Facts don’t Beck(on) some television pundits

A strange, and to my mind inexplicable, thing happened to what we call “news” on the way to the end of the first decade of the 21st century.

News is no longer what I, and my generation who studied journalism in what I call its Golden Age, were taught. It’s no longer a set of facts presented as dispassionately as possible, along with a side of opinion that was found primarily on the editorial pages of newspapers and in political journals. Way back then, in the 1960s and ‘70s,  there was virtually no opinion journalism on television.

Today, it should come as no surprise, although it’s dismaying nonetheless, more and more people, and by some accounts most people, get their news from television pundits who deal not in facts, but in pure opinion.

That might be acceptable if all of that opinion was based on a set of generally accepted facts. But it’s not. Long gone are the days when, as N.Y. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it, “Everybody is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.” These days, facts mean little.

Which brings me to what is the most inexplicable phenomenon to emerge from the soup of what passes as journalism today. That would be Glenn Beck. I simply don’t get it.

I used to listen to him on KNZZ driving home from work, back when he was just another talking head with nothing insightful to say and not much in the way of an audience. I listened more for entertainment than enlightenment. He was goofy. He was melodramatic. He was corny. He was emotional. He was often stupid. He wasn’t a whole lot different from what has always been found on radio. He was kind of like one of those radio guys who decides to sit on top of a billboard until it rains as a way to bring an end to the drought. He was pointless.

But for some reason a few years ago, his antics began to resonate and today he’s a genuine media star and people — a lot of people — actually pay attention to what he says and think he knows what he’s talking about.

Well, he doesn’t. Nor do a lot of other TV pundits, from both sides of the political spectrum. But Beck, while not the worst when it comes to dealing in, as Stephen Colbert puts it, “truthiness” (the worst is the Mother of All Radio Shouters,  Rush Limbaugh), of late has from some reason captured the hearts and minds of millions.

“PolitiFact,” a website operated by the St. Petersburg Times, routinely checks the accuracy of statements by politicians, lobbyists and government officials. Lately it’s been checking the accuracy of television talkers. Beck, it turns out, talks a lot but often what he says has little relationship with the truth. He seems to want his own opinions and his own facts.

To date (this was written before Beck’s speech last weekend at the Lincoln Memorial and PolitiFact promised to run that speech through its research department) 17 Beck statements have been analyzed. Of those, one — just one — was found to be accurate. Five were found to be false and three were found to be, in PolitiFact parlance, “pants on fire.” In other words they were laughably far from the truth.

An example of how Beck takes a kernel, a very, very small kernel of truth and turns it into an outright lie: Beck said, “In the health care bill, we’re now offering insurance for dogs.”

And just what prompted that statement? Apparently it’s a section of the bill that creates scholarships and other assistance for health care professionals, including veterinarians. The rationale behind it is that veterinarians just might be a necessary component of good health care in the age of such things as mad cow disease and swine flu. That seems reasonable to me. But even if it’s not, it’s a far cry from offering health insurance for dogs.

All of this would be nothing more than entertainment on the way home from work for those of us who are easily amused if it were not for the fact that Beck’s audience has grown exponentially. People actually listen to this guy and put stock in what he says.

That’s the (unfortunate) truth.

Denny Herzog is the retired executive editor of The Daily Sentinel. E-mail him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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