely wrong" to associate with the truthers. Beck, for his part, told viewers he deserved no congratulations: "I can go on and on and on about this stuff every night, but if you don't care and it doesn't connect with the American people, what I say doesn't matter."
Beck is As a provocateur, Beck sometimes seems to revel in going too far. He accused the communications director of the National Endowment for the Arts, Yosi Sargent, of wanting to steer federal aid to "a bunch of hippie starving artists, dope-smoking progressives" as "blatant propaganda" for Obama. (The agency reassigned Sargent.) And Beck relentlessly promoted the conservative "9/12" demonstrations in Washington and across the country, and broadcast live Saturday, interviewing Republican lawmakers and others at the protests. "I know the mainstream media, everyone, will make fun of me ..... but I have wept for my children's future," he said.