Serving Multiple Masters, or I Wade into the Glenn Beck Thingy

April 07, 2011

Let’s face it — for most of the people likely to be reading this blog, Glenn Beck is a character on The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert, not on Fox News. His extreme and polarizing views made for great theater to the believers and great parody to the rest of us. If media is about having a point-of-view, then Glenn Beck is the uber-media god among men. He can be accused of many things but lacking a strong set of opinions will never be one of them.

Not that my audience needs proof of this, but one of his recent quotes justifying his leaving (or maybe being fired from) Fox News is absolutely beautiful:

“Paul Revere did not get up on the horse and say, ‘I’m going to do this for the rest of my life.’ He didn’t do it. He got off the horse at some point and fought in the Revolution, and then he went back to silversmithing.”

Absolutely wonderful. He’s not saying he’s Paul Revere. But he’s not saying he isn’t either.

The fact is, pissing people off is kind of the raison d’être of media: having everyone’s view is not really having a point-of-view. Kevin Kelly, friend of the show and the first executive editor at Wired magazine, once told me he thought his job was to piss off 20% of the readers of the magazine every month — he just had to make sure it was a different 20% every month. Media is interesting because it elicits emotional response and Glenn Beck did as good a job as anyone at that over the last year. I may have consumed his content through the filters of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, but boy it was good television.

The hard part about point-of-view based media, however, is that there are two masters — the audience and the advertisers. Even media businesses that have non-advertising revenue streams (like a cable network) still tend to be mostly dependent on advertisers. And therein lies the counterbalance to the most extreme points-of-view. As Roger Ailes head of Fox News was quoted: “Advertisers who get weak-kneed because some idiot on a blog site writes to them and says we need to stifle speech, I get a little frustrated by that.”

Which represents the ultimate synthesis of all that is right and all that is wrong about having a strong point-of-view. Your ideas make you brilliant, their ideas make them idiots. But everyone wins until someone else stops paying the bills.

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