Before I say anything negative about Glenn Beck, the erratic conservative Fox news commentator, let me give credit where it’s due: it is nothing short of remarkable that Beck manages to mobilize his viewers by standing in front of a black board and lecturing on the meaning of social justice and American political and economic history. After all, the American left has long ago abandoned those terms and much of those debates, concluding that it was a lost cause to rehash the accomplishments of the progressive era and the New Deal. So in a grudging way, I admire Beck’s audacity for sticking his hands into the murky mire of history and trying to connect big social ideas.
That he has it all wrong is besides the point. My real concern, and the question I would like to pose to others, is whether academics should be trying to constructively engage with Beck, or even Fox news.
Last week the American Political Science Association and the American Sociological Association sent letters to Beck and Fox news urging them to tone down their rhetoric, especially Beck’s ongoing rant against CUNY Professor Frances Fox Piven. Beck has repeatedly identified Piven as being part of a conspiracy to destabilize the American economy — a claim made on the basis of her writings in the 1960s calling for greater political organization among poor welfare recipients. Coming more than 30 years later, and after welfare reform, Beck’s claim feels a little bit like wagging the dog (but nevermind that).
My first reaction was why bother confronting Beck? If he wants to take on Piven, Cass Sunstein, or any other scholar on the left, the allegation is only going to get traction if he gets a response from the “liberal” academic establishment. It will be just another case of the eggheads trying to silence the not-so silent minority. That fits Beck’s narrative very well indeed. Beck is not going to stop making veiled threats on the air, and his viewers are not going to stop making not-so veiled threats on his blog (says one of his readers: “The only redistribution I am interested in is that of a precious metal…. LEAD“).
By feeding into Beck hysteria, progressive academics arguably leave themselves open to a media battle they cannot win. Fox news has developed a very sophisticated attack machine that has become adept at twisting words or outright lying. Responding with reasoned facts and analysis is not likely to succeed, and is more likely to undermine whatever incipient efforts are underway on the left to join empirical analysis with progressive politics. As researchers our first responsibility is to the truth, but it is also important to find ways to explain what we understand to be the truth to all members of society, including Fox’s core viewership. Engaging with Fox provides them with an opportunity to take control of that narrative before academic researchers have a chance to adequately explain it themselves.
On the other hand, leaving Beck’s criticism of Piven unanswered might set a dangerous precedent. Elements of the professional rightwing (I take pains to emphasize that there are many moderate conservatives that scorn these tactics) have made it an objective to intimidate and shout-down scholars on the leftwing. In a related effort, the right fringe of Congress has tried to politicize the academic research process by threatening to defund any research on social policy or politics: the alternative proposed by Senator Tom Coburn: “just watch Fox news.”
So there is a genuine dilemma: ignore Beck and Fox news and risk having the entire enterprise of objective research pulled away like a dirty rug, engage with Fox news through criticism and dialogue and risk having the message become distorted. What is needed, but not forthcoming, are rules of the road: a general code of conduct that Fox and the other media giants agree to abide by. Any organization that wants to be considered credible news obviously has an obligation to not threaten or intimidate private citizens, but they also have an obligation to give a fair and balanced hearing to both sides of the issue. Or at least not to lie about what the other half is saying.