Glenn Beck is down 46 sponsors, still bleeding, and he knows it. In the judgment of industry insiders who’ve “seen it all before,” the clock is ticking. We should be so fortunate. When the axe ultimately drops, though — yes, I’m going to say “when” — the cacaphonous cries of “censorship” from the right shall surely deafen us all. Pre-emptively, then, an explanation of why getting Glenn Beck off the air is probably a good idea.
First, strange-but-true: the modern, ultra-strong First Amendment is a relatively new invention. Until the early 1900s, no-one really took the guarantee of free speech all that seriously. The founding generation banned seditious libel (speaking against the state, so as to “bring it into hatred or contempt”), even though they never enforced it. During World War I, with the full backing of the U.S. Supreme Court, we prosecuted communists for being communists, and citizens for opposing the draft. And, as recently as World War II, communists could be prosecuted for urging the overthrow of the government, even if it wasn’t really going to happen. All such restrictions are unthinkable today, utterly destroyed by Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444 (1969). Protections for speech likely to incite violence are similarly broad, etc., etc.
All of this is to say that, although it didn’t at first, the modern First Amendment protects a broad swath of activity, even some truly loathsome acts, such as Nazi marches, and cross burnings (under some circumstances). Because of its breadth, the modern First Amendment is a challenge to the American people, that we use our discretion wisely, and for the greater good. The First Amendment presupposes that the best way to get to “truth” and “wisdom” in social and political discourse, the ultimate values in a democracy, is to let the contenders fight it out in the “free marketplace of ideas”; the truth will rise to the top. Thus the Constitution trusts Americans to make intelligent choices; bad speech exists, yes, but it ought to be answered wisely by other citizens, rather than censored, altered, prosecuted, or in any way chilled.
Unfortunately, the system doesn’t always work. The First Amendment, as a system to maximize both truth and liberty, suffers in its efforts towards the former from the same shortcomings that plague mankind as a whole. Namely, intelligent, transcendent truths don’t always sell: they’re boring, and painstakingly difficult to come by. Falsities, on the other hand, are often comforting, sometimes sexy and inflammatory, but always capable of mass-production. Ditto trivialities, which don’t hurt the free marketplace of ideas, but don’t really help either. In an economic market dominated by profit motive only, Falsity will almost always have a leg-up on Truth. And, to make matters worse, when the means of communication are in the hands of only a few, effective corrective measures are hard to come by.
You probably get where I’m headed: the cable news networks, with their focus on the exciting and inflammatory rather than the useful or the important, suck. Glenn Beck embodies that trend, carried to its logical extreme. His shows — yes, I’ve watched or listened to both — play on emotion, to the detriment of logic, and inflame rather than educate. We hear why X or Y is a “communist” or “Nazi” scheme, but not why, what those terms mean, or why, absent hyperbole, we should be concerned about them. It’s political vaudeville or prop comedy, and the books are worse. Whole swaths of the internet are dedicated to disproving the dozens of lies Beck manufactures on a daily basis, but to no effect: with cable networks in the hands of few truly disinterested parties, Beck’s detractors, and the truth, stand no chance against such well-promoted, frequently-aired charisma. Media centralization, careful marketing, and fear have together created a monster immune to “good speech.” Beck’s popularity, predicated on our coarser emotions, and intelligent America’s inability to counter him, have checkmated the First Amendment.
Until now. As I noted, because of Beck’s overreach in calling the first black President a “racist” who “hates white people” (YouTube), he’s lost forty-six advertisers, at last count. When this trend ultimately drives him off the air, it will not be because of government action or power, but a result of the free capital markets reflecting the sensibilities of a free people, finally fed up with malicious, inflammatory, potentially dangerous lies. When Glenn Beck falls, it will be because the First Amendment works; not because it failed. Now, if only it worked faster…