Before Glenn Beck started his new show on Fox News in January, he sat down with Roger Ailes, the network’s chief executive, to make sure they were on the same page.
“I wanted to meet with Roger and tell him, ‘You may not want to put me on the air. I believe we are in dire trouble, and I will never shut up,’ ” said the conservative radio host.
But before Beck could say anything, Ailes shared a message of his own: The country faced tough times, he said, and Fox News was one of the only news outlets willing to challenge the new administration.
“I see this as the Alamo,” Ailes said, according to Beck. “If I just had somebody who was willing to sit on the other side of the camera until the last shot is fired, we’d be fine.”
That couldn’t have suited Beck more. In making the jump to the top-rated cable news channel from HLN, where he had a show for two years, he hoped to alert more people to one of his consuming fears: that the government’s handling of the economic crisis is ushering in an era of socialism.
“Look in your rear-view mirror; we just passed France,” he said. “I think our country is on the verge of disintegration.”
Beck’s indignant critiques of the Obama administration and gloomy outlook on the nation’s financial health have found near-instant resonance. His eponymous 2 p.m. PST program averaged nearly 2.2 million viewers last month -- double the number the time slot attracted the previous February and a remarkable amount for the afternoon. That made “Glenn Beck” the third-most-watched program in all of cable news for the month, after Bill O’Reilly’s and Sean Hannity’s evening shows.
“I look at the ratings every day shocked,” Beck said on a recent afternoon, sitting shoeless in his Midtown office as snow pelted the Manhattan skyline behind him.
But he believes he knows why viewers are tuning in: “People know in their gut that something’s not right. They’re not getting the truth.”
A similar challenging tone can be heard across Fox News, which has embraced its role as an opposition voice to the new administration.
The network’s pundits have incredulously questioned President Obama’s fiscal policies, while its correspondents have dogged stories like the White House plan to oversee the 2010 census.
“I think we’ve been doing a very good job of trying to point out some things that maybe some other news organizations haven’t pointed out,” said Bill Shine, the network’s senior vice president of programming. “We’re kind of looking for things that people aren’t being told.”
The network’s tenor has not gone unnoticed.
“I think it’s fair to say that I don’t always get my most favorable coverage on Fox, but I think that’s part of how democracy is supposed to work,” Obama told “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace last month.
The approach has paid off in the ratings. After CNN scored key victories with its election coverage last year, Fox News has now regained its wide lead. In February, the cable channel enjoyed a 29% overall spike in viewership and ranked third among all basic cable channels in prime time.
So much for the predictions that Fox News, reportedly the favorite channel of former Vice President Dick Cheney, wouldn’t fare well in an Obama administration.
“I read some Internet postings that we were going to die and wither away, just because we’re not on the TVs at the White House,” Shine recalled with a chuckle.
Major Garrett, the network’s White House correspondent, attributes much of the viewership boost to the sheer volume of major stories that broke in the last month. In addition, “there very may well be a curiosity about the Fox brand interacting with the Obama brand,” he said. “There may be an expectation of a higher degree of skepticism.”
The president himself has stoked some of that, joking to House Republicans in January that he would watch them on Fox News “and feel bad about myself.”
Network executives vigorously dispute the notion that the channel has a conservative slant.
Although its popular prime-time commentators may be largely on the political right, the channel plays it straight with its daytime news programming, they argue.
“There are no marching orders,” agreed Garrett, who said he doesn’t see himself as tougher on the administration than his competitors on the beat.
But with Hannity recently losing liberal co-host Alan Colmes and “Glenn Beck” replacing a news program at 2 p.m. PST, the network’s right-leaning personalities have taken on even more prominence just as the Obama administration has geared up.
Beck stresses that he’s a libertarian, not a Republican partisan, and prides himself on skewering politicians of every stripe. (“The Washington power elite makes me want to vomit,” he said on a recent show.) But he has been particularly forceful in condemning Obama, whom he calls “breathtakingly brilliant” in his ability to overwhelm the opposition. In Beck’s new studio, the host hung a Mao-style poster of Obama that had been sent in by a viewer. It mockingly says: “We will fulfill all that our leader desires!”
“Did anybody watch the speech last night and have blood just shooting right out of your eyes?” Beck asked on the air last week after Obama’s address to Congress.
Driving his rhetoric is a sense of urgency about the path the nation is taking.
“If I told you what I really believe was going to come -- I’ve made people cry,” he said in an interview. “I think we’re headed for real trouble.
“You’ve never met anybody who wants to be wrong more than I do,” Beck added. “I have nothing to gain and everything to lose. If I’m right, what do I have? I don’t grow my business. I have no reason to say these things.”
Perhaps not, but Beck’s grim prognosis has helped him find an instant fan base on Fox News, where he is getting more than five times the viewership that he had on HLN last year.
Shortly before airtime Monday, the 45-year-old host bounced on his feet in the chilly studio, quickly racing through the show’s opening on a teleprompter. Suddenly, he stopped short.
“We still have 90 seconds -- why don’t you tell me about last night’s ratings?” he said to his producer in the control room upstairs.
The word came back through his earpiece: 2.2 million viewers, more than CNN, MSNBC and HLN combined at that hour. A grin spread across Beck’s face.
“Wow, we’re closing in on O’Reilly!” he exclaimed jovially. “I’m coming for him!”