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Same But Different: Glenn Beck’s New Kind of Scary

old guard picGlenn Beck sure gives me the yips. But so have many others over my sixty-plus years in this profession. Some as columnists, like Hearst’s nasty Westbrook Pegler, or rumor-monger Walter Winchell; some as voices for the frustrated afflicted, self-defined or truly hurting; to mobilize and deploy political enmities, like Huey Long, George Wallace or Joe McCarthy.

But this guy is different. What troubles me the most about him is how he is slopping over into the new journalism. He implores his devotees to go out and dig up dirt on enemies of his current true beliefs — a new organizing principle for the swamp of citizen journalists, with himself in the new role of assignment editor for the curious, angry and fearful. For those who are troubled over the lack of judgment, filters, and discipline in the handling of the new spontaneous news flows, this careless call-out represents a new reach into chaos for the profession.

“At a time when the news business continues to rate very low on the scales of trust, how can confidence be regained by its use of demonstrably untrustworthy methods?”

Yet isn’t it part of the hope for the interactive new journalism, that we reach out more and more to the readers/viewers/listeners of the news, for their contributions to it and engagement with it? Many important stories have begun with tips from frustrated non-journalists — specialists, enthusiastic amateurs, vigilantes, outraged insiders. Now Beck is of a mind to turn a crowd of solo whistle-blowers, each subject to some careful evaluation, into a wild cacophony of loud-hailers, undiscernible. Which may, worryingly, embolden the news business to use this method as a new way to prove its value.

It certainly got results with ACORN — the blast from Beck touched off by the reporting of non-journalists got action from Congress, which had been desultory in its inquiries into the charges against it. And what do you think would have happened if Harry Markapolis had blown his whistle through Glenn Beck, instead of huffing and puffing to the SEC about Bernard Madoff? That could be good. But what happens when he megaphones a bad call? Who can clean up the mess? Not him, for sure.

Yes, editors and reporters have made bad calls and failed to report properly, but the system as a whole, through their peers and colleagues, calls them to account, and the record gets set straight. But a non-correcting hit-and-run system of aroused like-minded amateurs can’t get that job done.

Another main thing that bothers me about Beck is his revelation of the risk of using non-professionals to make his point. The two neophytes who blew up ACORN bit on a lie — the woman who confessed to murder — even as they brought out truth in the advice they got in how to set up a whorehouse for underaged illegal aliens. Sting operations have been vital to the start of many an important story, up to and including members of Congress; but the Glenn Beck exposés are downright scary in their demonstration of the risks they pose in the hands of zealous non-professionals.

At a time when the news business continues to rate very low on the scales of trust, how can confidence be regained by its use of demonstrably untrustworthy methods? Sure, a juicy scandal fully reported will win plaudits from the winners; but a blown case will rightly confirm the doubters. And over time, the engagement in journalism of a slob job like Beck will do nothing to advance the appreciation of high standards and professionalism in presenting the issues for public deliberation — as the news business strains for ways to advance within its charter for public responsibility, in its kaleidoscopic new world, and will assuredly set it back a lot.

Bill Rappleye has spent the last 60-plus years in journalism and writes the Old Guard column for Mediaite. Read more about him here.

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