Critics call him a "toxic asset" for Fox News Channel who "passes off lies as journalism," citing as Exhibit A his claim that President Barack Obama is a racist. Left-leaning MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann derided him as an "uneducated, imperceptive, panicky whack job" after a segment where he misspelled the word "oligarchy" on a chalkboard.
But even during a boycott that has persuaded more than 60 advertisers to move their commercials from his show to other spots on the channel, Fox News host Glenn Beck scored an important coup this week - watching presidential adviser Van Jones resign after Beck spent weeks assailing his history, political views and public statements on his radio and television shows.
To trace the roots of Beck's success as Fox News' fastest rising star, consider fans like retired Marine and registered Democrat Tim Curtis, who readily pulls out a business card featuring the nine principles and 12 values of the 912 Project. The campaign was organized by the talk show host to recreate the spirit of American unity the day after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and Beck is scheduled to broadcast on Fox News from a Washingtonrally at 1 p.m. today to commemorate the date.
Describing itself as a "nonpartisan group of patriots working to restore our country to its constitutional basis," the project features principles such as "America Is Good" and "I believe in God and He is the center of my life." Curtis now networks with 800 other Tampa Bay area 912 Project members online, visiting town hall meetings on health care reform, including the acrimonious Aug. 6 public forum in Ybor City that drew national attention.
Beck "is giving voice to what I have believed my whole life," said Curtis, 52, a Tampa mortgage broker who has listened to Beck since he started his first radio talk show on Tampa talk station WFLA-AM (970) back in January 2000. "For many of us, it's about our core values as Americans. ... Beck just has the microphone."
That may be the central paradox about Beck, whose show averaged 2.3 million viewers a day last month, emerging as Fox News' third most-watched program. (Olbermann drew an average of 1.08 million, and Fox News host Bill O'Reilly attracted an average 3.3 million nightly in August, according to the Nielsen Co.)
Even as critics insist that his emotional and dramatic arguments strain credulity and twist facts, fans like Curtis see a charismatic symbol - an entertaining, conservative champion who articulates the frustration and fear they feel as the country faces daunting challenges.
"Glenn Beck tends to make you think things through on your own," said Jackie Payne, 58, of Palm Harbor, who began listening to Beck on local radio back in 2000, when he focused on the struggle over Florida during the presidential election and hit his stride as a talk show host.
"How many people are reading the Constitution for themselves?" said Payne, who distrusts Obama's plans to overhaul the country's health care system. "He makes people wake up and not just listen to sound bites."
When Taylor Raynor was just 12, he idolized Beck so much he wrote a song for him. Upon a visit to his New York studio, Raynor handed Beck a tape of the tune, called Corruption of America:
Guys swimming naked on meth and cocaine
This is our country/isn't it insane?
Political figures playing politics/Not even worried about a possible apocalypse
The media and their stupid words
This is our country/isn't it absurd?
Now 15, Raynor's enthusiasms have moved on to guitar playing and indie rock. But Raynor - who remembers learning how to say Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's name as he watched Beck rail about a coming war with the country - credits the host with opening his eyes to the world, even as the show's growing alarmism was also stoking his fears.
"I was young and a sponge. ... I just soaked up what he said," said Raynor, who stopped regularly watching Beck as he got older. "He kind of joked around ... and showed how crazy our country can be. He was an eye-opener for the news - he just got me hooked on it. ... (But) he did make a lot of it seem all negative."
Paying attention to the evidence
Beck's criticism of the Obama administration has already claimed one casualty: Van Jones.
Using a chalkboard, huge notepad easels and video clips, Beck vowed to "question with boldness" Obama's advisers, including the White House's green jobs "czar," whom he criticized for past ties to the Communist Party and black nationalism.
Beck also highlighted Jones' use of a profanity to describe Republicans during a speech in February and his signing of a petition that suggests the Bush administration may have allowed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to happen. On Sunday, Jones resigned his position. (A spokesman for the National Endowment for the Arts, Yoshi Sargent, was also reassigned this week after Beck accused him of trying to use taxpayer money to fund art supporting President Obama.)
But another Obama adviser, science and technology guru John Holdren, has denied charges repeated by Beck that he once advocated forced abortions as a population control tactic. And Beck has invoked the image of Nazis and eugenics to suggest the possible impact of current efforts to reform the nation's health care system.
Last year, Factcheck.org looked at another conservative criticism of Obama that Beck has echoed: that the president admitted planning a Gestapo-like "civilian national security force" in a 2008 speech. The site concluded the then-candidate was talking about expanding the size of volunteer organizations such as the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps.
But Curtis, who insisted he had read a transcript of Obama's 2008 speech, believed Beck. "I think Barack Obama has a different world view than I do and much of America does," Curtis added. "I see him taking the country in a direction I'm entirely uncomfortable with. ... If I'm given some evidence, I would be happy to change my ideas. But it has to be some pretty compelling evidence."
Reflecting his constituency
Former Clear Channel Radio executive Gabe Hobbes sees Beck's success as an extension of the lessons they both learned while crafting his show for WFLA-AM in early 2000. Back then, Hobbes had hired the host from New Haven, Conn., where he was working in Top 40 radio, convinced Beck could be successful in political talk.
"You figure out who you're talking to, and ... try to reflect back to them what they're doing," said Hobbes, who recalled Beck struggled initially to swing from the young female audience in Top 40 to the middle-aged men of talk radio. "If the guy you're talking to is a 42-year-old white-collar male who lives in Fish Hawk Ranch and has 2.5 kids, what does he worry about? Hosts have done this since the beginning of time - find the polarizing point in any subject, bring it out and then render your opinion."
Eventually, Beck would develop his Tampa show into a nationally syndicated program, crafting a TV version for CNN Headline News. That show moved to Fox this year.
These days, Beck sits atop an array of media platforms that include the radio show, books, comedy tours and a magazine. He says his message is about asking important questions; critics say he makes unfair insinuations and seems focused on opposing Democrats at every turn.
But for fans who see the host articulating ideas rarely heard in mainstream media, Beck's message offers a welcome affirmation and simplification during troubling times.
"It is amazing to me that we've been asleep ... like that frog in the slowly boiling pot of water," said Payne. "But Glenn Beck says we do need to hold our officials accountable. We need to go further than just listening to the talking points and the sound bites."