I've written here several times recently about the wanton recklessness of right-wing radio and TV hosts -- particularly Glenn Beck but also nationally syndicated conspiracy-monger Alex Jones and others -- in spewing out conspiracy theories to keep listeners engaged for fun and profit, with no regard for how their words might impact the most unhinged in their audience.
One of the chapters in my recent book "The Backlash" deals with one such case in Pittsburgh, a young employed fan of Beck -- and also of racist websites -- named Richard Poplawski who was parroting Beck-inspired theories in early 2009 about rounding up citizens into so-called "FEMA camps" and the collapse of the dollar and the food supply and the coming "Obama gun confiscation" all right before he gunned down three police officers who came to his house in a domestic dispute that April.
"Rich, like myself, loved Glenn Beck," Poplawski's best friend Eddie Perkovic told me during a long interview in his narrow rowhouse on the steep hill running down to the Allegheny. (Perkovic had a lot of time -- he was wearing an ankle bracelet for house arrest because of an unrelated case.) Perkovic and his mom -- who also had a close relationship with the accused cop-killer, still awaiting trial -- told me that for months Poplawski had been obsessed with an idea -- frequently discussed by Beck, including in ads for his sponsor Food Insurance -- of the need to stockpile food and even toilet paper for a societal breakdown. Poplawski was also convinced that paper money would become worthless -- another claim given credence by the Fox News Channel host, particularly in close connection with his frequent shilling for the now-under-investigation gold-coin peddler Goldline International.
This morning. Media Matters for America -- where I am a senior fellow -- published a powerful investigative report on another case in which irresponsible and unfounded ratings-seeking blather from Beck and other talk hosts on the right, including Alex Jones and Michael Savage, drove a man in California named Byron Williams (pictured at top) on a path toward a violent shootout with law enforcement:
At one point, I ask Byron if he thinks Fox is worthwhile.
"I'm not gonna say anyone is worthwhile," he replies. "I would have never started watching Fox News if it wasn't for the fact that Beck was on there. And it was the things that he did, it was the things he exposed that blew my mind. I said, well, nobody does this."
Throughout the interview -- and in a letter I would receive later -- Byron tells me I need to watch Beck's programs from June. He says that's where I can learn about the Soros-Obama-Petrobras conspiracy he heatedly described in our earlier conversation.
"You need to go back to June -- June of this year, 2010 -- and look at all his programs from June. And you'll see he's been breaking open some of the most hideous corruption," Byron says. "A year ago, I was watching him, and it was OK, he was all right, you know? ... But now he's getting it."
The entire report is lengthy, but it deserves a read to understand the threat of violence that comes from irresponsible trash talk out of the media megaphones underwritten by large corporations like News Corp. No one is suggesting that Beck or the others lose their all-American right to free speech, but exercising free speech at that level comes with real responsibility, and so decent society needs to hold their feet to the fire when Beck or Savage or Jones spew lies and half-truths that inspire the deranged into action. The role that half-baked, media-money-driven thought played in the murder of three Pittsburgh police officers - Eric Guy Kelley, Stephen Mayhle, and Paul Sciullo -- is already unconscionable, but encouraging one more violent loon like Rich Poplawski or Byron Williams to go off would be beyond unforgivable.
Footnote: I see that Beck is off for a few days this week undergoing medical tests for several ailments. I hope that he gets well soon. I always wish the best of health for political adversaries so they can return to the playing field of ideas -- where their dangerous ideas can be crushed.