Glenn Beck as a Problem for the First Amendment, in the Process of Being Solved

becksnewbookGlenn 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…


  1. A thought — the boycott worked because we no longer saw this type of speech as presented on TV as free speech, but as a commodity that we can perform appropriate actions against. For example, Glenn Beck is allowed to spew… er… speak whatever he wants (barring shouting fire in a theatre). However, freedom of speech does not mean that a network has to carry his words, or a publisher has to publish his works. When Fox gave him a show, they commercialized his speech into an entertainment commodity, which we can buy, ignore, sell, or protest against, as with any other product.

    When speech is commercialized to sell a product or as an entertainment value (of whatever type), it is no longer free speech. In this way, both the First Amendment and the free markets work together.

    Just a thought…

    1. I think it’s simpler than that. Free speech is a right. Beck has a right to say (pretty much) whatever he wants, but he does not have the guaranteed right to say it on a nationally televised show. As with much of the Constitution, the guarantee of free speech protects against the actions of the state and really isn’t about private actors.

      1. Oh, yes, much better put! I’ve been arguing for too long with folks that need the argument broken down into understandable (to them) chunks ;)

  2. I like your analysis, though, Erika — I don’t think commercialized speech is un-free, but it’s definitely burdened. That doesn’t have legal consequence, but it’s a sad sign of the times.

    1. Just doing some free-association analysis (pardon the space ;) Glenn (he’s such an easy example!) is burdened by the private contract between himself and Fox. Glenn is also burdened by the boundaries of what can be defined as libel and slander (do those boundaries exist if the targeted party does not take action?). Glenn is also burdened with FCC regulations (heaven forbid Glenn flash a breast on TV!)

      Fox is burdened by the free market agreements between their advertisers/funders, and also with whatever private contract they have with Glenn. Fox is also burdened with FCC regulations.

      The consumer burden is nil. We can ignore Glenn and Fox (their advertising agreements have no hold on us). We can protest Glenn (even though the protest may be broadcast as news, for action we are burdened by finding a forum for those protests). We can support Glenn by watching him (and purchasing from those advertisers). We can even insert ourselves into the entire commercialized speech process by informing the advertisers of what their customers (us) want and don’t want. We can’t force the advertisers to do as we will, but only a foolish business or a monopoly will ignore the customers that purchase their products and provide their business.

      So legal consequence for Glenn is limited to his private contract with Fox, and libel and/or slander (and any FCC regulations that he runs up against). Legal consequence for Fox is FCC regulations, their private contract with Glenn, and any contracts with their advertisers/funders. Legal consequence for the consumer is nil.

      Does this cover the basic burdens and freedom of commercialized speech? Suddenly I’m feeling much more powerful…

  3. […] by dropping his show. At which point, I am sure, he will get a sweet contract from XM Radio. ACG at Submitted to a Candid World: All of this is to say that, although it didn’t at first, the modern First Amendment protects a […]

  4. Glenn Beck is not a ‘problem’ for the First Amendment, he is loudly demonstrating that it exists and will continue to exist in spite of ‘boycotts’. The problem is with those who employ the selective monitoring of opinion, and liberal strong-arm tactics intended to silence those who dissent.

  5. Oooh so close! I agree beck proves that the constitution gracefully tolerates blowhards. But it emphatically also tolerates, indeed encourages, reasoned folk to push back. Did you read the while thing? I had some dude on Twitter argue with me only to admit he hadn’t read it. Fail.

  6. Media centralization, careful marketing, and fear have together created a monster immune to “good speech.”


    Read this, too. Sounds like Obama can get away with what Beck is demonized for. Like I said…

    1. He’s a partisan agitator, feeding on the fears of some conservatives, who makes unfounded statements which other people then take to be true.

      That being said, I don’t know if I care about him being on the air, but I do think he’s horrible for discourse in this country.

  7. True: Obama isn’t wantonly making junk up and calling people Nazis.

    True: Obama is the President of the United States, of late a professor of Constitutional law.

    True: Glenn Beck is a recovering alcoholic who thinks his pocket Constitution makes him capable of calling things “unconstitutional” when they piss him off. Apparently Beck hasn’t gotten to the Commerce Clause part of the document, yet.

    True: the health care bill is a complex statutory scheme that can’t be readily summed up in talking points, but should probably be read, as near as possible to in full. 1000 pages isn’t really that much when it’s a statute.

    False: the health care bill provides for “death panels” and euthanasia.

    False: the health care bill will “ration” care.

    False: Ezekiel Emmanuel, the ARCHITECT OF THE HEALTH CARE BILL ZOMG, believes care should be rationed so as to kill unproductive members of society.

    False: a parallel public system suffices to create socialism.

    False: progressivism is the same thing as socialism.

  8. No good comes from trying to argue Obama talking points; the Obama who is President of the United States but has never felt the need to show respect for those who have held the office before him; who was a LECTURER, not a professor; who also believes that only like minds should be allowed to speak and be heard.

    1. If by “like minds” you mean “thoughtful minds” you may be correct.

    2. You just don’t like what he’s doing. It has nothing to do with not listening to others, or not respecting the office.

      I personally believe the suspension of habeas corpus, the DoD marking protesters as terrorists, removing wiretapping oversight, condoning torture, removing people from office for political reasons (which also is not letting those without like minds be heard), all these things are a stain on our country and have no respect for those before Bush. And I’ll agree that Obama hasn’t done enough since then about those issues, but I don’t think you’re even referencing those things or anything tangible except…you don’t like what he’s doing.

      I haven’t heard anything ACG mentioned by Obama, except the parts of like, the death panels being dumb and nothing similar mentioned in the bill. WOuld be great if you could at least address a couple instead of completely side stepping. I don’t think the obama administration can do a talking point for the life of them. But they also don’t have official representatives pretending to be non-affiliated citizens on Fox.

  9. Like minds, as in sharing one.

    1. The government/Obama is not censoring Glenn Beck. His sponsors, through their own free, will are withdrawing sponsorship. They are doing this because their customers will, through their own free will, not purchase their products if they sponsor his show. Fox will, through their own free will, drop him because he is unprofitable. No intervention, no restriction of free speech, it is the consequence of everyone’s actions. How is this different from the American Family Association’s (ineffective) Ford and Walt Disney boycotts?

  10. Obama and the White House dictate to core community organizations the direction that will be taken, whether it’s the boycott du jour or canvassing for his latest agenda. His websites organize the various events that can be utilized for his purposes. Luckily for Obama, those who support him have yet to realize that now that he is elected, he works for them, not vice-versa. Another telling point about Obama is his use of his own personal logo, rather than the American flag.

    1. Really? Last time I looked an American flag was flying over the White House.

      Seriously, though both sides of politics have grass roots organizations which do work to assist them. The only difference between Obama and any other president in history is the level of hysterical paranoia that surrounds him, being fueled by unhinged nutters. And even that is sadly enough is not unprecedented.

  11. Obama’s Pepsi-like icon is his identifier on his websites, not the American flag.

    And actually, the only difference between Obama and any other president in history is the level of outrage that is evoked whenever anyone dares to oppose his policies or his apparent lack of leadership. All other presidents endured stiff opposition from the other side of the aisle; they dealt with it, knowing it comes with the territory. Obama points, blames and fires up his followers by organizing ‘events’. Better he should stop the campaigning and try his hand at leadership.

    1. “[T]he only difference between Obama and any other president in history is the level of outrage that is evoked whenever anyone dares to oppose his policies or his apparent lack of leadership.”

      Swap Obama for Bush and you will know how a lot of other Americans felt from 2001-2008. Face it, your only opposition to him really steams from the fact the party you support, either directly or as an “independent” but still vote that way, lost and you are bitter about it. In less than 18 months you will have the chance vote again.

      If I recall correctly the actual discussion was about Glen Beck and sponsors pulling out of his show. Just like the election if enough people go against you on this one, you don’t get your way either. Life is tough.

  12. Bitter. Lost. Hmm. Who has spoken those words before, time and again? Oh, right, Obama.

    As to the actual discussion, it concerns Glenn Beck’s comments about Obama. And for the moment at least, Beck’s ratings have surpassed all other cable news shows. So unless, or until, this administration continues to organize against dissent (with your help of course), or passes legislation that leads to state-run television, all voices will be heard.

    1. “…Beck’s ratings have surpassed all other cable news shows.”

      I believe the appropriate phrase here is “big fish in a small pond”. Even his 3 million viewers are less than 1% of the US population.

  13. To use your analogy, then it could be said that Obama only received votes from 23% of the US population.

    1. Sure. Which is still 23 times as many people as watch Glenn Beck even on his best nights.

  14. Ever notice that no one ever rises to Obama’s defense without the need to make a comparison to someone else; McCain, Bush, Palin, Beck, Lincoln, the Kennedys, Roosevelt, Reagan, MLK, Carter….. Obama appears to be unable to stand alone on his merits.

    1. No, I haven’t.

      And that’s quite rich considering one of your first comments in this thread was “Sounds like Obama can get away with what Beck is demonized for.” Hmm.

    2. This, my friend, is because the law and politics is based on precedents. If your knowledge of either extended beyond yelling “it’s unconstitutional”, without having the slightest idea what is actually written in the constitution, you would already understand that.

  15. If you haven’t noticed then you haven’t been paying attention. And your second statement shows you didn’t understand what was even said.

    1. Or that you don’t have anything substantial to say and list only vague opinions.

      Just because Lanfranc doesn’t agree with you, does not mean he isn’t paying attention. You didn’t even list anything to really disagree with but a random assertion with no tangible example or backing.

    2. I’m sorry, mate, I really have my hands full just keeping up with events on this planet. Never have time for the interplanetary stuff, I’m afraid.

  16. Perhaps Beck would be a greater testament to the power of the First Amendment when he decides to forego all profit and speak from the soap box rather than from the newsroom. Is loss of sponsorship the greatest impediment to your idea of freedom of speech?

    1. I have no idea how any of this is actually related to the first amendment at all. The constitution only applies to the government (both federal and under select circumstances states). This is entirely a private matter, it is a business decision being made by legal entities known as companies. The government is not involved and, by the court rulings relating to the first amendment, cannot involve itself.

      1. Well, that’s obvious: The boycott is clearly happening at the explicit command of President Obama, who of course has direct control over the hearts and minds of his followers, and who fears nothing more than a crazy circus clown on a cable network. :nods:

        Speaking of circus clowns, I wonder how many of Beck’s much vaunted millions of viewers only watch him for the amusement value. 50%, maybe?

        1. Ianframe, I think you underestimate Beck’s audience. I come from a rather conservative family in a very red state, and everybody I know who watches/listens to Beck take him deadly seriously. Like our friendly troll RIChris they’re suckered by his loose associations hinting at some kind of broad conspiracy in which the President, ACORN, the DNC, and whoever the hell Beck doesn’t like on a given day, are actively working to create a totalitarian America. Of course it’s entirely an emotional argument, essentially “look at this policy I disagree with; imagine what they’ll do NEXT…” Nevermind that he brazenly distorts the policy to begin with (Obama kills grandma! ACORN as SS! Unrestrained czars!), once you’ve got the emotional hook it’s easy to supply half-baked facts to support it. Of course, like a good conspiracy theorist, anybody who stands up to or debunks him is part of the conspiracy, thus providing a ready-made reply to liberal rebuttals or unbiased fact-checks. Of course, when you actually do pin Beck down on a particular falsehood, there’s the fallback position (favored by my dad) that he’s “just an entertainer” anyway. Why, he’s like John Stewart! Fine, then put him on Comedy Central, not a news channel. Lazier and/or less intelligent Beckophiles don’t care about facts anyway. They’re content with darkly vague assertions like “If you haven’t noticed then you haven’t been paying attention,” thus freeing them from the burden of defending his opinions at all. Beck plays to this audience by introducing and ending most segments with a dire warning on the imminent death of freedom, the rise of socialism or fascism, or some lamentation on how awful America’s gotten. Occasionally he’ll offer an impassioned, patriotic defense of “true” American values as a counterpoint to the wicked liberalism around him. He’s a natural propagandist and a brilliant one. It’s just sad that so many people swallow his garbage so uncritically. Personally I’m not optimistic that the advertiser boycotts will last, but I certainly hope so.

  17. 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.

    At least 30 newspaper editors were jailed. Check out American Aurora.

  18. […] or our hypothetical Beck equivalent, as I’ve argued before, has “checkmated the First Amendment.” Now more than ever, his survival as a television force proves that the short-term marketplace […]

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