Jul 9 2010

Alexander Zaitchik on Glenn Beck, Jon Jeter on globalization


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This week on CounterSpin: Two issues modern media critics can’t help but engage are the growth of right-wing media, and their forcible injection of sometimes bizarre ideas and methods into so-called mainstream debate; and the impact of corporate media’s narrow economic vision, which also affects public debate and political possibilities, on some of the most critical decisions affecting the country.

On today’s show we’re going to talk about some of those things with two authors. If you watch Glenn Beck for even a few minutes you’re left wondering whether it’s all a con job—from the weepy patriotism to the fear-mongering about the impending Obama dictatorship. In his new book Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance, Alexander Zaitchik tries to explain just where on earth the Fox News sensation came from. He documents Beck’s journey from a morning zoo FM DJ to crusading political talker.

Also on the show: Jon Jeter is a former bureau chief for the Washington Post for southern Africa and for South America. His recent book, Flat Broke in the Free Market: How Globalization Fleeced Working People, tells stories that don’t often figure in elite media’s reporting on the poverty-erasing wonders of free-market policies. How has he come to view existing globalization policies as an “international shakedown” targeting regular people? We’ll hear from him.


CounterSpin: Is Glenn Beck actually crazy, or is his TV and radio shtick some sort of John Birch performance art? When he’s crying on the air, is he really crying? And how much should we care about what this guy is saying anyway?

It often seems like the Glenn Beck media phenomenon puzzles just about everyone. Beck went from a pint-sized fan of old-timey Orson Welles radio dramas to a drug-addicted morning zoo shock jock. He discovered political talk later on, and didn’t exactly seem like a star in the making. But somewhere along the way, the breaks went Beck’s way. It’s safe to say that at the moment he’s the brightest star in the right-wing media universe, harnessing or channeling the Tea Party energy on the far right, diagramming elaborate conspiracy theories that present Barack Obama’s White House as the culmination of a decades-long plot by an array of leftists to take control of the country. Enter Beck’s world and you encounter all the familiar touchstones of right-wing conspiracy cranks, from UN/world government schemes to the Red Menace within our own borders and inside our very own government.

If you watch Beck for a few minutes on any given evening, and you might find yourself wondering, who is this guy and how did he sneak into that television studio? Beck’s career, his ambitions and his role in our current political debate are all documented and dissected in the new book Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance. It was written by Alexander Zaitchik, he joins us now in the studio.

Welcome to CounterSpin Alexander Zaitchik.

Alexander Zaitchik: Good to be here.

CS: First, we should start with condolences—no one should have to go through what you went through. But for the non-listener who is still somehow aware of Glenn Beck, there’s probably some honest-to-goodness surprise at where on earth this guy came from. He’s a middle-tier talk show host; he has this very strange, little-watched CNN show, CNN Headline News, but then Obama takes office; he’s on Fox; there are these insane chalkboard fantasies about conspiracies and impending fascism. Part of your job was to answer that question, to figure where this guy came from. It seems like in the last decade or so, he’s been climbing the ladder.

AZ: Yeah, it’s a really fascinating story, just on its own, about how this guy got to be where he is, just as an American success story, it’s quite bizarre and interesting, I think. He’s sort of like, over the course of his life, been a Zelig figure in all of these important junctures in the development of radio and later television cable news. He started out as a very ambitious and very precocious teenage DJ in Washington State in the late 1970s and began his professional radio career at the dawn of what’s known as the Zoo era, where morning radio went from peppy to manic and it sort of became this rolling on-air party and also took on a sort of rude, in your face personality. And Beck was there at the dawn of that, and he was quite successful at it for the better part of a decade, traveling through various mid-size cities and eventually he flamed out in New Haven in the early 1990s. And this is when he started to think about making a transition to talk radio. And what’s important about New Haven is at the time that he was there, starting to think about talk radio, he was at one of only 14 Clear Channel stations in the country at the time. So he was sort of in on the ground floor at Clear Channel. So he was very well-positioned to transition to talk radio later in the decade, which he was able to parlay into a job at another Clear Channel station in Tampa, which was almost unheard of—to go from a 98th-, 99th-ranked market like New Haven to a top-20 talk market like Tampa. But he was pretty well connected and made that transition right about the time that talk radio was exploding. He took off there based on his success handling two major news stories, which sort of fell in his lap: one being the recount drama in Florida, where he was based, the second being 9/11. And that’s the crucial event that sort of created the Glenn Beck we know today. That’s when he pivoted and became this really sort of controversial, fire-breathing, right wing figure.

CS: It’s interesting—when reading the book, you know, he talks about the 9/12 project and being who you were on 9/12, and when you read his history you understand that 9/12 was really the day that launched his national career. Beck’s CNN show was pretty nutty, but then he moves over to Fox at the beginning of Obama’s term, and he really seemed to go off the deep end politically. It would seem to make perfect sense for Fox and for him to do this. You seem to be arguing that the Beck brand was shifting—too, he, before then would talk about you know, I’m a rodeo clown, I’m an entertainer, but within a couple of months he really wanted to lead a citizen movement to reclaim the Constitution and recover our country from, I guess, the grips of fascism.

AZ: Yeah, by the end of his first year on Fox, he really had sort of seemed to be buying his own act, and his self-image transformed from this rodeo clown figure, that you mentioned that he used to describe himself, into more sort of almost Moses-like figure, in which God is actually speaking to and through him. He’s something like Moses meets Sam Adams, some sort of like folkloric, prophetic figure in Mormon mythology. It’s really a quite bizarre mixture, and the fact that he really has been able to drag so many people who are outside of his Mormon faith into this very heavily Mormon flavored view of what he’s doing is quite remarkable.

CS: Mormonism is an interesting point, and you deal with this in the book on a couple of levels. One of the things that drives Beck’s detractors crazy is the crying. And it strikes people as completely made up, this ginned up thing that he can turn on the tears in a moment, which he can. But you point out that there’s a link to this in Mormon culture that makes this performance seem rather routine, almost.

AZ: It is routine. Mormonism is the most teary form of Christianity. In fact there’s a social ritual that’s quite important to Mormon communities known as bearing testimony. Every Sunday a ward house will gather, usually in the church basement or some similar environment. And they’ll get up and they’ll talk about something they know to be true, something that they connect with on a gut level, that’s not necessarily connected to logic or reason. And they’ll often tear up. It’s very ritualized, stylized. And crying is a big part of it. And Beck seems to have absorbed this around the time of his Mormon conversion in the late ’90s and incorporated it into his act. And it’s also a form of messaging that non-Mormon evangelicals and Pentecostals can also relate to. It’s just, it’s something a lot of secular critics of his don’t understand. They’re not hearing the same thing. It’s almost like a dog whistle, and I think that contributes to a lot of the sort of understanding gap you have between his religious fans and his critics, who tend to be more secular.

CS: Yeah, and there’s a photo shoot he did where they turned on the tears by cutting onions underneath him or something. And a lot of liberal blogs considered that as a kind of “Aha” moment: I told you he doesn’t mean what he’s doing.

AZ: Right. That was for a GQ shoot he did last summer. I don’t think there’s a whole lot of meaning to that other than it shows how Beck’s willing to make fun of himself and sort of embrace his critics in, for different audiences. I mean, the fact that he was willing to do that for GQ, but he’ll never sort of cop to being fraudulent on Fox News is kind of significant. I think there’s something in Beck that wants to be accepted as a mainstream sort of entertainment figure, and he wants to be accepted deep down by readers of GQ.

CS: And he sort of proudly proclaims himself as the crying conservative.

AZ: Yeah, he’s branded himself as such. He’s a positional marketing mastermind. He always set out to be the crying conservative. And he succeeded brilliantly.

CS: You mentioned dog whistle and that brings to mind another theme of the Beck performance. You have the Van Jones panic: Jeremiah Wright, FCC official Mark Lloyd, who seems to hold very little power but is this obsession—ACORN, attacking ACORN. The idea would seem to be that you can tap white racial panic and anxiety, but you have to be very clever about how you do this. I think he made a mistake when he went on the Fox show and said Obama has this deep seated hatred of white people and white culture, but that does seem to be a subtext at the very least of the show, that you can motivate your audience using all of these cues. And Van Jones becomes this central figure in the administration, even though he clearly wasn’t.

AZ: Yeah, I don’t think that there’s any way you can look at Beck’s career and not come to the conclusion that he’s been very skillful manipulator of white racial resentments and anxieties, if not outright prejudice at times. And of course this tradition goes back to Roger Ailes in his role in the Nixon campaigns. And there’s no coincidence that Beck ended up on Fox, where, you know, O’Reilly and Hannity have also played similar games over the years. But, yeah, throughout Beck’s career there’s been a running theme of either overt or very thinly-veiled sort of racial manipulations going on. He absolutely becomes livid at the merest mention of social justice—African American activists, like Jesse Jackson he hates, Al Sharpton. There’s a special kind of venom that comes out, and I think it’s quite revealing. The Van Jones thing is, there’s really no other way to interpret that three, four month crusade where he harped on it every single day, and he would play clips of Van Jones making what were essentially innocuous statements about pretty uncontroversial things—but Beck was labeling him a black nationalist, a communist, like he was some sort of, you know, Malcolm X circa 1959, which was ludicrous. One really interesting and revealing, I think, sort of split-frame that gives you a sense of where conservatism is today versus prior generations is William F. Buckley used to be the sort of best known conservative in the country: he actually invited black nationalist, Marxist revolutionaries onto his show Firing Line—Huey P. Newton, for example. Beck simply repeated lies about someone who actually was none of these things, never asked him on his show, and just got his audience whipped up into this frenzy, which was based on almost nothing, just a few audio soundbites that were taken out of context.

CS: There’s always this question about what to do about a figure like Beck. You can document his antics, try to explain about how he’s wrong about his history, and so forth, but it does seem to be a difficult question because he seems to exist solely for the purpose of creating controversy and attracting attention to himself. It’s a weird question to pose to someone who’s just written a book about the guy, but I know it’s something you’ve been wrestling with—how much attention does Beck deserve and what kind of attention does he deserve?

AZ: It is a tough one. On the one hand it is very tempting to argue we should just be ignoring this guy and focus our energies elsewhere. But on the other hand there’s just no ignoring the fact that he commands a monthly media footprint of something like 30 million Americans who are hanging on this guy’s every word. He’s positioning himself at the head of this civic movement, this Tea Party scene, of which he’s the most respected figure, and he has an impact that we simply have to wrestle with, as frustrating as it may be at times. But I do think that often liberal blogs, liberal media, tends to focus a little bit too much on every little controversy, every statement that comes out of his mouth, for example did he boiled a frog on his show last night? This is not the kind of thing we should be paying attention to, we should be paying attention to the books that he’s telling people to read and debunking them, fact-checking the books. We should be paying attention to the hand inside Beck’s puppet, so to speak, which is, you know, Coke-funded groups like Americans for Prosperity, Freedom Works, you know these are the sort of major institutions that are really providing Beck with his scripts and who have an agenda that is the real issue here—not Beck’s entertainment toolbox, which he uses to promote that agenda.

CS: Alexander Zaitchik’s new book is Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance. It is available now from Wiley.

Alexander Zaitchik, thanks for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

AZ: Thanks so much for having me.


CounterSpin: “Free trade means growth. Free trade means growth. Free trade means growth. Just say it fifty more times and all doubts will melt away.” Hard to forget language like that, when it appears in a news article on the front page of the New York Times, as that did in 1993. And it sometimes seems when it comes to corporate-driven globalization, mainstream media see their job as melting away doubts. Ever-expanding so-called free trade agreements are not just inevitable but good; people who oppose them are misguided or worse.

That’s the most pervasive message from the corporate news media, and that’s before you get to the business section. Negative impacts, human or environmental, from globalization policies tend to be a footnote, unlikely to get much attention unless someone breaks the window of a Starbucks, and unlikely to get thoughtful attention then. They’re the subject of a book by our next guest.

Jon Jeter has been bureau chief for the Washington Post for southern Africa and for South America. His book is called Flat Broke in the Free Market: How Globalization Fleeced Working People. He joins us now in-studio.

Welcome to CounterSpin, Jon Jeter!

Jon Jeter: Thank you for having me.

CS: Well, we read about economic globalization, perhaps most often, in abstract terms of how it’s supposed to work. Your research seemed to show you more than once that a country like Zambia, for example, may follow the rules, but the results just are not as promised (before we even get to the question of for whom those rules might be good or bad). Can you talk about that?

JJ: First of all, I think the whole notion of this global financial system, the whole rules of the game is really an exercise in sophistry. I mean, I don’t think that the framers of this sort of economic blueprint actually intended for countries like Zambia and developing countries to get ahead. If you look at this sort of strict regimen of debt, privatization, deregulation, you’ll find that these are sort of programs that serve the bond holders, the investment class, Wall Street investors in Europe at the expense of poor countries, and particularly at the expense of industry in these countries—which is the only way that we’ve ever seen a country prosper, is through value-added industries.

CS: So, to take Zambia, you have a case where loans are promised from the entities like the IMF and the World Bank. They’re promised loans if they eliminate tariffs, and that’s supposed to make their economy flourish, but then it doesn’t work out.

JJ: What it’s really done with the last 25 or 30 years of this global financial regime has done is to turn much of the world into one big giant Wal-Mart. The idea as it’s packaged is that even in countries like Zambia, where people’s incomes don’t go up, the prices will drop such that they in fact get a pay hike. It hasn’t happened that way in very many places at all. In fact, what you’ll usually find is that prices might go down, but people’s incomes go down even more. And so the one thing that I heard during my travels abroad in probably sixteen different languages from Portuguese to English to, you know, tribal languages in Africa, is people always say that this conversion from a more, sort of, industrial strategy, where their countries had maybe socialistic plan governments to a wide-open market—tariffs have been reduced, a flood of imports come in—the one thing you here is: people will say before there was nothing on the shelves but everyone had money, now everything is on the shelves but no one has money. It’s almost a mantra for the developing world over the last 25 or 30 years.

CS: Nevertheless, you say that a failure to really properly embrace globalization is still one of the most common reasons, along with corruption and lack of a work ethic, that you heard from the sort of experts as the reasons for Africa’s poverty: It’s as though they just haven’t done it enough.

JJ: Yeah, again, and this is why I think it’s sophistry really, it’s such a sort of lame argument that, you know, a country like Zambia, which really arguably converted from a very closed, walled-off economy to a wide-open fundamentalist capitalist economy in really a few years. And they went broke. They sold less abroad after this conversion in the early ’90s, they sell less abroad now than they did in the years right after liberation in the early ’60s. And that’s true for most of Africa, where you see more than 40 countries have adopted this, what they call the structural adjustment programs. And so it really is, you know you hear about corruption, you hear about not embracing all the tenets of this global financial system, and I always think that the best example of why that’s false is Chile, which is really the first, really the guinea pig for globalization as it is. And after the coup in 1973 where Salvador Allende was overthrown by General Pinochet, they were actually printing this economic blueprint for globalization—what essentially happened around the world over the next 30 years—they were printing while they were bombing the presidential palace in Chile. And what they put in place was this very privatized, deregulated, post-industrial economy that valued investment more than it did work. And what happened was an economy that produced boom and bust, cycles of boom and bust. They had unemployment of up to 33 percent at one point during Pinochet’s reign, heavy indebtedness, and shrinking industrial activity. And they went broke. And they sort of pulled back from this model suddenly when they got rid of Pinochet in 1990. And what they’ve had since then is the fastest growing, most productive economy in Latin America. And this has been really just common sense. They have focused on the productive sectors of the economy, they’ve more than doubled spending on education even as a percentage of GDP, spending on social services, investment in the transfer of technology to their agricultural sector, industrial sectors. And these are the kinds of things that produce prosperity for the greatest number of people throughout the world. People always say well, why did Chile have such great success, and they’ll say well they weren’t corrupt. Well, were they corrupt in the ’70s and ’80s and just not corrupt in the ’90s that they suddenly have this culture shift where they abandon their corruption? It’s nonsensical.

CS: Numbers or data can hide realities as well as reveal them. For example, we had years in this country of post-NAFTA talk about numbers of jobs being created before folks even started acknowledging that the jobs being created—low wage, service sector, no benefit, contingent—that they were qualitatively different than the ones being lost. I wonder, is that why you chose in the book to tell individual stories? Or is that just your approach as a reporter?

JJ: I think both. I think other than this sort of devaluation of work and workers, the principle sin of globalization is really this sort of increasing isolation of people. We don’t see people. People are increasingly—because of this infusion of cash into our political system, into our daily relationships—people are more estranged from each other. Their are fewer unions across the world, and so people are isolated. I lived in South Africa for four years, and there’s a greeting there—I don’t know if it’s Xhosa or Zulu, but it’s Sawa Bona, Sawa—it means I see you, literally I see you. And I thought that what I want to do with this book is to allow people to be seen, because I think if you see the people in Brazil and Argentina, and Africa, throughout Africa, you see that these are very hardworking people who are very much like working class people in this country, trying to do the best they can for their families. But really the parameters of their discontent are not their own personal responsibility or irresponsibility, it is this: the ground is moving underneath them. I just thought that this would humanize them but also bring it home, resonate with people the way it resonated with me.

CS: You make clear the way the degree to which one’s understanding of globalization is shaped by perspective or position, whether you are, in the crude terms often blithely used by the press, among the winners or losers. Given that, what is the significance of, not all but many U.S. media outlets overwhelmingly presenting the story from the winner’s point of view, if you will?

JJ: First of all, it’s not useful, and I always thought journalism should be useful. What they don’t do is they don’t tell you that Latin America—particularly countries like Venezuela and Argentina—after they sort of shed these so-called free market reforms, after they sort of abandoned this neo-liberal model, what they call the neo-liberal model, and they start to invest more in their populations’ health and education, their economies grew as fast as any in the world. And the media, including my former employer, the New York Times, it’s not one, it’s all of them—particularly the mainstream media—they don’t tell you what’s worked. They don’t give you a context, it’s like looking at everything through a zoom lens. And so, you know, even as a working journalist, I was always shocked to go places that I had read about in the New York Times and the Washington Post and to go there for the first time and see well this is not anything that I expected. It’s not what I heard. Venezuela’s the best example. I was not prepared for the affection that poor and working class people have for Hugo Chávez when I went there for the first time in 2004. It is unlike anything I’ve ever heard. It excedes what I heard poor working class people, their affection for, say for instance, Thabo Mbeki, the President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela’s successor. It is just something, and you realize it’s because he’s making their lives better. He is at the head of a responsive government.

CS: You cite Mark Weisbrot at one point saying that we’ve allowed the financial sector to make economic policy for the rest of us. Well, we’ve seen the result of that! There certainly is public energy for a different way forward, for at least considering different ideas. But while that may be necessary, it doesn’t seem to be sufficient. I wonder, finally, what can people do, are people doing, to resist what’s described as a juggernaut? Where do you see hope?

JJ: The hope I see is what’s always worked for America, which are these interracial movements of working people going back to Reconstruction, to the New Deal, and the post-war organizing efforts of the labor unions to the Civil Rights Movement. And see that, for instance in the second book that I’ve just published with a co-author, I write about Republic Windows and Doors, which is the Chicago factory where the workers basically had a sort of old-school sit down strike after they were laid off without receiving back pay and benefits that they were owed by law. The amazing thing about what happened there is that it was 250-some odd workers at that plant. About 200 were Mexican immigrants, most of them newer immigrants—in other words they’ve just come over in the last 10 or 12 years, and 50 or so black employees. And that’s where the energy comes from, it’s this again, this kind of interracial campaign by working people. And as much as globalization isolates people, these are people coming together—they’re divided by language and culture, but they have the same goal. So I see some hope; it’s at a grassroots level, there are pockets of it. I don’t know if it’s going to take off, and to be honest, and to be fair, I’m not even sure if government at this point—because it’s been so poisoned by corporate cash—I’m not even sure that government is at this point responsive enough to working people where we can see those kind of organizing movements in and of themselves have a real impact for the economy. But if I have any hope, that’s it.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Jon Jeter. The book is called Flat Broke in the Free Market: How Globalization Fleeced Working People—it’s out now.

Thank you very much for joining us today on CounterSpin.

JJ: Thank you for having me.


Alexander Zaitchik

—Jon Jeter: Flat Broke in the Free Market