Last week, I braved cold weather and pervasive misinformation in order to attend Glenn Beck's "first Christmas" event in Wilmington, Ohio. I met Beck, spoke to a lot of people, and learned something: Beck knows he lied when he claimed Wilmington doesn't take government money and while he shared a desire to always be true to his word, he has no interest in sharing the truth with his fans.
It all started about a month ago when Glenn Beck announced he was going to host his latest vanity fest/charity event in recession-hit Wilmington. The town of 12,000 lost more than 7,000 jobs when DHL pulled out in 2008, but according to Beck, "they won't take any money from the state or the feds," and as such the town is a beacon of hope to the rest of the country that deserves Beck's attention.
Pretty much ever since, we at Media Matters have been relentlessly demonstrating that it isn't even a little bit true that the struggling town refused government assistance. Wilmington has understandably asked for, and received, millions of dollars in government assistance. Wilmington and the county of which it is the seat have received more than $10 million in stimulus funds, but they actually asked for 6 times that amount. They even had a sign to prove it, which photographer Jay LaPrete shot for Bloomberg earlier in the year:
Moreover, Wilmington's use of food stamps, welfare, unemployment insurance, and the National School Lunch Program all increased significantly after DHL left. According to state officials, food stamp enrollment in Clinton County is up 91 percent, while the number of people receiving cash benefits has increased 116 percent. Medicaid rolls have increased 37.5 percent during that time, and even the Murphy Theatre, where Beck performed his shows while in town, received federal aid to repair its heating system.
And we aren't the only ones to have debunked Beck's claims. PolitiFact awarded Beck its "[liar, liar] pants on fire" rating for claiming Wilmington didn't take any government money, noting that Wilmington was awarded two federal emergency grants worth more than $7.9 million to help with job training and other aid to the displaced workers, and more than $5.2 million from the state of Ohio to help with business development.
Why should Wilmington refuse government assistance? The loss of DHL dealt the town a devastating blow, and they need help from wherever they can get it: government, private industry, charity or otherwise. Wilmington mayor David Raizk echoed this sentiment exactly when he told PolitiFact: "My job is to get whatever assistance I can get for the citizens here and to help create jobs for them." Had Raizk listened to Beck, his town would have millions of dollars less than they do now - at a time when they need it most.
But despite all the evidence, Beck continued to claim that Wilmington didn't take any government money. But was he just wildly ignorant, or lying to his fans? To answer that, I had to head to Ohio.
During my two days in Wilmington I ran into several Beck fans -- fervent followers who'd traveled to Ohio just on Beck's say so -- as well as bewildered locals who appreciated the increased business, and graciously welcomed the visitors, but didn't seem to understand the fuss. But for the fans, Beck's direction was all that mattered. "What made you come all this way?" I asked several women huddled together outside. "Glenn Beck. Glenn Beck made us come out here."
And Beck was certainly welcoming. Early Wednesday morning I showed up at the General Denver hotel in Wilmington with about 50 other people for my meet and greet with Beck. He was friendly enough, certainly happy to be around such an adoring crowd. He thanked everyone for coming, asked us where we were from (mostly Ohio and Indiana, but one couple traveled from California), he teared up (twice) at the precisely timed moments that punctuated stories of his fans and his recent event at the Lincoln Memorial, and then lined us up to get a picture taken and a quick hug.
He was just as welcoming to the hundreds of fans who bought tickets to watch him perform his radio show. Just before the radio show started, Beck warmed up the crowd, teasing upcoming events, taking a few cheap shots at liberals (and one hapless local journalist in the fourth row) and told his cheering fans that he'll always be grateful for the adulation, because he once promised himself he'd never betray his word:
As I was about to learn, however, Beck's promise didn't extend to him always telling the truth. During the show, Beck asked the audience if they wanted to ask a question. Unable to resist such an opportunity, I lined up to ask Beck about Wilmington's government assistance. However, as the show wound down it became apparent from the length of the line I wasn't going to be able to ask my question. Then, a member of Beck's crew, Eric, came over to give us the bad news. Here's Eric later in the show joking with Beck and a boy who was able to ask Beck a question:
After Eric gave me the bad news, he told me that I could tell him my question, and he'd try and at least get Beck to talk about it. Well he didn't, but he did something almost as good: He admitted that they know Wilmington took government money. Here's my conversation with Eric, based on the notes I took at the time:
ME: OK, well Beck inspired me to ask this question because he's been talking about doing your own research all show.
ME: Well, I did my own research, and from what I have read, and from the stories of the local residents here it looks like Wilmington did get government money, and I just wanted to ask Beck what he'd say to those people -- what he would advise them to do now.
ERIC:OK, well that's going to be more the theme of this evening, but I can try and ask him.
ME: OK, great. I just wanted to get his take, because I know he said that Wilmington didn't get any money, but he must have been mistaken, and I just thought he might want to talk about --
ERIC: Yeah. They did get some money, but it's not like they're asking for it, and -- you know -- it's not like it really goes to the people.
ME: Yeah. Even the people who have to ask for food stamps though -- I mean it's not like they want to but --
ERIC: Yeah, no one wants to ask for food stamps. Okay, I'll see if I can get him to talk about this.
Well there you have it. Beck and his staff knew that the town took government money, but they could just tell they didn't ask for it. Well not quite, to hear Mayor Raizk talk about it, but still, Beck knows he was wrong about Wilmington. So did he correct the record?
Not a chance.
And it showed. While I talked to several Wilmington residents -- even Beck fans who paid top dollar for those radio tickets -- who readily admitted that the town had taken government money, none of the out-of-town fans seemed to believe it. In fact, I learned that construction from the stimulus had run right past the theatre where Beck was performing. The stimulus sign next to the road has since been taken down, but if Beck had hosted the event a few months ago, he might have had to park his bus near the sign. Fortunately for him the end of that particular construction project saved him from the embarrassing visual.
Nevertheless, non-residents were skeptical. When asked about the government money I received answers ranging from "oh, I don't know," to a woman who told me the town didn't take assistance but "it would be OK if they had to," to a couple who assured me that funding for the construction recently completed was from funding allocated in the 1990s. One woman even chided me for my "error," marveling at how one person can say something false and it can spread so quickly. Indeed.
Three shows, a book signing, and a very cold meet and greet later, and Beck still hadn't corrected himself. Nor has Beck corrected himself since then. His fans were still cheering him on, still buying into the tall tale he was selling of a town shunning government assistance that would be saved through prayer and self-sufficiency. And he didn't seem to care.
There is a better way to help Wilmington: Jay Leno also performed a show in Wilmington recently, and Rachael Ray not only brought her talk show to Wilmington but stocked the community's food pantry for an entire year. Both Leno and Ray managed to do some good for Wilmington without spreading false and dangerous lies about the town in order to spread their personal philosophies, and without pretending that they were the first to discover the problem. But that's just not Beck's style.