“It seems like the voices of our leaders and special interests and the media, they’re surrounding us.” Glenn Beck, one of America’s most popular television populists, was speaking to his audience on the afternoon of Friday, March 13, during an hourlong special. At this point, he was choking back tears. This was the money shot: the moment that gave the special its title. It was good. “It sounds intimidating, but you know what?” he asked his viewers through the brave snuffles. “Pull away the curtain, and you’ll realize that there isn’t anybody there.”
Not long ago, television news was a no-cry zone. The top newsmen were celebrated for their emotional control in the face of gut-punching developments. War, death, terrorism, plague—nothing rattled their composure. But when it happened, when an anchor couldn’t help himself, it mattered.
When the Hindenburg exploded in 1937, Herbert Morrison uttered the memorable words, “Oh, the humanity.” And when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Walter Cronkite took off his glasses and released a brief gulp. Then he got back to the business at hand. Decades passed without the collective feelings of the American TV newsmen making so much as a single audible sob.
But there have been historical moments when the news requires a trembling lower lip to resonate.
“People are angry and anxious and they want someone who will express that,” said Michael Kazin, the Georgetown historian and author of The Populist Persuasion: An American History. “In the early days of the New Deal there was a lot of support for radio announcers like Father Coughlin who seemed to get beyond the political dickering to get to the core of what was bothering people—which was this sense of betrayal and the feeling that the country was in the hands of people they didn’t really know or trust. And they didn’t understand how things had gotten so bad.”
“We Surround Them, You Are Not Alone” was the title of Glenn Beck’s special. And over the next hour, emotions flowed freely. During one interview, a member of the U.S. Army’s Special Forces called himself “a touchy-feely guy.” Later, when Mr. Beck interviewed Chris Gardner—the man who inspired Will Smith’s character in The Pursuit of Happyness—Mr. Beck said he couldn’t stop thinking about the scene in the movie where the character “is crying and weeping and thinking about the future.”
“I have to apologize,” said Mr. Beck at one point. “I think I’m actually turning into Tammy Faye Bakker. I’m crying. I’m getting puffy.”
These days, everywhere you look you see anchors seemingly on the verge of an emotional breakdown. CNBC’s Rick Santelli recently flipped out on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and became an overnight sensation. Political analyst Roland Martin cried at the sight of Barack Obama winning the November election and is now guest-anchoring in prime time for CNN.
With the Big Three rapidly losing prominence in the American consciousness, a fractured network of opinionated, impassioned news sources have brought emotions center stage in the delivery of the news. Making the case against the emotionally dessicated coverage of the supposedly objective networks, especially in an era of breakdown—financial, emotional, ethical—means showing that, well, you’re not afraid to break down.
Mr. Beck may be the most ascendant of the new emotional newsmen. His recent special attracted 993,000 viewers aged 25-54, making it the top-rated cable news show in the key demographic in March. And in a few short months since joining Fox News, he has turned the 5 p.m. hour into the third most popular show in cable news. But Mr. Beck is hardly alone.
The TV news ranks are now populated with many high-strung anchors who may differ wildly in their political beliefs (Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann) and backgrounds (Jim Cramer and Ed Shultz) but who share an explosive emotional style. They smile, frown, flex their jaws, wag their fingers, flash their teeth, get happy, get sad, get annoyed, get angry.
During Hurricane Katrina, Cooper practically emoted his way into our hearts at CNN. During the 2008 campaign, Chris Matthews got thrills running up his legs. Somewhere between the Florida recount, 9/11, the war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and the financial meltdown, emotional apoplexy became the coin of the realm.
Today’s top emotive newscasters save up their rage for the cameras. Outside the studio, they tend to be thoughtful, respectful, calculating and collegial. They are men who have long since mastered their emotions and only unleash their demons in the studio in the name of due diligence and higher ratings.
The appearance of serenity is a liability. Those like CNN’s Campbell Brown who wade into the fray, seemingly calm and happy and collected, must soon hustle to locate and pump to the surface their inner angst. No goddamn bias, no goddamn bull.
“I used to think that the ideal characteristics for an anchor were impassive and impressive,” Reese Schonfeld, the co-founder of CNN, recently told The Observer. “These days, you still get impassive and reasonably impressive on the broadcast side with Brian Williams and Charles Gibson. But on the cable side, particularly on MSNBC and Fox, you get lots of shows of emotion. Whether they’re genuinely angry or not, you’re never sure. But they do very well.”
“If I were CNN, I’d go back to impassive and impressive,” Mr. Schonfeld added. “I’d tone it way, way down.”
IN THE OPENING montage of Mr. Beck’s special on Fox, spliced among images of flames enveloping the World Trade Center and masked men carrying rocket launchers and dead bodies draped in sheets along the Mexican border and American workers waiting in unemployment lines and Asian businessmen raising their arms in triumph and Nancy Pelosi in a red dress, there is a brief shot of a man holding a homemade sign. It reads, “Mad as Hell.”
The nod to the famous line from Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 movie Network—in which unhinged TV anchor Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch) turns his evening newscast into a carnival hit with the tag line “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore”—is telling. In a recent interview with The New York Times, Mr. Beck said that not long ago he re-watched Network and that he identified with the character of the deranged newsman. “I think that’s the way people feel,” said Mr. Beck. “That’s the way I feel.”
In Network, Howard Beale is a seasoned news anchor who has recently lost his wife. He is addled with tremors, fainting spells, euphoria and delusions. He walks through rainstorms in his pajamas. By night, he hears voices. By day, he feels imbued with an electromagnetic spectrum that synchronizes him with the natural world.
Along the way, unscrupulous TV executives parlay his crazy, emotional rants into a ratings bonanza. Despite his on-air popularity, off camera it’s clear that Howard Beale is suffering from a mental breakdown. In the 1976 world of network television satirized by Chayefsky, you’d have to be crazy to act like a mad man at the anchor’s desk. But what if it worked? What if the anger of the audience, the anger of the People, could be channeled into Ratings Gold?