By Dana Milbank
Sunday, October 10, 2010; A15
Glenn Beck has a friend in California.
"I would've never started watching Fox News if it wasn't for the fact that Beck was on there," says this friend, Byron Williams. "And it was the things he did, it was the things he exposed, that blew my mind."
"I do enjoy Glenn Beck," Williams also says, "and the reason why I enjoy that is because... no other channel will speak about the same things that he's talking about, and if you go and investigate those things you'll find out that they're true."
Unfortunately for Beck, this satisfied viewer currently resides at the Santa Rita Jail near Oakland and stands accused of a freeway shootout with police. Williams pleaded not guilty to four counts of attempted murder of a police officer. But according to court documents, he said he had been on a mission to kill people at the liberal Tides Foundation, which happens to be a favorite Beck target.
In August, I wrote that while it's not fair to blame Beck for violence committted by his fans, he would do well to stop encouraging extremists. Now, Williams has granted a pair of jailhouse interviews, one with the conservative Examiner.com and one to be published soon by the liberal group Media Matters. These recorded exchanges, which I have reviewed, show precisely why Beck is dangerous: because his is the one voice in the mass media that validates conspiracy theories held by the unstable.
The Examiner, in an article published this week, exonerated Beck by pointing to Williams's statement that "I know Beck continuously talks about peaceful resolution but I have constantly disagreed. This, however, misses the point. It's not that Beck is directly advocating violence (he might be in Santa Rita himself if he did that) but he's giving voice and legitimacy to the violent fringe.
"Beck is going to deny everything about violent approach, deny everything about conspiracies," Williams told the freelance journalist John Hamilton, who did the interview to be published by Media Matters. "But he'll give you every reason to believe it. He's protecting himself, and you can't blame him for that. So, but I understand what he's doing."
Listening to Beck, Williams explained, "you can pick up ideas and you can get on your Internet and just verify it."
One of the ideas from Beck that Williams "verified" involved the liberal billionaire George Soros. Williams said he was inspired by Beck's shows about Soros (described by Beck as a currency manip-ulator of Jewish ancestry who has "disturbing hair in his nose"). Beck accused President Obama of lending $2 billion to Brazil's oil company Petrobras just after Soros upped his stake in the company.
This turned out to be a false Internet rumor that Beck had amplified, but Williams did more research and concluded that Soros and Obama had sabotaged the BP oil well in the Gulf of Mexico to cause the oil spill and thereby help Petrobras.
This, Williams said, was his main source of anger before the alleged shoot-out. "With the exception of Beck, not once did even Fox report on things like Soros investing a billion dollars in Petrobras, or not once did they mention the fact that Obama sent them $2 billion," he noted. "Beck will not say it was a contracted hit" on the BP well by Obama and Soros, Williams said, "but he'll give you every ounce of evidence you can possibly need to make that assumption yourself."
Williams, as you'd expect, is not an entirely reliable witness. At one point, he complains that Beck "criticizes all the conspiracy theories," but at other points he hails Beck for embracing them. Still, this part rings true: The prisoner told the Examiner that he already knew about Tides before he heard Beck speak about it in June; rather, "to me it was more of a confirmation of what I already knew," he said.
Exactly. Beck, who has encouraged his followers to hear what he is saying "between the sentences" he actually utters, gave legitimacy to Williams's conspiracy theories.
"So now they've got Beck labeled as this guy that is trying to incite violence, and what I say is that if the truth incites violence, it means that we've been living too long in the lies," Williams told Hamilton. "You know, when you become unemployed, desperate, you can no longer pay your bills... what do you think is gonna happen? You know, for crying out loud. It's gonna get worse, and more and more people are gonna get desperate."
Particularly if they have an enabler in the mass media.
Dana Milbank is the author of Tears of a Clown: Glenn Beck and the Tea Bagging of America. Last week, he wrote for The Post's Outlook section about Beck as an amateur historian.