As conservative pundit Glenn Beck presents his final Fox News Channel show today, media critics are left with one, nagging question:
Did he change the media more than media changed him?
On this, the final day of his 5 p.m. show, there is a feeling of a hand pulled back from a flame. Yes, he probably was too independent for Fox News mastermind Roger Ailes; there is little doubt the targeting of his advertisers hurt (to the tune of 300 Fox News clients avoiding the show, according to liberal watchdog Media Matters), and an average daily viewership plunge from 2.8 million in early 2010 to 1.8 million in June didn't help.
But I'm convinced Beck was a moth who couldn't survive in the hot flame of mainstream media attention. The Time magazine cover, New York Times magazine profile, uncomfortable appearance on The View and incessant punch lines from Jon Stewart were too much for a conspiracy theorist who can contradict himself several times in the same sentence and cries when talking about a Christmas sweater.
Over the past few days, Beck has prepared his fans on Fox for the transition, decrying mob rule and talking about persecution of outspoken conservatives.
"The fact is, if you look at the whole landscape of the media … most (workers there) I believe are dead inside," Beck told viewers Wednesday. "They lost their way because they had come up through the ranks and saw focus groups and everything else. I didn't have that problem."
For those seeking clues about his friction with Fox News, there may be no clearer answer.
It's an odd landing place for a man once considered the fastest-rising star in conservative media. Today, Beck leaves the largest home of TV conservatism after a tumultuous 21/2 years for a subscriber-based online video venture called GBTV and an uncertain future.
Still, there are important lessons embedded in Beck's rise and transition worth thinking about.
There may be a limit to pugnacious partisanship: Beck's advertiser troubles exploded when he said President Barack Obama had a "deep-seated hatred against white people," just before insisting America's first black president was a "racist." (Beck later retracted the statement.) He has also denounced the popular uprising in Egypt as the result of an alliance between Islamic radicals, communists and socialists to create one-world government. As rumors spread that some at Fox News felt their credibility was damaged by his pronouncements, Beck seemed undone by draining support even among conservatives outside his hard-core fan base.
He built his brand slowly, until he exploded: I always thought Beck was smart to start his TV show in 2006 on CNN Headline News, then an under-the-radar channel. He began that program with a minimum of fanfare, casting himself as a younger, more irreverent version of Rush Limbaugh. By the time he came to Fox's big conservative stage in 2009, Beck had his TV chops down.
He leverages his brand smartly: Like MSNBC's Keith Olbermann and Oprah Winfrey, Beck is counting on his fans to grant him the autonomy to say and do what he wants in media. By leaving the Fox News show, he moves his work to outlets he controls completely, including his website, the Blaze, his syndicated radio show, his books, the public speaking tours and GBTV. Beck is betting his brand is big enough to feed fans into that media network alone, free from interference by corporate bosses or critical outsiders.
And among all the media stars trying to convert their brand into independent success, he might be best poised to pull it off. But can a guy who once brought crowds to the National Mall be satisfied speaking to his most devoted fans off the mainstream media grid?
That might be Beck's biggest remaining media challenge.