Mad Man: Is Glenn Beck Bad for America?

Conservative media phenomenon Glenn Beck channels the fears and anger of Americans who feel left out — but does he also stir that anger and heighten those fears?

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Nicholas Roberts / The New York Times / Redux

Glenn Beck

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We tell ourselves a tale in America, and you can read it in Latin on the back of a buck: E pluribus unum. Many people from many lands, made one in a patriotic forge. And there's truth in that story--it conjures powerful pictures in the theater of our national mind. But it can also be misleading. Lots of Americans can't stand one another, don't trust each other and are willing--even eager--to believe the worst about one another. This story is as old as the gun used by Vice President Aaron Burr to kill his political rival Alexander Hamilton. And it's as new as the $1 million--plus in fresh campaign contributions heaped on Republican Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina after he hollered "You lie!" at the President during a joint session of Congress. Anger and suspicion ebb and flow through our history, from the anti-Catholic musings of the 19th century Know-Nothing Party to the truthers and birthers of today.

We're in a flood stage, and who's to blame? The answer is like the estimates of the size of the crowd in Washington: Whom do you trust? Either the corrupt, communist-loving traitors on the left are causing this, or it's the racist, greedy warmongers on the right, or maybe the dishonest, incompetent, conniving media, which refuse to tell the truth about whomever you personally happen to despise.

But we can all agree that--no matter where it comes from--rubbing the sore has become a lucrative business. The mutual contempt of the American extremes draws crowds and fattens wallets at bookstores, cable-news departments, AM radio stations and documentary film fests. Wilson's campaign kitty is just one example, and a fairly modest one at that. (His opponent, Democrat Rob Miller, also raked in $1 million in new donations thanks to the outburst.) Michael Moore makes far more than that with his capitalist-bashing movies. The new Senator from Minnesota, Al Franken, cashed in handsomely with his conservative-taunting books. Or check out Beck Inc. to see how loudmouthing can earn you a river of cash.

There are bigger one-voice enterprises in the world: Oprah, Rush, Dr. Phil. But few are more widely diversified. In June, estimators at Forbes magazine pegged Beck's earnings over the previous 12 months at $23 million, a ballpark figure confirmed by knowledgeable sources, and this year's revenues are on track to be higher. The largest share comes from his radio show, which is heard by more than 8 million listeners on nearly 400 stations--one of the five biggest radio audiences in the country. Beck is one of only a handful of blockbuster authors who have reached No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller lists with both nonfiction and fiction. (Among the others: John Grisham, Patricia Cornwell and William Styron. Unlike them, however, Beck gets a lot of help from his staff.) His latest book, Arguing with Idiots, will be published this month, and if things go as expected, it will be the third No. 1 with his name on the front published in the past 12 months. Taking a page from Stephen King--who once called Beck "Satan's mentally challenged younger brother"--Beck recently entered into a partnership with Simon & Schuster that pays him a share of profits rather than a traditional author's royalty, and he plans to create a range of books for every audience, from children to teens to adults.

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