Glenn Beck’s Online Bunker

From 2009 to 2011, Glenn Beck’s show on Fox, Glenn Beck, was the third most popular program on cable news, averaging over 2.2 million viewers a night.

During his time at Fox, Beck received intense media scrutiny. Some of Beck’s more controversial claims include calling Hurricane Irene a “blessing from God,” declaring that Obama has a “deep-seated hatred for white people,” and telling the families of 9/11 victims to “shut up” because “they’re always complaining.” Beck’s remarks led almost 300 advertisers to boycott Fox, prompting the network to cut Beck last June.

Since leaving Fox, Beck has built his own multimedia empire. A central component of Beck’s new enterprise is an online broadcasting platform, GBTV. With a $9.95 monthly fee, subscribers can view three daily programs: Beck’s three-hour talk show, a reality show that traces a family’s life “off the grid,” and a children’s news and history program.

This March, the Wall Street Journal offered the first account of GBTV’s success since the platform launched five months ago. According to the Journal, GBTV already has 300,000 subscribers, and by the end of the year the new network will generate at least $40 million in revenue. By cutting out the middleman and erecting a large pay wall, Beck is making far more money now than he was with Fox on a fixed $2.5 million salary.

On his online talk show, Beck opines on current news events though an extreme right-wing lens, often distorting facts to fit his beliefs. On his program this Monday, for example, he declared that Al Jazeera is funded by Yemen and that people who believe in global warming also think the earth is flat. At one point on the Monday program, he interrupted his news analysis to declare, “If I’m right, and you stand up and you fight, and you really know it, and you won’t sit down because you know it, you are a threat, and you, in the end, will be red flagged. You will be at best ostracized, and at worst, rounded up and liquidated, as the communists like to call it.” He makes Fox News look balanced and moderate.

The program creates the image that Glenn Beck is living in a bunker. Beck wears a polo shirt and jeans, and he broadcasts from a windowless living room. The advertisements on the program tout the benefits of gold, emergency food supplies, home power generators, handguns, and other necessities to prepare for Armageddon.

An advertisement for Survival Seed Vaults on GBTV.

But GBTV is itself a bunker. It is an independent platform that insulates itself from the requirements of mainstream broadcasting, like accurate reporting and avoidance of incendiary rants that cause advertisers to flee. While the show also airs on broadcast radio, GBTV protects Beck from accountability by generating a large stream of revenue independent of paid advertising.

News organizations from CNN to Fox have lost interest in Beck because he competes in a separate market. He remains inaccessible to those who do not pay to subscribe, and many assume his departure from Fox means he is irrelevant and discredited. But the large number of GBTV subscribers suggests Beck’s program deserves closer scrutiny.

Online platforms that erect pay walls could prove to be a lucrative refuge for other celebrity personalities that have been shunned by mainstream advertisers. Since Rush Limbaugh called Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” on national radio this February, over 100 advertisers fled from his radio show. If the show founders, Limbaugh could follow Beck’s lead and transition to the world of unsupervised pay wall broadcasting. Limbaugh could be free to call Fluke whatever he likes whenever he feels like saying it. As figures like Glenn Beck move to new platforms, mainstream media needs to continue to track them and hold them responsible for their remarks. Refusing to engage these popular demagogues risks a caustic polarization of America that could preclude the possibility of productive and balanced political dialogue.

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5 Responses to Glenn Beck’s Online Bunker

  1. Anna says:

    Raquel and Sam, you bring up a great point. In response, my argument isn’t that people should be prohibited from expressing their opinions (unless, of course, those opinions are defamatory), but rather, that celebrities with a such a large following need to have their ideas scrutinized closely and be held accountable. Beck’s online platform makes this very difficult to do.
    Our country will become more fragmented if the only people who know about Beck’s ideas are his biggest fans. Cass Sunstein discusses at length in 2.0 that successful democracies require some sort of shared experience and common understanding. Shows like GBTV remove this shared understanding by promoting radical ideas, and often misinformation, to a large audience while being insulated from scrutiny.

  2. Dilan says:

    My biggest issue is does this mean there are no restrictions on slander? If networks like GBTV has amass followings that consider them sources of information (unfortunately this is not an impossible reality), then biased and potentially hateful information has the capacity to take hold with audiences. That just doesn’t seem right that as long as people are paying for it, they could literally say anything they want whether it be a truth or a lie.

  3. Sam says:

    Anna great post. I agree with Raquel, I don’t have much of a problem with Beck moving outside of the mainstream because it does serve as a reminder of his fringe views. That being said, I do believe he should be able to say what he wants and in response to Dilan’s sanction idea I believe that could be a very slippery slope. Who decides what is decent? Where do we draw the line? For better or worse, free speech is a base upon which democracy is built on and stripping it (even from the lunatics like Beck) is a dangerous path to start down. I think many people would say for the sake of democracy and like Anna said, for “balanced political dialogue” we need to continue to track Beck’s content. I say, for the sake of democracy, let him say what he wants and people can decide for themselves… Nobody said it was perfect but that is after all what democracy is all about.

  4. Raquel Guarino says:

    For all purposes, I really don’t have a problem with him staying in the fringes like this. By being pushed out of mainstream media, he’s already been acknowledged as an extremist bigot. The majority of people don’t really take him seriously in the first place, and the people that do take him seriously are probably staunch extremists as well. Unfortunately, there will always be people like Glenn Beck in society: controversy sells. Insults sell (take American Idol… it would have been nothing without Simon Cowell’s below-the-belt wisecracks at auditioners; it made things interesting).

    In addition, the people paying to see him are paying for the specific purpose of hearing his opinion. As much as I agree with the sentiment of being critical of what these types of figures have to say, I hesitate to agree completely. A part of me just hopes he continues to further isolate himself in his bunker-corner of the media network and stay there just so I don’t have to listen to it.

  5. Dilan says:

    The Beck transition to his own station reminds me of Howard Stern’s transition to Sirius radio to avoid censorship. Stern left because he felt main stream media left him “dead inside” creatively and the move to subscription radio allowed him to broadcast whatever (often crude/controversial) material he desired–much like Beck.

    However, should the liberation of this new subscription media allow creative freedom to escape the jurisdiction of decency? The idea that Limbaugh could call Fluke inappropriate names with an ostensibly lower fear of the public retribution he recently experienced just because people are paying to listen to him doesn’t seem write.

    Though the subscription media platform certainly has its creative benefits (and no/fewer commercials), some level of accountability is still necessary. Perhaps a financial sanction might be an option: The cruder the material, the more expensive? It is difficult to ascertain exactly what would be the best option to pursue is, but it is certainly an area that is worth exploring as paid media like GBTV expands.

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