Beyond Glenn Beck

If only Glenn Beck were the real problem.

Beck’s rant last week on his Fox News program painting billionaire currency trader George Soros as a “puppet master” of international finance was the verbal equivalent of a Der Sturmer cartoon.

I could spend the rest of this column pointing out how foolish Beck is — and how, in a simple Google search, you can find his accusations against Soros echoed on the most virulent white supremacist and Islamist radical Web sites.

Beck, it occurred to me, is the right-wing mirror image of the left-wing anti-Zionists. While they claim to love Jews and only hate specific Israeli policies, Beck claims to love Israel and only hate specific Jews. I don’t find either distinction very comforting.

But Beck is not the real problem.

In every generation, a Beck appears — Father Charles Coughlin, Louis Farrakhan, Pat Buchanan (who looks positively rabbinic beside his anti-intellectual successor). Anti-Semites streak through American history like comets, offering a lot of heat with some regularity, but no staying power.

The deeper problem is the platform Beck speaks from, what passes for television news in America. We have gone from being a nation tuned in to Walter Cronkite and Eric Sevareid to becoming opposing armies cheering for Glenn Beck or their liberal counterparts.

Of course, Jon Stewart made this observation the centerpiece of his Rally to Restore Sanity. Defending his position earlier this week on “The Rachel Maddow Show,” Stewart explained: “Both sides have their way of shutting down debate, and the news networks have allowed these two sides to become the fight in the country. … My problem is, it’s become tribal. [The news network’s] job is to highlight the conflict between two sides, where I don’t think that’s the conflict in the country.”

A damning opinion piece in The Washington Post by Ted Koppel circulated on the Web this week, reminding us of what we lose when we gain Glenn Beck.

“Beginning, perhaps, from the reasonable perspective that absolute objectivity is unattainable, Fox News and MSNBC no longer even attempt it,” Koppel wrote. “They show us the world not as it is, but as partisans (and loyal viewers) at either end of the political spectrum would like it to be. This is to journalism what Bernie Madoff was to investment: He told his customers what they wanted to hear, and by the time they learned the truth, their money was gone.”

The networks, Koppel pointed out, were willing accomplices in their own demise. Once network execs began to run news divisions solely as profit centers rather than as public trusts and began systematically cutting back on extravagances like foreign bureaus and seasoned reporters in order to boost the bottom line, it was a race to the bottom.

“Broadcast news has been outflanked and will soon be overtaken by scores of other media options,” Koppel concluded. “The need for clear, objective reporting in a world of rising religious fundamentalism, economic interdependence and global ecological problems is probably greater than it has ever been. But we are no longer a national audience receiving news from a handful of trusted gatekeepers; we’re now a million or more clusters of consumers, harvesting information from like-minded providers.”

The implications of all this go way beyond the occasional rise of a Beck, who is simply the blowhard du jour. As Koppel correctly pointed out, the appetite for news won’t diminish, nor will the need — just the quality. The networks and cable channels are in this for the money, and they believe there’s more dollars in pumping out Britney, Beck and Bush-bashing than in a 12-minute, deeply reported backgrounder on the complicated housing battles in Jerusalem, which, you know, could only erupt into Armageddon.

They may be right. But if good journalism doesn’t step in to fill that void, bad, agenda-driven reporting will. Lately I’ve been entranced by Press TV, a full-scale broadcast and Web news site that offers Associated Press-style breaking news, focused mostly on the Middle East. The articles are fairly standard, even reliable, except when it comes to Israel. “Barak says U.S. offered Israel more bribes,” reads one headline. “Israel, no peace partner: Damascus” reads another. It turns out the government of Iran created Press TV, and it is impressive in the way it hides an overt, anti-Israel agenda under the cover of responsible journalism. According to The Israel Project, 67 percent of Americans and 90 percent of Arabs get their Mideast information from broadcast TV. For $25 million a year, Iran has created a free satellite and Web news channel available worldwide, more professional than all the Jewish TV channels ever created, more understandable than the Israeli ones (the English is better) and certainly more effective than all the pro-Israel Web sites out there.

And they say Jews control the media.

What can we do? Support great broadcast journalism — duh. To my mind, the simple but by no means inexpensive solution is to create a broadcast and Web video version of “All Things Considered” and “Morning Edition.” These National Public Radio (NPR) programs have 27 million weekly listeners, 36 foreign bureaus and are more or less in the center of the political spectrum. Their correspondents are already established brands, and they seem to have a sustainable not-for-profit model. NPR is not perfect — witness the Juan Williams firing debacle — but as television, Web, print and radio converge, NPR is well positioned to produce America’s best, non-crazy, mass-market TV news.

It won’t shut Beck up, but it will balance him out.