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Beck seeks to rally disaffected, aggrieved Americans

By Brian Stelter and Bill Carter

New York Times News Service

Published: Monday, March 30 2009 12:07 a.m. MDT

NEW YORK — "You are not alone," Glenn Beck likes to say. For the disaffected and aggrieved Americans of the Obama era, he couldn't have picked a better rallying cry.

Beck, an evening host on the Fox News Channel, is suddenly one of the most powerful media voices for the nation's conservative populist anger. Barely two months into his job at Fox, his program is a phenomenon: It typically draws about 2.2 million viewers, more than any other cable news host except Bill O'Reilly or Sean Hannity, despite being on at 5 p.m., a slow shift for cable news.

With a mix of moral lessons, outrage and an apocalyptic view of the future, Beck, a longtime radio host who jumped to Fox from CNN's Headline News channel this year, is channeling the feelings of an alienated class of Americans.

In an interview, Beck, who recently re-watched the 1976 film "Network," said he identified with the character of Howard Beale, the unhinged TV news anchorman who declares on the air that he was "mad as hell."

"I think that's the way people feel," Beck said. "That's the way I feel."

In part because of Beck, Fox News — long identified as the favored channel for conservatives and Republican leaders — is enjoying a resurgence just two months into President Barack Obama's term. While top-rated among cable news channels, Fox's ratings slipped during the long Democratic primary season last year. Now it is back on firm footing as the presumptive network of the opposition, with more than 1.3 million viewers watching at any given time, more than twice as many as CNN or MSNBC.

While O'Reilly, the 8 p.m. host, paints himself as the outsider and Hannity, the 9 p.m. host, is more consistently ideological, Beck presents himself more as a revivalist in a troubled land.

He preaches against politicians, features regular segments titled "Constitution Under Attack" and "Economic Apocalypse," and occasionally breaks into tears.

"That's good, dramatic television," said Phil Griffin, the president of a Fox competitor, MSNBC. "That's who Glenn Beck is."

Beck says he believes every word he says on his TV show and the radio show that he still does from 9 a.m. to noon each weekday. He said that America is "on the road to socialism" and says that "God and religion are under attack in the U.S." (Beck is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and for the third year in a row, he will emcee Provo's Stadium of Fire Fourth of July celebration.)

At the same time, though, he says he is an entertainer. "I'm a rodeo clown," he said repeatedly, adding once with a coy smile, "It takes great skill."

And like a rodeo clown, Beck incites critics to attack by dancing in front of them.

"There are absolutely historical precedents for what is happening with Beck," said Tom Rosenstiel, the director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "There was a lot of radio evangelism during the Depression. People were frustrated and frightened. There are a lot of scary parallels now."

The conservative writer David Frum said Beck's success "is a product of the collapse of conservatism as an organized political force, and the rise of conservatism as an alienated cultural sensibility."

"It's a show for people who feel they belong to an embattled minority that is disenfranchised and cut off," he said.

Sitting in his corner office overlooking Avenue of the Americas in Manhattan, Beck rejected such charges but acknowledged that some people see sinister meanings in his commentaries. He said the people "who are spreading the garbage that I'm stirring up a revolution haven't watched the show."

To answer his critics, Beck delivered a 17-minute commentary — remarkably long by cable standards — on March 23, answering criticisms, including one from Bill Maher that he was producing "the same kind of talking" that led Timothy McVeigh to blow up the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995.

"Let me be clear," Beck said. "If someone tries to harm another person in the name of the Constitution or the 'truth' behind 9/11 or anything else, they are just as dangerous and crazy as those we don't seem to recognize anymore, who kill in the name of Allah."

When it was suggested in an interview that he sometimes sounds like a preacher, he responded, "No. You've never met a more flawed guy than me."

He added later: "I say on the air all time, 'If you take what I say as gospel, you're an idiot.' "

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