So, the number of corporate sponsors that have pulled their advertising dollars from The Glenn Beck Program grew to 20 on Tuesday. Walmart, Best Buy and Travelocity joined the list of companies that, depending on your point of view, should be classified as either responsible corporate citizens or easily bullied cowards.
The statements of the corporations themselves tend to confirm the second option. But first the background:
Glenn Beck is a conservative commentator whose television show airs at 5 p.m. daily Eastern Time on the Fox News Channel, where it attracts an enormous (for cable, at that hour) audience of some 2.3 million souls. His audience has exploded this year, apparently riding a tide of conservative resentment over the poor economy, the supposedly liberal media, and Democratic Party control in Washington.
"You are not alone," Beck tells his viewers. Millions of people like to hear such assurances, even when coming from a polished performer whose histrionics are obvious. Beck doesn't mind crying on the air. His soliloquies range in tone from rants to raves, often spiced with a dash of paranoia. Recent Beck-isms include a claim that the U.S. Mercury dime has a secret fascist symbol on it,
that FEMA was secretly setting up concentration camps ( Beck actually went out of his way to disprove this rumor. Thanks to Bob, Carol, Virginia and many others for pointing this out), that global warming is fiction, and that a single-payer health care system is the first step to a society being forced to "goose-step."
Earlier this year, Beck compared himself in an interview with The New York Times to Howard Beale, the unglued anchorman in the 1976 classic movie, "Network." Beale was famous for saying that he was "mad as hell" and wasn't going to take it anymore. But Beck's persona has a quite un-mad aspect to it. As it happens, driving progressive Democrats cuckoo is quite profitable – and fairly easy to do these days. In that same interview with The Times, Beck volunteered that he is like a "rodeo clown," dancing in front of the (liberal) bulls and broncos for the audience's entertainment.
His Web site advertises Beck as The Fusion of Entertainment and Enlightenment. Human Lightning Rod is more like it. But all of his past comments put together do not equal the furor Beck ignited on July 28, when he accused President Obama of being "a racist." Here is how it went down: Beck and his guest panelists were discussing the controversial arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. – and Obama's ill-fated comments regarding said arrest. That's when Beck began channeling his inner rodeo clown.
Beck: "This president, I think, has exposed himself as a guy, over and over and over again, who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture, I don't know what it is . . ."
At that point, Fox News's Brian Kilmeade interjects, pointing out that many of Obama's closest White House advisers are white (he doesn't mention Obama's own mother). "You can't say he doesn't like white people . . ."
Unfazed, Beck replies: "I'm not saying he doesn't like white people. I'm saying he has a problem. This guy is, I believe, a racist."
To a group called ColorofChange.org, this wasn't entertainment, it was hate speech. ColorofChange.org is an online membership organization that exists, according to its mission statement, "to strengthen Black America's political voice."
The group was founded by Van Jones, who left in 2007 for another activist organization, Green for All, and who now works in the Obama administration as a top adviser on "green" jobs at the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Jones' replacement at ColorofChange.org is James Rucker, and he quickly concluded after the Obama-is-a-racist comment that Glenn Beck is an impediment to his organization's objectives and should be removed from the airwaves. His weapon of choice: An e-mail campaign by ColorofChange.org members to advertising agencies and corporate sponsors that advertise on Fox News during the daily Beck hour.
Beck's commentary, Rucker declared, was "repulsive, divisive, and shouldn't be on the air." His effort has met with surprising success. The list of companies that agreed includes Geico, CVS, Men's Wearhouse, Radio Shack, Procter & Gamble, and State Farm Insurance. This is a little strange, even granting Rucker's description of Beck's language being "repulsive" and "divisive." Heck, let's add "witless" and "obviously inaccurate" to the litany. But the phrase "shouldn't be on the air," well now, that is really raising the stakes to the point that we are playing a different kind of game here. So let's also call this burgeoning secondary boycott for what it is: attempted censorship.
"We are heartened to see so many corporate citizens step up in support of our campaign against Glenn Beck," said Rucker, executive director of ColorOfChange.org. "Their action sends a clear a message to Glenn Beck: Broadcasters shouldn't abuse the privilege they enjoy by spewing dangerous and racially charged hate language over the air. No matter their political affiliation, hate language doesn't belong in our national dialogue."
Leaving aside the dated notion that free expression over the airwaves is a "privilege," the problem here is that the outrage against playing the race card in politics is selective. Is it not also repulsive and divisive when Keith Olbermann invites an angry actress named Janeane Garafalo on his show to dismiss conservative protestors as "a bunch of racists?" As Olbermann mumbles audible sounds of encouragement, Garafalo adds: "Let's be very honest about what this is about . . .This is about hating a black man in the White House. This is racism straight up. This is nothing but a bunch of tea-bagging rednecks."
If you don't remember ColorofChange.org's boycott against Olbermann and NBC, that's because it never happened. Good thing, too, because you can bet some of these cringing companies would have been susceptible to that as well.
"We have instructed our advertising agency to inform Fox to ensure Glenn Beck's program is not part of our advertising plan," Carolyn Castel, a vice president for corporate communications at CVS, one of the 20 Beck boycotters, said in an e-mail to ColorofChange.org. "Our position is simple. We support vigorous debate, especially around policy issues that affect millions of Americans, but we expect it to be informed, inclusive and respectful, in keeping with our company's core values and commitment to diversity."
Really? By that logic, CVS wouldn't be able to advertise on most of the shows on cable television. (Rite Aid, I sense an opening!) But seriously, since when did it become some corporate suit's prerogative to make sure that political discourse on talk shows is politically correct? Are we heading into an era of "red" corporations and "blue" corporations? Travelocity for Democrats and Orbitz for Republicans? (Would James Carville and Mary Matalin even end up on the same flights?)
Many moons ago, I covered a Senate race in which a black North Carolina Democrat named Harvey Gantt tried to unseat Jesse Helms, a white Republican with a deeply conservative record – and one not terribly enlightened on race. Some of the state's Democrats privately urged home state basketball star Michael Jordan to endorse Gantt and maybe even make a television spot. The great symbol of Nike shoes declined, and in doing so, sent word to the Gantt emissaries to the effect that "Republicans buy shoes, too."
At the time, I found Jordan's self-imposed neutrality to be crass. I may have misjudged the man. In his view that corporate profits and politics don't mix, Jordan seems to have been was ahead of his time. Finally, let's contemplate for a moment the likely effects of this Glenn Beck boycott:
(1) More attention, and thus, possibly more viewers for Glenn Beck.
(2) A sympathy backlash (like this column) from people who normally wouldn't dream of defending Glenn Beck, but who will almost always defend free speech.
(3) A backlash boycott against Olbermann, or whomever, on the part of angered conservatives.
(4) The spreading perception that some liberals are often willing to employ tactics that are quite illiberal when it comes to those with whom they disagree.
(5) More opportunity on Beck's show for him to spew goofy opinions, precisely because the advertisers have fled, leaving him with more time to fill.