Why Glenn Beck, and Fox News, can't escape the "racist" trap

››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

Looking back, it's hard to imagine how executives at Fox News could have handled Glenn Beck's smear of President Obama as a "racist" any worse. And it's hard to imagine how Fox News could have inadvertently cultivated the ground any better for a sweepingly successful advertising boycott than the cavalier way they dealt with Beck's presidential race-baiting.

Have so many blue-chip advertisers ever fled a program as quickly as the who's who of corporate America that's sprinted away from Glenn Beck in recent weeks? I certainly cannot recall ever seeing a mass exodus of this scale.

The A-list collection of disgruntled Beck advertisers is staggering: Applebee's, AT&T, Bank of America, Best Buy, Campbell Soup, Clorox, ConAgra, CVS, Ditech, Farmers Insurance Group, GEICO, General Mills, Johnson & Johnson, Lowe's, Nutrisystem, Procter & Gamble, Progressive Insurance, RadioShack, Sprint, State Farm Insurance, The UPS Store, Travelers Insurance, Verizon Wireless, Vonage, and Wal-Mart, among others.

If any television program had lost just three or four of those types of high-caliber advertisers, it would be seen as an extraordinary move in a media environment in which grassroots attempts to pressure advertisers have traditionally yielded modest returns. But at Fox News, Glenn Beck is rewriting television history right before our eyes: four dozen lost advertisers and counting. All of Beck's big-time advertisers have fled. All of them.

As momentum continues to gather behind the unprecedented boycott effort led by ColorofChange.org, Beck and Fox News executives seem to be flailing around as they frantically search for a way to stop the exodus.

Despite media reports to the contrary, Fox News executives explicitly refused to distance themselves from Beck's claim that President Obama is a "racist," let alone reprimand the host for the shockingly hateful comments. Fox News' initial knee-jerk response of failing to question any of the gutter rhetoric Beck dishes out, and the cable news giant's decision to treat the transgression as a nonstory unworthy of a serious response, of course, is what led to the boycott drive.

The fact that nobody anywhere inside Fox News had enough sense to hold Beck accountable or to even suggest that calling the president of the United States (aka "this guy") a "racist" on national television was well outside the bounds of professional broadcasting -- the fact that Fox News could not even for a moment publicly contemplate that Beck had stepped over a glaringly obvious line of common decency -- is why those same executives have been forced to watch as an avalanche of A-list advertisers go public with their plans to make sure they are no longer associated with Beck.

Looking back, it's hard to imagine how executives at Fox News could have handled Beck's "racist" smear any worse. And it's hard to imagine how Fox News could have inadvertently cultivated the ground any better for a sweepingly successful advertising boycott than the cavalier way they dealt with Beck's presidential race-baiting.

And if you don't think the snowballing ad boycott has left Fox News suits stunned and knocked back on their heels, then I don't think you understand the kind of arrogance that runs through the water supply over at its Manhattan headquarters on Sixth Avenue. Execs there this year no doubt have been congratulating themselves on their ratings success and patting each other on the back for having the brilliant insight to unleash a hatemonger like Glenn Beck on the airwaves.

But suddenly, uh-oh, there's a price to be paid for peddling hate? And worse, it's a free-market penalty where blue-chip advertisers -- those bastions of corporate America that Fox News idolizes -- are deciding for themselves that they cannot afford to be associated with Fox News' wonder boy? Corporate America is turning its back on the new face of Fox News?

If the boycott continues to gain momentum, Fox News won't be able to avoid writing down losses. Yes, the cabler claims it hasn't lost any money yet because nervous advertisers simply want off Glenn Beck, not off Fox News (i.e. advertisers are still spending money with the network). But the truth is, since Beck called Obama a racist, Beck's advertising base has been cut by 50 willing advertisers, and Fox News' need to find advertisers for the hour-long weekday show has not changed. And I'm guessing it's not having much luck drumming up new Glenn Beck business in this environment.

Honestly, if advertisers continue to abandon Glenn Beck, pretty soon the show's going to be forced to run more than the occasional free public-service announcement. Either that, or the advertisers willing to stick around are going to get some great deals or maybe even some free spots in order to make sure Fox News can fill the inventory.

Meanwhile, on air, the latest Fox News strategy for dealing with the never-ending "racist" controversy seems to revolve around amnesia. Seriously. It's like everyone at Fox News has been flashed by that light stick Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith used in Men in Black to erase the memories of unsuspecting UFO eyewitnesses. Suddenly at Fox News, nobody remembers that Beck called Obama a racist. Nobody remembers that that's what sparked the advertising boycott.

Despite the swirling controversy, and despite the fact that Beck is losing the type of advertisers that sales teams covet, the host's "racist" smear has become The Story That Cannot Be Mentioned By Name.

It's true. Last week, Beck appeared on Bill O'Reilly's show, and the two men bemoaned the attempts by nasty liberal "loons" to shut Beck up -- to snatch away his freedom of speech. What was odd was that while Beck and O'Reilly clearly made (indirect) references to the ad boycott campaign, they never explained to viewers what sparked the outrage. They never explained why. They never conceded the campaign was launched in direct response to the fact that Beck went on national television and called the president of the United States a "racist" and someone who flashed a "deep-seated hatred of white people."

At Fox News, that smear has been flushed down the memory hole, and all that's left to do is play victim. (Incredibly, O'Reilly and Beck appeared to be cribbing their amnesia shtick off The American Spectator. Never a good sign.)

But here's what I don't get: Why doesn't Beck go on TV every day and simply defend his "racist" claim? Why doesn't Beck stand up for the racist remark and stake his reputation on it? Because right now, the pathetic, squishy approach he's taking where he limply lashes back while pretending the ad boycott sprang from some mysterious place -- where Beck plays the victim and pretends he never made the "racist" smear -- is just too lame for words.

The host has never apologized, so it seems logical that he stands behind the claim. (And that's what he claimed one month ago.) And if he stands behind it, why doesn't he set aside a few minutes on each program to detail how Obama is a racist? Why doesn't he educate his viewers? In fact, I'm sure even folks who don't regularly tune into Beck would be fascinated to know how Obama, whose mother was white and who was raised by his white grandparents, suffers from an abiding hatred of white people and "white culture," as Beck claimed.

Hey, maybe if Beck does a good enough job, he'll even win back some of his lost advertisers. Maybe by talking the "racist" issue to death on Fox News every day, Beck can clear the air and the boycott will cease.

It's conceivable but unlikely. What's really going on here, of course, is that Beck has stepped so far in it with his "racist" crack that he can no longer see the tops of his shoes, and even his shins are starting to sink into the muck. The answer to Fox News' unraveling advertising problem is obvious. But neither Beck nor anybody else at the network has the decency to apologize, so they've decided to stitch together this fantasy about how the ad boycott was started because Beck said some nasty things about a ColorofChange.org ally, Van Jones.

Good luck with that. I'm sure that by playing dumb about the "racist" controversy, and by ignoring the comment while wallowing in a permanent state of victimhood, former blue-chip advertisers will soon come sprinting back onto Beck's show.

In the meantime, courage, Glenn Beck. Courage.

Follow Eric Boehlert on Twitter.

Posted In
Diversity & Discrimination, Race & Ethnicity, Government, The Presidency & White House
Network/Outlet
Fox News Channel
Person
Glenn Beck
Show/Publication
Glenn Beck show
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