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A Network Divided: The Glenn Beck Factor

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."

The internal tensions are fueled by two views of Beck's success. He is either a self-promoting independent operator, as some at Fox believe, or a team player who regularly talks up his new colleagues, as the Beck camp sees it. Some journalists and other staffers who are upset about Beck's language declined to be identified criticizing a fellow employee.

Before launching his Fox program in January 2009, Beck had a popular radio show and Web site, as well as a magazine (called Fusion) and a thriving career as an author. These ventures -- Beck doesn't even work at Fox's Sixth Avenue headquarters -- give him an outside base that his team believes doesn't sit well with some Fox executives.

There is no question that the Fox exposure has transformed his career. When Beck had a show on CNN's Headline News, he averaged 367,000 nightly viewers in 2008, according to Nielsen figures. His Fox program is drawing 2.8 million viewers so far this year, slightly more than Hannity's.

"What Glenn does is so unpredictable," says Mercury's Balfe, "that it gives people something to write about, chat about, blog and Twitter about."

Some Fox insiders say Ailes and his staff deserve much of the credit for Beck's new prominence, both by giving him a platform suited to a conservative audience and granting him the freedom to say what he wants. But with that freedom has come constant controversy.

More than 200 companies have joined a boycott of Beck's program, making it difficult for Fox to sell ads. The time has instead been sold to smaller firms offering such products as Kaopectate, Carbonite, 1-800-PetMeds and Goldline International. A handful of advertisers, such as Apple, have abandoned Fox altogether. Network executives say they believe they could charge higher rates if the host were more widely acceptable to advertisers.

Beck, who travels with a bodyguard and retains his own publicist, Matthew Hiltzik, has also clashed with Fox over media opportunities. Last fall Beck wanted to accept an invitation from Jay Leno's prime-time show, but Fox management was opposed. Beck kept pushing and finally got permission to appear on the program in December. A Fox News spokesperson says the network simply wanted Beck to wait until the reverberations from his racism charge against Obama had faded. The executive suite was also rankled last week when Beck spent two minutes of airtime to promote his one-man show at Broadway's Nokia Theater on Tuesday.

Fox staffers note that veteran producer Gresham Striegel left the network after clashing with Beck and say the host has surrounded himself with loyalists from Mercury, some of whom remain on that company's payroll. (Striegel did not respond to a request for comment.) When Fox covers breaking news during Beck's hour, some journalists say, they are flooded with angry e-mail from viewers about the preemption.

Friction between opinionated cable personalities and journalists has also flared occasionally at MSNBC. But Beck has caused such anguish at Fox that some of its journalists celebrated the failure of last week's interview with embattled ex-congressman Eric Massa, which Beck pronounced a waste of time.

* * *

Love him or hate him, Beck is a talented, often funny broadcaster, a recovering alcoholic with an unabashedly emotional style. Yet even that has caused grousing. Some staffers say they have watched rehearsals, on internal monitors, in which Beck has teared up or paused at the same moments as he later did during the show. Asked about this, Balfe responded sharply: "Glenn reacts the same way to issues whether he knows people are watching or not, and is proud to show his emotions, unlike the cowardly, two-faced critics who hide behind anonymity."

Beck sparked criticism from some Christian leaders last week when he urged parishioners to leave churches that promote "social justice" or "economic justice," saying these are "code words" for communism and Nazism.

He has also stirred controversy within conservative ranks. In a speech last month at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Beck took pains to criticize the Republican Party as "addicted to spending and big government." That puts him on very different turf from Hannity, who champions the party and is headlining a fundraiser this month.

Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin, two radio hosts friendly with Hannity, criticized Beck's CPAC remarks. Levin told Beck to "stop dividing us" and "stop acting like a clown." Limbaugh questioned why "the only people who can stop Obama should be excoriated for being just as bad."

In a recent online interview, CBS's Katie Couric asked Beck about critics who say he "resorts to inflammatory, unfair, despicable, hateful rhetoric." Beck's response: "Did they say that when I was saying the same things about George W. Bush, or is this new?" (Beck has criticized Bush, but not with the harsh language he employs against Obama.)

Asked whether he regretted saying the president has a "deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture," Beck said: "I'm sorry the way it was phrased." But he would not respond when Couric read a Twitter user's question on what he meant by white culture, saying: "I'm not going to get into your sound-bite gotcha game."

One thing is beyond debate: Beck provides a strong lead-in for the network's evening lineup. "The significance of Beck to Fox's bottom line cannot be underestimated," says Tyndall, the industry analyst. "Getting an audience that size at 5 p.m. is absolutely unheard of."

But that growth has come at a price, at least for those at Fox who believe that Beck is beginning to define their brand. Glenn Beck is a media phenomenon married to a phenomenally successful network, but away from the cameras, theirs is a troubled relationship.

Web wars

The Internet may seem infinite, but a relative handful of sites are dominating the battle for news and information.

Eighty percent of the traffic for news and information is vacuumed up by the top 7 percent of such sites, says an annual survey by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. These, according to Nielsen figures, are led by aggregator sites: Yahoo (No. 1, with 40.8 million unique monthly visitors), AOL (No. 3) and Google News (No. 6). The television news sites are also strong: MSNBC (2), CNN (4), Fox News (7) and ABC News (8). And three newspapers make the list: the New York Times (5), Washington Post (9) and USA Today (10, with 9.3 million unique visitors).

But all Web destinations are not created equal. Consumers spend more than twice as much time on cable TV sites (23 1/2 minutes a month) as on newspaper sites (10 minutes a month). Online-only sites fared only slightly better (12 1/2 minutes a month). Two political sites stand out: the right-leaning Drudge Report (nearly an hour each month) and the liberal Daily Kos (48 minutes).

Drawing eyeballs online is only part of the battle. The report says that 79 percent of Web consumers have rarely if ever clicked on an online ad -- one reason that Internet revenue badly trails that of print publications. Even among the most loyal news consumers, only 19 percent said they are willing to pay for news online.

Still, the old and new remain connected. In examining more than 1 million blogs and social networking sites, the project found that 80 percent of the links are to the "legacy media" -- the traditional organizations that are largely shrinking.

Twitter talk

The study also found that the most popular subjects on Twitter mirrored those in the mainstream press just four times in the 27 weeks studied. Most tweets "were designed to alert people to something interesting, to pass along information."

Ten percent of all top stories focused. . . . on Twitter itself. For instance, when a Scottish psychologist suggested that using Twitter made people dumber, many rallied to the site's defense. Posts about such Apple products as the iPhone and iPad made up 8 percent of top stories; Facebook, 7 percent; Microsoft developments, 5 percent; and Google, 3 percent. Twitter users were less exercised about politics. The health-care debate, for example, ranked seventh on Twitter.

Michelle in Newsweek

Who can quarrel with Michelle Obama's campaign against childhood obesity? But by turning over its pages to an essay by the first lady, after doing the same for her husband, does Newsweek appear to be in the Obama camp?

Judgment calls

When does a news organization go with a questionable allegation? Here are two case studies, the first in Utah's Deseret News:

"House Majority Leader Kevin Garn admitted as the Legislature adjourned Thursday night to a nude hot tubbing incident with a teenage girl 25 years ago.

"In a tearful statement in a packed House chambers, Garn said the mistake has 'now come back to haunt me' as the woman has gone public with the story. The Layton Republican said he entered into a confidentiality agreement with the woman in 2002 and paid her $150,000. . . .

"The Deseret News learned of the allegations against Garn just before the GOP primary election in 2002. Garn sat down and spoke about the incident with Deseret News reporters and editors. . . . Deseret News editors decided not to run a story about the indiscretion at that time, since the GOP primary was only weeks away and the incident had occurred years before. The editors decided to wait to see if Garn advanced in the primary before deciding to publish a story or not.

"Because Garn lost that primary, and so was also retiring from the Utah House, the newspaper never published a story."

And at the Bakersfield Californian, Editor Mike Jenner reflects on rumors that anti-gay state Sen. Roy Ashburn was himself gay:

"We didn't report them for two important reasons. First, we didn't know it was true. Even if it was, we didn't see the relevance. I didn't believe it was news.

"Things changed after news of his arrest came out Thursday. A highway patrolman arrested Ashburn in the early hours of Wednesday morning for allegedly driving drunk in a state-owned vehicle in Sacramento. His DUI was newsworthy. But there was more.

"A Sacramento television station, citing no named source, reported Thursday that Ashburn had been at a gay nightclub before his arrest. Even though an online news site later reported that the bar's manager said that wasn't the case, bloggers jumped on the story. Leading the charge were gay websites and bloggers who 'out' closeted gay public officials, especially politicians who've taken positions seen as anti-gay. . . .

"Beyond the question of relevance, there was the not-so-insignificant matter of the truth and our ability to ascertain it. Rumors may work for anonymous bloggers, but not for us. If he wouldn't admit it, and we had no evidence to the contrary, no inside knowledge from a credible source, we had no story."

These aren't easy calls.

Mr. Olbermann

Keith Olbermann's father, Theodore, died on Saturday. "Countdown" viewers know that the MSNBC host made his dad's illness part of the health-care debate, talking about what he calls "life panels." He said Thursday: "That is the essence of having the conversation with your loved ones, even if you are all perfectly healthy and young, about what to do when that time comes, if it comes at some point, hopefully in the distant future."

Keith says his dad "was my inspiration, and will always remain so. His bravery these last six months cannot be measured. He is as much my hero now, as he was when I was 5 years old."

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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