He calls this conservative hero an "entertainer and a huckster," a "narcissistic demagogue huffing delusions of grandeur" whose $32-million-a-year media empire recalls the work of renowned flimflam showman P.T. Barnum more than his professed heroes Bob Hope and Orson Welles. • But author Alexander Zaitchik insists that in March 2009, when he started what would become a year of research and writing to assemble his new book, Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance, he had no real opinion or deep knowledge of Glenn Beck and his long, controversial history in media and politics. After a little time researching the viewing parties, meetups and devoted fan culture surrounding the emerging star, he knew a compelling story was brewing.
It's a book with a unique genesis in Tampa, assembled by Zaitchik mostly while sitting in Ybor City's King Corona Cigars Café and Bar, where the author took over a table in the restaurant's back area for 10 months while cranking out his 288-page tome.
By the time he was done, Zaitchik had found a girlfriend and developed serious doubts about Beck's methods and history — including suggesting that the host misrepresented the death of his mother, inflating it from an accidental drowning to a tragic suicide, which might evoke more sympathy and public support.
"Reading the police report, I found at the time that nobody considered it suicide," said Zaitchik of the May 1979 death of Mary Beck, which, he wrote, "would become the cornerstone event in her son's personal narrative of redemption." The book quotes a pallbearer from the funeral, newspaper accounts and government records that confirm the 41-year-old woman was a "classic drowning victim," despite Beck's claims that she intentionally ended her life.
This is the task Zaitchik tackles through detailed interviews, an examination of Beck's public statements and a look at public records — a tough critique of the host's history, philosophies and methods, aimed at separating fact from hyperbole. Zaitchik, who did not try to secure an interview with Beck, says now that he would not have believed much of what the host said had they talked.
It's an analysis with a point of view, concluding that Beck has built an elaborate moneymaking media machine on shifting political philosophies and a shock jock's sense of theater. The opening chapter sums up Beck as "our very own capitalist crackpot Che Guevara: fueling his legend and pushing his ideology with one hand, selling the T-shirt — millions of them — with the other."
"He's not like anyone else in AM radio or on Fox News," said Zaitchik, who documents how Beck progressed from being a competitive radio DJ who belittled a rival's wife over the telephone about her miscarriage to a nationally known TV pundit accusing the president of being a Communist and black nationalist. "When you talk to Beck fans, the first thing they say is he's entertaining and funny. It was clear he was much more of a cultural movement figure — much more a Sarah Palin than a Sean Hannity."
Along the way, Zaitchik details Beck's time as a personality at WFLA-AM 970 in Tampa, the first station to take a chance on the born-again Mormon trying to leave behind his morning zoo past for a new life in talk radio.
In a chapter titled "The Luckiest Loudmouth in Tampa," Zaitchik describes Beck's bumpy transition, starting his tenure playing snatches of Air Supply between talk segments and telling his audience of mostly males aged 25 to 54 how his new Mormon faith led him to give up alcohol and wait until marriage to have sex with his second wife.
"I called him into my office and told him he sounded like a weirdo," Sue Treccase, longtime Tampa radio fixture and then-WFLA program director, told Zaitchik for the book. "I explained to him that his target listeners are leaving work and thinking about two things: having a beer and getting laid. They really don't want to hear that you won't be doing either one."
A few things would save Beck's career in the Sunshine State. First, Clear Channel's purchase of Jacor Communications gave it control of multiple local radio stations and a syndication business starring Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura Schlessinger. The company sold off or traded several AM stations in formats that would not compete with WFLA, which it then filled with syndicated shows owned by Clear Channel.
Just a few months after Beck's show debuted in January 2000, Zaitchik noted, he was the only local issues-oriented radio host with a daily show.
Urged by local talk radio guru Gabe Hobbs to latch onto a local news event with a national scope, Beck was handed a gift in the November 2000 presidential election mess in Florida — a months-long clash between Democrats and Republicans that drew national attention rooted in the Sunshine State's peculiar electoral dysfunctions. A year later, he would use the same strategy in covering the terrorist attacks of 9/11, cementing his image as a diehard conservative voice.
"Clear Channel came in and made a parking lot of a vibrant talk radio scene (in the Tampa Bay area)," said Zaitchik, who also quotes local radio folks such as Tedd Webb and Mark Larson about those days. "9/11 transformed him into a guy saying 'Let's make a parking lot out of the Middle East.' And the rest is history."
Common Nonsense begins with a particularly Palin-esque moment rooted in Florida's unique embrace of Fox News-style conservatism: Beck's November 2009 rally at the Villages retirement community near Ocala, where he revealed his ambitious 100-year plan to vanquish progressives and reboot the Glenn Beck Nation.
"More than just a homecoming, Beck's Florida visit had been billed as a personal culmination and a national turning point," Zaitchik wrote. "Only something approaching The Rapture could have capped what had been a breakout year for the 45-year-old host."
By now, the broad details of Beck's rise are familiar to many. Third-born to a family in the farm town of Mount Vernon, Wash., Beck quickly became a young radio prodigy, rising to prominence as a "morning zoo" prankster Top 40 DJ who developed serious substance abuse problems before finding religion, switching to talk radio and finding meteoric success as a conservative firebrand.
"There's a sense of personal connection with Beck that you don't see with the right-wing talking heads," said Zaitchik, who previewed his book last year with a series of three tough stories on Beck's roots and influence for the online magazine Salon. "He understands radio as a personal medium more than most people doing it."
Through Beck's rise, from his move to Philadelphia and national radio syndication to his first TV show on CNN Headline News, his move to Fox News Channel, his five bestselling books, speaking tours, rallies and online efforts, Zaitchik faults the host for developing inconsistent, historically inaccurate views. The author renders him as part opportunist, part entertainer, assembling a team of supporters to create the books, video segments, rallies and radio shows that fuel his growing legend.
"I think, deep down, he wishes he could be a mainstream entertainment figure," said Zaitchik, now living in Brooklyn with the girlfriend he met in Tampa. "I think it pains him that he has to be a divisive character to get ahead. Deep down, he wants to be loved — he craves that acceptance and love."
Eric Deggans can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8521. See his blog, the Feed, at blogs.tampabay.com/media.