The Worst Obsession in the World

Susan J. Douglas

Glenn Beck is the anti-Christ. Sarah Palin is an idiot; yet she is also more dangerous than Hitler, or even George W. Bush. Bill O’Reilly is, day in and day out, the worst person in the world.”

Whether Palin’s utterances are factual or Beck is crazy are moot points. Rather than make fun of them, we should try to understand their appeal.

Welcome to Countdown with Keith Olbermann, one of the few liberal precincts on television. The show became a refuge for many during the Bush years, especially when Olbermann delivered his passionate on-air editorials about the Bush administration’s serial violation of the Constitution and morality on so many fronts. But has the show lost its way? And is Olbermann’s obsession with Bill-O the clown,” Beck, Limbaugh and Palin a necessary and important monitoring of what’s going on in the right-wing media? Or is it an echo-chamber that inflates its importance and influence beyond Fox News’ 1.5 to 2 million viewers?

To its credit, Countdown typically offers much more detailed coverage and commentary on the healthcare debate in Congress, and other pressing issues, than one can get on the network news or CNN. And the show has publicized and helped support the opening of temporary free clinics in places like Arkansas so people who haven’t seen a doctor in years can get checkups and medical attention. 

But the show’s relentless, strident and snarky attacks on Fox et al. are becoming tiresome. Each show is incessantly punctuated with multiple teasers before each commercial break for upcoming stories only on Countdown” about the latest madness” of Glenn Beck and the lies” of Sarah Palin. And so we get a detailed account of Beck musing that because the façade of Rockefeller Center contains a sickle and a weed, the building houses subliminal symbols for either Communism or Fascism. There was an endless segment in the wake of Sarah Palin’s interview with Oprah, in which Olbermann fact-checked nearly everything Palin said on Oprah and provided file footage of her in the past saying the exact opposite. Do we care whether Palin said, in 2008, that her family voted in favor of her running for vice-president but on Oprah in 2009 she said they didn’t?

The following night, guest host Lawrence O’Donnell speculated repeatedly that Glenn Beck could be Palin’s running mate should she run in 2012 because she had said something complimentary about him in an interview. Of course, the prospect of a Palin-Beck ticket is red meat to the Countdown audience, but it is sheer conjecture­-and ridiculous 

Whether Palin’s utterances are factual or Beck is crazy are moot points. Rather than make fun of them, which is not hard to do, progressives should try to understand their appeal. Palin has tapped into and speaks for a group of white, mostly small-town and rural Americans who feel aggrieved by elite America. But she also combines an emphatic femininity – the peep toe shoes, flowing hair, beauty contestant looks – with a buoyant defiance that adds an element of macho gutsiness to her performance.

Beck, while often hyper-emotional and prone to the preposterous, has taken that hoary teaching tool from yesteryear, the blackboard, to address his viewers as if they were part of an Elderhostel, eager to receive real facts. This has been a hugely successful ploy.

Palin, Beck, et al. are thus fascinating, infuriating and scary. But the number of their true believers remains small in the national scheme of things. For Countdown to devote so much valuable broadcasting real estate, not to mention emotional angst, to these far-right demagogues exaggerates their importance and makes them seem to represent many more Americans than they do. People may be flocking to Palin book signings in droves in targeted towns in the Midwest, but is it because they intend to vote for her or because she’s a charismatic celebrity? A recent ABC/Washington Post poll shows only 20 percent of Americans identifying themselves as Republicans; a CBS poll shows that only 23 percent have a favorable view of Palin; the ABC/Post poll found that 60 percent said she is not qualified to be president, and only 28 percent of those polled by CNN believe she is.

So, Dear Mr. Olbermann: Can you stop providing a megaphone for these turkeys? Beck and Palin have been successful in part because they have created an imagined community of followers whom they make feel much more powerful than they actually are. Might you, by shifting your coverage to less famous, unsung progressives and liberals around the country fighting for financial reform, climate-change legislation and the like, help make us feel as potent a force as we actually are? I, for one, would like to see more of the energy, ideas and actions on the left. 

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Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.

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