The New Glenn Beck

by Eliana Johnson
He’s taken on a cultural mission.

Glenn Beck is tired of politics.

“I think politics is a game, and I think people watch politics as a game, like they watch the NFL,” he tells me, leaning back in his chair. He once thought Washington politicians “actually believed in something.” Now, he says, “I don’t think they do.”

Beck hasn’t lost respect for all politicians, just most of them. On the right, he likes Utah’s Mike Lee, Texas’s Ted Cruz, and Kentucky’s Rand Paul. He respects anybody who goes to Washington and sticks to his principles — even the socialist senator Bernie Sanders. “I’m sure Bernie would disagree, but Bernie and I could be fast friends because he’s doing what he said he’d do,” he says. “Same with Dennis Kucinich, aliens and all.”

Beck’s disenchantment with news and politics aren’t just for show. Though best known for his flame-throwing political commentary, he is turning his attention to cultural projects like plays and movies. His years in TV, he says, have taught him that news is secondary to culture. “News,” he says, is simply “what the culture allows.”

* * *

A former top-40 DJ, Beck tells me that his foray into TV news wasn’t meant to be permanent. “I hate politics, I always have,” he says. He was working on a TV drama along the lines of HBO’s Newsroom — about the news of the day and the people who put it together — when, in 2006, he got a call from Headline News, CNN’s sister network.

“We thought, well, might as well get in and figure out how television works and learn on somebody else’s dime,” Beck says. When Fox News came calling in 2008 — he was lured there by Joel Cheatwood, a former CNN executive who had jumped to Fox and who has since joined Beck in his new venture — Beck says he considered that gig a temporary one, too. “I walked in and I really thought, I’ll do this for a while because somebody has to ring the bell and then I’ll get out, and I’m still waiting to be able to pass the bell on to somebody else. Haven’t found him yet, but . . . ” He trails off.

We are in Beck’s office on the second floor of a sprawling movie studio in Las Colinas, near Dallas, Texas. His company, Mercury Radio Arts, purchased the iconic 72,000-square-foot building last June. Movies and TV shows such as Robocop, JFK, Prison Break, and Walker, Texas Ranger were produced here; it includes three main stages, outdoor shooting locations, and a lot of office space.

Today, Beck is wearing a three-piece suit. At one point he drapes a scarf around his neck. Gray haired, goateed, and bespectacled, he looks more hipster academic than conservative firebrand. He has an enormous watch wrapped around his wrist that ticks audibly and demands attention. He says it reminds him of Jules Verne. It has a retro feel to it, full of gears and wheels. When he hits a button, the wheels start spinning and conveyer belt–​like mechanisms find the time. “I just love it,” he says.

Beck’s personal office is a fusion of the antique and the modern. It reflects the range of his interests, from history and politics to cinema and technology.

An old television set sits on a bureau, a model of a 1932 Gee Bee racer plane perched on top. A shiny electric guitar stands adjacent to the bureau. Mounted in the center of one wall is an old Boston Globe clipping with the headline, “WOODROW WILSON IS DEAD.” Beck became the country’s leading anti-progressive when, in a series of shows on Fox, he stood at his signature blackboard and explained why Wilson’s ideology was the progenitor of the sort of liberalism embodied by Barack Obama.

“I was so curious about it that I was teaching myself,” he says. “I wasn’t a professor at the chalkboard, I was a citizen at the chalkboard saying: ‘Look what I just found, look at this. I can’t believe I’m finding this stuff and it’s right here in the open. Why isn’t anybody else doing it? I really lost my naïveté, because I really believed that if you could make a case and you could back it up, then the press . . . ” He trails off again. “Oh no, they don’t care. They don’t care. Same with Washington.”

Now, his infamous chalkboard stands in the back of the office, filled with his notes.

The item that most inspires him right now is a prospectus of Disney World, hand-colored by Walt Disney himself, which he has propped against a window — or at least, a photocopy of it. He keeps the real item, which he won at an auction three years ago, at his home in Dallas. “I’m now the owner of every book written on Walt Disney in any language,” he says. He doesn’t know exactly how many that is. A year ago, he distributed a biography of Disney to the members of his staff. “I said when I left Fox that this half of my career is going to be shaped more by Walt Disney than anything else,” he says.

His interest in Disney is symbolic of the shift in his attention and efforts toward culture and away from politics. He had a realization: “Culture is the lead. That’s the dog. The news is the tail.”

He pulls out a piece of early publicity on Disneyland, points to a paragraph, and reads aloud. “Disneyland will be based upon and dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America and it will be uniquely equipped to dramatize these dreams and facts and send them forth as a source of courage and inspiration to all the world.” Beck, known to burst into tears at a moment’s notice, looks like he might do so right now. “That’s what we’re gonna do,” he declares. “That’s how I intend on impacting culture. To do that.”

* * *

Beck is nostalgic for an America of decades past, and his cultural projects will aim to resurrect and revive it. It’s an America where duty trumped desire and Americans were bound together by a sort of civic religion created by that sense of duty. “I want to impact the culture in the way that people see good again,” he says.

That sounds odd coming from somebody who is considered one of the most divisive figures in the country, but Beck has mellowed in the three years since his departure from Fox. Reflecting on his time there, during which he vowed to hunt progressives as Israelis once hunted Nazis, and frequently invoked Hitler in his denunciations of the Obama administration, he told Fox’s Megyn Kelly in January: “I remember it as an awful lot of fun and that I made an awful lot of mistakes, and I wish I could go back and be more uniting in my language. I think I played a role, unfortunately, in helping tear the country apart, and it’s not who we are.”

Now, Beck has three major motion pictures in development, and they will have a decidedly different outlook from the doom-and-gloom scenarios his Fox News viewers became accustomed to.

One of his films will tell the “real story of Christmas.” The tale is not real at all but intends to reclaim a holiday Beck believes has been excessively commercialized. “It came from me trying to keep my kids in the right frame of mind for Christmas,” he says, and in the film he’ll “use what culture already has and accepts and loves and turn that around for the real message of Christmas.”

Another film will “expose the truth” about Thomas Edison, a villain Beck thinks has gotten a break from historians and whose real story demonstrates our flawed understanding of the 20th century. Though remembered as “this nice, kind of, good old Thomas,” Beck explains, “he was really a bad man who was electrocuting animals.” Edison “was absolutely on the wrong end, and luckily for him the story ended happily with his name being taken off his own company and given to GE,” he says. “And all the people he tried to destroy and screw — he was screwed.” Beck is getting animated. “In the end, he was screwed, and with the same tactics he used on everybody else. I think that’s the story that needs to be told about Thomas Edison: He was a bad man.”

Hollywood, as Beck sees it, isn’t making movies people want to see. On his radio program earlier in the morning — the day after the Oscars — he railed against Darren Aronofsky’s Biblical epic Noah. The film at points diverges from the scriptural account of the flood, and Aronofsky has said he wanted it to appeal to both a religious and non-religious audience.

“Most of the time, they make these movies like Noah, when . . . it’s like, what are you doing?” Beck said of Hollywood producers. “Noah was concerned about overcrowding? Really? Shows how wrong Noah was! What the hell is that? I for one think it’s time we make our own movies. I think it’s time we tell our own stories about real people, real things. That’s what would make people actually go watch those stupid awards.”

The broader shift underway at Mercury began last summer, when Beck staged the multimedia event “Man in the Moon” in Lehi, Utah, the Saturday following the Fourth of July. A combination of film, music, and spoken word, the show aimed to tell the story of America in the form of a fable. It was narrated by God-like voice — Beck’s — that came from a “Man in the Moon” hoisted above the amphitheater. Sixteen thousand people flocked to see it. “I was looking for a way to tell a story that would branch out and be able to be broad to where people who didn’t like me or didn’t agree with me could bring their family and they could see it and they could experience the principles of what built our country without really even knowing it because it would be just a good story,” Beck says.

Though he is less visible now, his empire has ballooned since his departure from Fox News. Last year, Forbes estimated his earnings at $90 million. He has 310 employees spread among offices in Dallas, New York, and Washington, D.C. TheBlaze TV, his Internet-television network, has 300,000 subscribers who pay up to $9.95 a month for access to his show and others, including a children’s show called “Liberty Treehouse” and a reality show about a family of survivalists preparing to go “off the grid.” Annual subscribers to TheBlaze TV get an e-mail address that isn’t spammed with ads., Beck’s online news portal, boasts upwards of 25 million unique visitors a month. Betsy Morgan, a president of TheBlaze, is a former Huffington Post CEO and senior vice president at CBS News.

The Beck brand also includes a magazine, a book imprint — conservative star Michelle Malkin has a book coming out under the label, Mercury Ink, later this year — and a clothing line, 1791 Supply & Co, which sells T-shirts, polos, rugbys, hoodies, and denim. When Levi’s launched a commercial glorifying youthful protest, Beck boycotted the brand, which he called the “uniform of the progressive movement.”

“I know you’re celebrating, but never again will I give you a dollar or a dime or what is it now?” he asked on his radio show. “Four hundred dollars for a pair of Levi’s? Thank you, but no thank you.” Shortly thereafter, he started producing his own jeans. An ad for 1791 Supply & Co invokes an America of yesteryear. “These were the first American blue jeans,” a narrator says. “The jeans that built America. And they were built in America. Built at a time when things were timeless. A time when you knew things would last. A time when people worked for their dreams and their dreams worked for them.” It could be the script of a Beck motion picture.

What Beck is offering is access to a lifestyle that revolves around the values he preaches. That differentiates him from his fellow radio-talk-show and television hosts, from other media moguls who produce discrete entertainment products, and from the broadcast networks that once dominated the television market.

Beck is more ambitious. Morgan described the need Beck has tapped into in an interview with the blog Inside Flipboard last year. “People are looking for media brands where they feel affinity and alignment with their personal values,” she said. “There are so many choices now that it’s absolutely overwhelming for an average consumer to find a news brand that feels like it represents them.”

Beck puts it this way: “We stand for stories of love and courage where the good guys win. We are a group of people who believe that the good guys actually win in the end.”

The morning I visited, featured as its top piece the story of an eight-year-old boy who turned over the $20 he’d discovered in the parking lot of a Cracker Barrel to a uniformed soldier. The boy, whose father had died in Iraq when he was an infant, had wrapped the bill in a note that read: “Dear Soldier — my dad was a soldier. He’s in heaven now. I found this 20 dollars in the parking lot when we got here. We like to pay it forward in my family. It’s your lucky day! Thank you for your service. Myles Eckert, a gold star kid.”

“This is now the most viral story TheBlaze has ever done,” Beck announced on his radio show. “What does that tell you? I think because for just a moment while you’re hearing that story, the world makes sense. For just a minute, a fraction of a second while you’re reading this story, you recognize your country, you recognize how far we’ve drifted and you celebrate the fact that it still does exist, we still are a decent people.”

* * *

Certainly, remnants of the old Beck remain. On his daily radio and television shows, he can’t escape the news cycle or fully embrace his more conciliatory self. When I sat in on a 7 a.m. meeting he held with senior staff members, he was fully focused on Russia’s incursion into Ukraine. “A new world order is coming, which is what the leftists, the Communists, and everybody else wants,” he said. South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham had, the previous day, pushed the president to take a number of diplomatic actions against Russia. A staff member brought Beck up to date. “You piece of garbage,” he said of Graham, under his breath. Beck has little love for Graham or his friend John McCain, the Republican senators who are often agitating for the U.S. to adopt a more muscular foreign policy. 

News networks over the weekend reported that the president was not present at a meeting of his senior national-security staff. “Where the hell was he?” Beck asks. He looks at Joel Cheatwood, president and chief content officer of TheBlaze, whose face appears on a screen from Mercury’s offices in New York. “Joel? Have we gotten an answer yet? I want to be able to say we are getting stonewalled.” On his television show that afternoon, he says just that.

“I will always talk about politics in this format because that’s what this format is,” he says. “I am a man literally torn in half. Sometimes I am wildly pessimistic. But only when I read the news and I read what people in Washington are doing.”

— Eliana Johnson is media editor of National Review Online.

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