Four years ago, Time magazine devoted its cover story to a puff-piece profile of Ann Coulter, the right-wing ideologue best known for serial lies and wishing death upon those she disagrees with (journalists included). Only, Time forgot about the lies and the bloodlust and portrayed Coulter in a remarkably kind light.
Now, it's Glenn Beck's turn.
In its new issue, Time features a cover profile of the Fox demagogue, written by David Von Drehle -- a profile that downplays or ignores Beck's defining qualities, draws false equivalencies between liberals and conservatives, portrays obvious lies as simple differences of perspective, and omits Beck's most shocking and outrageous statements.
In the opening paragraph, Time describes last weekend's Beck-organized, right-wing temper tantrum in Washington, in which conservative activists got together to air a disparate array of sometimes contradictory grievances. Here's how it dealt with the size of the crowd, right in the first paragraph:
If you get your information from liberal sources, the crowd numbered about 70,000, many of them greedy racists. If you get your information from conservative sources, the crowd was hundreds of thousands strong, perhaps as many as a million, and the tenor was peaceful and patriotic.
But here's what Time left out: Those conservative sources are flat-out lying.
Progressive media critics often point out that the media too frequently take a "he-said/she-said" approach to politics that boils down to, "Is the Earth flat or spherical? Opinions differ." That may seem like an exaggeration, but Time's handling of the crowd size dispute is virtually indistinguishable from that caricature.
Actually, in some ways, it's less honest than the caricature. See, the 70,000 estimate didn't come from "liberal sources"; it came from sane sources, such as the Washington, D.C., Fire Department. Time portrayed the disparate estimates as equally-likely-to-be-true products of ideological observers. In fact, the large estimates from conservatives were clearly false, and the lower, accurate estimates came from official, nonpartisan observers -- and even from some conservatives like Beck's colleagues at Fox News.
And the estimates of "as many as a million"? True, they came from conservatives (actually, some conservatives put the crowd size at the 2 million mark. Time has downplayed the dishonesty displayed by one of the very conservatives it later references.) But, more accurately, they came from dishonest conservatives who were lying, lying about how many people were there, lying about where the estimates came from. Lying.
Look: The difference between 70,000 people on the National Mall for a protest and 2 million is huge. Seventy thousand people is a good-sized crowd. It's nothing to be ashamed of. It's almost as many as the 85,000 people who attended last Saturday's college football game in Lincoln, Nebraska. But 2 million people? There probably weren't 2 million people in the entire state of Nebraska (population: 1.8 million) last Saturday.
Houston, Texas, is the fourth-largest city in America, with just over 2 million residents. Do you know what happens when you drop the population of Houston, Texas, in the middle of Washington, D.C.? Hotels for miles and miles around are booked far in advance. The Metro system is stretched to the breaking point. Thousands of people get trapped in tunnels. It is, in short, unmistakably different from what happens when Missouri plays Bowling Green.
I dwell on this because the difference between 70,000 and 2 million people is simply not something about which reasonable people of honest motives can disagree. It is not something that can be an innocent mistake. Dishonest people who wanted to misinform you told lies in order to exaggerate the crowd size. There really can be no doubt about that.
But Time not only won't make clear that they are lying, it won't even tell you that they were wrong. Thus, the magazine makes clear right up front that this article is not "journalism"; it is a pathetic attempt to pander to malicious liars.
Here, look at Time's next paragraph:
At any rate, what we can say with confidence is that Deanna Frankowski was there. A cheery woman of 49 from Leeds, Ala., Frankowski said she had come to Washington as part of a group of 100 or more protesters. They filled two buses.
Well, no. What we can say with confidence is that nowhere near 2 million, or 1 million, or 500,000 people were there, and anyone who says otherwise is either lying or has fallen prey to those who are lying. One of many ways we know this is the case is that if it took two buses to get 100 protesters into the city, it would take 40,000 buses to get 2 million there. Anyone see any evidence of 40,000 buses (or their plane, train, and automobile equivalents) last weekend? Yeah, I didn't think so.
The old American mind-set that Richard Hofstadter famously called "the paranoid style" - the sense that Masons or the railroads or the Pope or the guys in black helicopters are in league to destroy the country - is aflame again, fanned from both right and left. Between the liberal fantasies about Brownshirts at town halls and the conservative concoctions of brainwashed children goose-stepping to school, you'd think the Palm in Washington had been replaced with a Munich beer hall.
What in the world is Time talking about? This is a grotesque false equivalence. Conservatives have been yelling about President Obama being a secret Kenyan bent on sending granny to the Death Panel, comparing him to Hitler and Mao and Stalin and who-knows-who-else -- and that, apparently, is matched in intensity and paranoia by liberals pointing out this unhinged behavior? Insane.
Eventually, Time got to its point: Glenn Beck. But even there, Time buried the lede. No, that's not quite right. Actually, Time completely omitted the lede.
See, Glenn Beck's defining characteristic is that he's deeply dishonest. He claimed that 1.7 million people stormed the National Mall last week to protest Obama. And that's just one example; Beck tells lies of such size and obviousness, and with such frequency, that to fail to make his dishonesty clear right up front is, itself, dishonest. But Time didn't even hint at it in its introduction of Beck:
Glenn Beck: the pudgy, buzz-cut, weeping phenomenon of radio, TV and books. ... Beck is 45, tireless, funny, self-deprecating, a recovering alcoholic, a convert to Mormonism, a libertarian and living with ADHD.
Indeed, the closest the Time article ever came -- ever -- to indicating that Beck tells lies and spreads falsehoods is this whopper of an understatement: "[H]e also spins yarns of less substance." Oh, snap! That really exposes him for the fraud that he is!
Instead, Time suggested Beck's rants are reality-based [emphasis added]:
Beck mines the timeless theme of the corrupt Them thwarting a virtuous Us. This flexible narrative often contains genuinely uncomfortable truths. Some days "they" are the unconfirmed policy "czars" whom Beck fears Obama is using to subvert constitutional government - and he has some radical-sounding sound bites to back it up. Some days "they" are the network of leftist community organizers known as ACORN - and his indictment of the group is looking stronger every day.
Well, not every day. See, on Tuesday, Beck aired a video of an ACORN worker saying she had killed her ex-husband and then went on a prolonged rant about ACORN employing someone who was guilty of "premeditated murder." Turns out that wasn't quite true. She didn't murder her ex-husband. Nobody murdered her ex-husband. Her ex-husbands are quite alive and well.
That's typical Beck: He rushes to make sensational allegations based on the thinnest of evidence, without bothering to check it out. It's behavior that careens from reckless to dishonest, and it's his calling card. But, to Time, Beck's treatment of ACORN is something to be applauded. It's looking stronger every day (as long as you ignore the fact that he just aired a bogus video in order to falsely suggest an ACORN worker is a murderer)!
It isn't just Beck's dishonesty that got left on the cutting-room floor. It's the extent of his offensiveness. Take a look at Time's portrayal of Beck's emotional recollection of the September 11 terrorist attacks:
On the recent anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Beck grew afraid that Americans may no longer be the sort of people who cross mountain ranges in covered wagons and toss hot rivets around in bold bursts of skyscraper-building. Tears came to his eyes (they often do) as he voiced this last fear. But then he remembered that the fiber of ordinary Americans is the one thing Glenn Beck need never fear. So he squared his quivering chin to the camera and held up a snapshot of ground zero, still empty eight long years after the World Trade Center was destroyed.
It goes on like that for a while. But one thing Time didn't mention? This famous Glenn Beck statement: "You know it took me about a year to start hating the 9-11 victims' families? Took me about a year."
Seems like if you're going to devote two full paragraphs to Glenn Beck's tearful remembrance of September 11, maybe you should note the contempt -- hatred, even -- he has expressed for the families of the people who died that day. Doesn't it?
Nor did Time mention Beck's 2001 statement that he'd like to "beat" Rep. Charlie Rangel "to death with a shovel"; his comments about poisoning Nancy Pelosi; his comparison of the Holocaust museum shooter to Thomas Jefferson; this little outburst; or his comparisons of Obama to Adolf Hitler. Let's stop there for a second and go back to Time's opening lines:
On Sept. 12, a large crowd gathered in Washington to protest ... what? The goals of Congress and the Obama Administration, mainly - the cost, the scale, the perceived leftist intent. The crowd's agenda was wide-ranging, so it's hard to be more specific. "End the Fed," a sign read. A schoolboy's placard denounced "Obama's Nazi Youth Militia." Another poster declared, "We the People for Capitalism Not Socialism."
Gee, where did that "Obama's Nazi Youth Militia" garbage come from? It came from Glenn Beck. But Time won't tell you that.
After whitewashing Beck's dishonesty and borderline-obscene behavior for a while, the magazine returned to the crowd estimates:
We're in a flood stage, and who's to blame? The answer is like the estimates of the size of the crowd in Washington: Whom do you trust? Either the corrupt, communist-loving traitors on the left are causing this, or it's the racist, greedy warmongers on the right, or maybe the dishonest, incompetent, conniving media, which refuse to tell the truth about whomever you personally happen to despise.
At this point, you have to wonder if the article was some kind of performance art, designed to prove the very skepticism about the media it seems to lament. See, this very Time article was the product of a "dishonest, incompetent, conniving media, which refuse to tell the truth." And not because I happen to despise Glenn Beck, but because there simply were not 1.7 million people at last week's protest. Because Time damn well knows there were not 1.7 million people at last week's protest. And because Time refused to say there were not 1.7 million people there. Not only that -- Time also insisted on pretending that only "liberal sources" say there were 70,000 people there, when, in fact, the D.C. Fire Department said there were 70,000 people. That's a dishonest and incompetent refusal to tell the truth. Actually, it's worse than a refusal to tell the truth: It's a dishonest and incompetent false claim.
At the beginning of his article, Von Drehle referred to a recent poll that found "record-low levels of public trust of the mainstream media." Guess what? Articles like this are why nobody trusts the media. When you pretend that obviously false claims about crowd sizes are valid, people won't trust you. When you pretend that only liberals say 70,000 people actually attended last week's protest, people won't trust you. They shouldn't trust you. You aren't trustworthy. You are doing your job dishonestly and incompetently.
And that dishonesty, that incompetence, is what enables Glenn Beck. When Glenn Beck says 1.7 million people were at the protest, and the Washington, D.C., Fire Department says 70,000, and Time runs an article saying conservatives and liberals disagree about the crowd size, that enables Glenn Beck's lies.
No wonder Beck liked the article so much.
Jamison Foser is a Senior Fellow at Media Matters for America, a progressive media watchdog and research and information center based in Washington, D.C. Foser also contributes to County Fair, a media blog featuring links to progressive media criticism from around the Web as well as original commentary. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook or sign up to receive his columns by email.