Glenn Beck made a name for himself as a willful conservative agitator, but lately he’s been angling for mainstream legitimacy. Last month, the former Fox News host and aspiring media mogul launched an “I Want My MTV”-style campaign urging viewers to pester their cable companies into carrying TheBlaze (formerly GBTV), the Internet channel he founded following his supposedly voluntary 2011 departure from Rupert Murdoch’s powerhouse cable network -- which came after Beck's cantankerous commentary drove away numerous advertisers.
He’s already made some inroads, inking a deal with the satellite broadcaster Dish Network in September. But this week Beck is upping the ante, launching a new “60 Minutes”-esque newsmagazine show that he hopes will strengthen TheBlaze’s journalistic legitimacy and bolster its programming capital as he struggles to transform the start-up network into a bona fide competitor to Fox News. Maybe it’s a payback attempt: Beck was in all likelihood ousted from Fox because his incendiary views -- which included a proclamation that President Obama has a “deep-seated hatred of white people” -- were acting as a kind of advertiser repellent. But for whatever its impetus, TheBlaze’s newest stab at objective journalism from a conservative perspective underscores just how difficult such a prospect really is.
TheBlaze’s new program, “For the Record,” debuts on Wednesday and promises to be an “investigative news magazine with no political agenda and nothing to lose.” And while the first part of that characterization may be difficult to swallow, the “nothing to lose” bit is not far off. It’s no secret that conservative media is in the midst of a credibility crisis. Having enjoyed enormous prosperity from the imperceptive punditry pioneered by Rush Limbaugh and perfected by Fox News, the profitable ecosphere of right-wing media is beginning to crack at the seams. Fox is still No. 1 in cable news, but its ratings have faltered significantly since Obama’s reelection, in part because some diehard viewers felt duped by hosts such as Sean Hannity vigorously predicting a win for Mitt Romney even as the majority of polling data said otherwise.
And things have only gotten worse in the months since, with conservative journalists beating the same dead horses in lieu of shoe-leather truth-seeking. In some cases, such as the Benghazi investigation, real scandals reside amidst the firestorm of attacks against Democrats. More often than not, however, the extreme right-wing media is cooking up sensationalistic stories such as the Daily Caller’s would-be prostitution scandal involving Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., which has now turned into a 'he-said, she-said' shouting match with the Washington Post after the newspaper reported that one of the Daily Caller's presumed sources was paid to frame Menendez.
Judd Legum, editor and chief of the progressive political blog ThinkProgress, said that sound-the-alarm mentality has been the biggest nail in the coffin for conservative media’s hope for legitimacy. “I think the primary issue is the way they pay so much attention to rumors and unverified conspiracy theories,” he said. “Good reporting is based on verified sources. We get anonymous tips at ThinkProgress, but we try to verify them, even if that ratchets down the excitement level.”
It could be that conservatives, for all their adeptness in the world of punditry, are simply outclassed by liberal reporters’ talent for uncovering scandals -- and giving them traction. Consider the consequences of Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment, or even Mitt Romney’s infamous “47 percent” video. Indeed, liberals, with the meme-making mastery of social media on their side, can turn even a harmless sip of water into a potentially career-damaging blunder.
But progressives aren’t the only ones saying conservative media is broken. Erick Erickson, the star reporter behind RedState.com, touched on the issue last month in a surprisingly candid blog post in which he lamented right-wing journalists’ propensity for “anger and noise” over the basics of reporting.
“I think conservative media is failing to advance ideas and stories,” he wrote. “Certainly part of that is because the general media has an ideological bias against conservatives, which makes it harder for the media to take our views seriously. But many conservatives are, instead of working doubly hard to overcome that bias, just yelling louder about the same things.”
Whether or not the more introspective among conservatives can yell louder than those currently doing the yelling remains to be seen, but attempts at credibility aside, the right-wing echo chamber isn’t likely to turn down the volume so long as there are pockets to be lined.
“As a business model it still seems to work,” Legum added. “You can make a lot of noise and get a lot of attention. I don’t do Glenn Beck’s books, but I imagine he makes a lot of money. He has an audience. But people don’t take him seriously, and he probably wants them to."