Rupert Murdoch and Fox News mark the depths to which even they will no longer descend.
Rupert Murdoch will kowtow to the Chinese. He will lie. He will make promises about maintaining the old standards at a newspaper he's purchasing and then promptly break them. He'll assign his journalists to dig up dirt on his business opponents. He'll slag the Dalai Lama: "I have heard cynics who say he's a very political old monk shuffling around in Gucci shoes." And when it suits him, Murdoch will order his journalistic troops to perform the reverse ferret.
But with the shuttering of Glenn Beck's show on the Fox News Channel, we now know that there is a journalistic sub-basement beneath even the genocidal tyrant.
I have no direct evidence that Murdoch killed the Beck show. Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff wrote last summer of Wendi Deng Murdoch making fun of Beck in front of Murdoch, making him "scowl." We also understand that the man who runs Fox News, Roger Ailes, wasn't enamored of Beck. "Half of the headlines say he's been canceled," Ailes told the Associated Press in April, when the show got the hook. "The other half say he quit. We're pretty happy with both of them." And, of course, other Fox journalists weren't keen about the prospect that Beck was "becoming the face of the network," according to a March 2010 Howard Kurtz report.
Whether you view Beck as an "activist" and a "comedian," as TV analyst Andrew Tyndall puts it in the Kurtz piece, or as a carnival huckster and loopy talk-show host with a chalkboard, as others have, he gave the entire Murdoch empire a case of the willies for much of his stay on the cable channel.
Murdoch ordinarily doesn't care that much about what "proper" people think of his enterprises. For several years now, he has sandbagged the press, the police, and a variety of politicians and celebrities in the ever-burgeoning U.K. phone-hacking scandal. He doesn't give a rip when critics denounce Fox News for paying several Republican presidential contenders to appear on-air, thereby incubating their political aspirations, or when they yell at him for donating $1 million to the Republican Governors Association. Bring on the hate, bring on the denunciations. Like the honey badger, Murdoch doesn't care what others think of him.
But even a nihilist—and nihilism, not conservatism, is Murdoch's political creed—has his practical limits. And Beck's show tunneled directly to the space below those Murdochian limits.
I don't think it's Beck's outrageousness that got to Murdoch. If we trust Michael Wolff as a guide to Murdoch's psyche, Murdoch "absolutely despises" Fox News' outrageous star Bill O'Reilly, but he likes the money he brings in too much ever to push him out. Also, O'Reilly's outrageousness never reaches the fetid depths that define Murdoch's no-go zone. Say what you will about Bill: Even when he's yelling, his point of view is both comprehensible and internally consistent. You can't say that for Beck's Nazi, Hitler, Holocaust, fascism, communism, world-government, Joseph McCarthy, Obama-"racism," Obama-"affinity"-for-Islam, "Great Awakening," and end-times riffing.
Charting Beck's decline in a March 2011 piece for the New Republic, James Downie wrote:
Last November, in a two-part special that indirectly invoked anti-Semitism, he accused liberal Jewish financier George Soros of orchestrating the fall of foreign governments for financial gain. During the Egyptian Revolution, Beck sided with Hosni Mubarak, alleging that his fall was "controlled by the socialist communists and the Muslim Brotherhood." Beck is now warning viewers not to use Google, accusing the search-engine giant of "being deep in bed with the government."
Never really adding up to anything, the Beck show had a way of subtracting from itself. Under Beck's control, his set looked like a crackpot's headquarters instead of a broadcaster's command center. Even his skilled delivery, honed by years of apprenticeship and journeyman radio broadcasting around the country, projected like a controlled mental breakdown by the end of his show's run. (See also Dana Milbank's document of Beck's mental squalor, Tears of a Clown: Glenn Beck and the Tea Bagging of America.)
Beck always made of point of being independent of Murdoch's empire. He has his best-selling books, a website (The Blaze), a magazine, lecture-hall bookings, and probably a nut-fudge concession stand somewhere. If the press wanted to talk to him, they had to contact Beck's people at Mercury Radio Arts, not the folks at Fox. As several writers have pointed out, Beck's distance from the Fox mind-meld may have played a bigger role in the killing of his show than the advertiser boycotts and falling ratings. Murdoch craves dependency in his employees. As somebody (damn you, memory!) put it in the recent Bloomberg TV documentary on Murdoch, Rupert is the only person who matters at News Corp. There is no second-in-command or subsidiary power. There is only Rupert. If somebody comes or goes at News Corp., we can assume it's because he wishes it so.
We can be both comforted and dismayed by the discovery that Glenn Beck marks a space several rungs below Murdoch's absolute bottom: Comforted by the knowledge that even Murdoch and company are capable of revulsion but dismayed that had Beck taken 10 percent off his fastball, he'd still be pitching.
The show must have confounded Murdoch and his people by the end of its run. Part infomercial, part talk show, part confessional, part lecture, part revival, it wasn't journalism or even para-journalism. You never knew whether Beck believed what he was saying or whether he was just doing his best to stir the animals up (to pinch a phrase from Mencken). As Ailes told the AP, it's hard to keep that trick going forever.
Like other recovering alcoholics, Beck projected a warped sense of correctness about his view of the world. For the better part of 30 months, his passion intoxicated a sufficient number of viewers to keep Fox off his back. But instead of becoming more sober, he became less until he was as blitzed as the alcohol-deprived Jack Torrance in The Shining.
For now, Beck is gone. I'll drink to that. And somewhere tonight, I'm sure Rupert Murdoch is drinking, too.
Now don't all of you people in recovery come after me for those last two paragraphs. Sober up for a minute and keep your views to yourselves. Everybody else can send email to email@example.com. All you can drink flows from my Twitter feed 24/7. (Email may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)