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A Network Divided: The Glenn Beck Factor

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 15, 2010; 11:01 AM

NEW YORK -- In just over a year,Glenn Beck's blinding burst of stardom has often seemed to overshadow the rest of Fox News.

And that may not be a good thing for the top-rated cable news channel, as many of its staffers are acutely aware.

With his celebrity fueled by a Time cover story, best-selling books, cheerleading role at protest rallies and steady stream of divisive remarks, Beck is drawing big ratings. But there is a deep split within Fox between those -- led by Chairman Roger Ailes -- who are supportive, and many journalists who are worried about the prospect that Beck is becoming the face of the network.

By calling President Obama a racist and branding progressivism a "cancer," Beck has achieved a lightning-rod status that is unusual even for the network owned by Rupert Murdoch. And that, in turn, has complicated the channel's efforts to neutralize White House criticism that Fox is not really a news organization. Beck has become a constant topic of conversation among Fox journalists, some of whom say they believe he uses distorted or inflammatory rhetoric and that undermines their credibility.

Ailes has occasionally spoken to Beck about the negative tone of his 5 p.m. program. And Beck, in turn, sometimes seeks Ailes's advice.

Despite Beck's ascendance, Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity remain marquee names at Fox, with "The O'Reilly Factor" still the highest-rated program, drawing 3.7 million viewers. O'Reilly has embraced Beck, showcasing him as a weekly guest. Despite strong resistance from Fox management, O'Reilly has joined forces with Beck on the so-called "Bold & Fresh Tour" (named for an O'Reilly book), speaking to sold-out audiences from Los Angeles to Tampa.

Publicly, there is plenty of praise. Although Beck declined to be interviewed, Chris Balfe, president of Beck's company, Mercury Radio Arts, says that "Glenn and Roger have a fantastic relationship. That's the reason he went to Fox, because of Roger." He adds: "Roger definitely gives Glenn advice on a lot of different things he thinks Glenn could be doing better or differently."

Fox responded by arranging an interview with Bill Shine, its senior vice president. Shine says that last fall a vice president was assigned "to help keep an eye on that program" and review its content in advance -- a full-time job. "We see Glenn as an investment and we wanted to help him out even more," Shine says.

Shine dismisses the notion that Beck's prominence may be a liability for Fox, even while noting the left's "hate" for the host: "I don't perceive it to be a problem. . . . Glenn Beck is popular and controversial? Well, almost everybody here has been popular or controversial at some point in the last 13 years." For the channel's journalists, Shine adds, "sometimes it might make their job a little more difficult."

* * *

Television analyst Andrew Tyndall calls Beck an "activist" and "comedian" whose incendiary style has created "a real crossroads for Fox News."

"They're right on the cusp of losing their image as a news organization," he declares. "Do they want to be the go-to place for conservative populist ideas on television, or do they want to be a news organization? Ailes has done a good job of doing both."


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