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September 2, 2014

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The penance of Glenn Beck

Last week Glenn Beck said something I agree with. (Now, there’s a line I never thought I’d write.) During an interview Tuesday with Megyn Kelly of Fox News, Beck reflected on his time at Fox this way:

“I remember it as an awful lot of fun, and that I made an awful lot of mistakes, and I wish I could go back and be more uniting in my language. Because I think I played a role unfortunately in helping tear the country apart. And it’s not who we are. I didn’t realize how really fragile the people were. I thought we were kind of a little more in it together. And now I look back and I realize if we could have talked about the uniting principles a little more, instead of just the problems, I think I would look back on it a little more fondly. But that’s only my role.”

That’s not exactly a Damascus Road conversion, but it is a meaningful confession.

And I applaud Beck for his candid assessment. That doesn’t undo the damage — Beck’s list of sins is long, and some of those sins are beyond absolution — but admitting a mistake is always an admirable act.

I hope Beck’s confession shines a light on the underbelly of punditry.

Many media personalities are far from noble. As in any field, there are those consumed by ambition and possessed of dubious ethical bearings.

And in an arena where influence is measured by ratings, views and followers, the pressure to increase those metrics can get the better even of men and women with weather vane convictions.

It simply becomes an issue of wealth and power, two of the oldest corrupters in the human experience. Part of the job of opinion makers is to be provocative. One could express it this way: illuminate, elucidate and agitate.

But chasing provocation is a dangerous thing. It often leads you farther out on a limb than is wise or safe. Columnists aren’t immune to this problem, either.

In his farewell column, my former colleague Frank Rich lamented the pressures of the pacing of column writing, saying, “That routine can push you to have stronger opinions than you actually have, or contrived opinions about subjects you may not care deeply about, or to run roughshod over nuance to reach an unambiguous conclusion.”

I agree with his assessment, and most of us try diligently to steer clear of the hazards.

But few columnists, least of all the masterly Rich, have ever or could ever come close to the willful recklessness exhibited by Beck.

Among Beck’s greatest hits was his assertion that President Barack Obama is a “racist” who has “a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.” This is the same Obama who was born to a white mother and raised in part by his white grandparents.

Beck also joked about wanting to kill Michael Moore, said he had started “hating the 9/11 victims’ families” and called some victims of Hurricane Katrina “scumbags.”

Beck is in a class all his own.

He built a career out of trolling for attention. It was the media equivalent of twerking with a giant foam finger. There seemed to be nothing too outrageous or spurious. And it worked for him.

The problem is that viewers and readers don’t always know that they’re being hustled.

Beck and his colleagues at Fox did their viewers and the country a tremendous disservice, not only riling folks up but outrightly misinforming them.

In 2012, the year after Beck left his Fox show (which at the time was one of the highest-rated shows in all of cable news), a Fairleigh Dickinson PublicMind poll found that people who watched or listened to no news were better informed than those who watched Fox. According to the report, “The largest effect” of a news source “is that of Fox News: all else being equal, someone who watched only Fox News would be expected to answer just 1.04 domestic questions correctly — a figure which is significantly worse than if they had reported watching no media at all.”

(It should be noted that watching MSNBC also had a “negative impact on people’s current events knowledge,” according to the poll, although it was not as large as the effect of watching Fox.) This study is not the only study that has pointed out that misinformation is consumed by Fox News viewers.

Beck practiced a particular brand of dangerous “info-tainment” that reduced complexity and facts to a smelly chum of hyperbole and invectives that did immeasurable damage. Let’s hope he and his fans understand that now.

Charles Blow is a columnist for The New York Times.

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