US News & World Report

By Nicole Hemmer

There was a kid-in-a-candy-store glint in Jon Stewart’s eye last week and Cliven Bundy put it there. An antigovernment anarchist who proudly waved the American flag, who denounced “government subsidy” while stealing nearly a million dollars from the federal government, who prattled on about liberty and freedom while suggesting that some people would be better off enslaved — what more could a political comedian ask for? Yet for all that, the development that seemed to delight Stewart most was this: the broad support for Bundy on Fox News made Glenn Beck “the voice of reason.”

“The voice of reason” is an unlikely descriptor for the conservative broadcaster, whose “Beautiful Mind”-esque chalkboard diagrams were a fixture on Fox News until he left in 2011. So how did Beck, who once declared Barack Obama harbored “a deep-seated hatred for white people,” emerge unscathed by a story that ensnared so many of his compatriots in conservative media?

Part of it is personal history. Beck has been fooled before by the right’s latest flavor of the week. In 2010, he zeroed in on Eric Massa, a Democratic congressman who resigned from office over allegations that he had sexually harassed a male staffer. Massa, though, had a different story to tell, one of Obama administration corruption and intrigue. Recounting a heated locker room encounter with then Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel, Massa claimed he had been forced out of office for voting against the Affordable Care Act.

It was music to Beck’s ears. “This guy is the guy we’ve been looking for,” he announced when he heard Massa’s story. He immediately booked Massa on his television program. “This is a moment that will change the course of this nation, possibly,” he said, opening the hour. What followed was a trainwreck. Massa copped to groping his staffer, backed off all his allegations of corruption and ended with a plea for campaign finance reform. As the program ended, a mortified Beck told his audience, “I think I’ve just wasted an hour of your time.”

That experience no doubt informed Beck’s decision to slow-play the Bundy story. But Beck is also in a much different place in his career. In 2010 he rose to popularity as the id of the tea party: angry and emotive. A polarizing figure, he reached the peak of his influence at his “Restoring Honor” rally in August 2010. Thousands of conservatives flocked to Washington, but what they heard was not a battle cry but an altar call. Beck focused on faith, urging those gathered to turn to God for guidance.

It was the start of a transformation. The next year Beck left Fox and began to build his media empire, the Blaze. Brand became increasingly important, and Beck, while still wholly conservative, became a bit more contrarian. He apologized for “any role that I have played in dividing” the nation. He defended MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry while she was being savaged across conservative media. And he debunked James O’Keefe’s undercover recording of NPR executives, accusing O’Keefe of “questionable editing and tactics.” With each of these stories, Beck differentiated himself from the crowded conservative media world around him.

The Bundy episode played into both Beck’s impulse to avoid embarrassment and his desire to be different. Whether that makes him a “voice of reason” is a matter of some debate, but it does explain why he was one of the few right-wing media personalities to safely navigate the Bundy showdown.

This article was originally published in the US News & World Report