The Trouble With Pitches

I tweeted yesterday that I liked Reihan Salam’s take on Glenn Beck. That led to some vigorous pushback on Twitter from TKOed and also from Lady Z who spells her thoughts out in a good blog post.

What struck me as interesting about the controversy is the extent to which it focused on an issue that I thought was totally irrelevant to why Salam’s piece is excellent, namely the fact that Salam conceit that “Glenn Beck is the White Malcolm X” doesn’t stand up to scrutiny and that he makes a number of errors of fact regarding the life and world of Malcolm X. In my reading, this is an article about Glenn Beck and white identity politics, not an article about Malcolm X. The Malcolm X stuff is a pitch you make to an editor. It’s a hook you use to draw readers in. It’s a stick in the hornets nest to drive controversy and thus attention. If you titled the piece “Glenn Beck’s Rising Popularity Reflects Underlying Shifts in American Demographics” you’d have a big problem on your hands.

This is something I’ve always found problematic about traditional journalism business models. You often find solid information or analysis buried or twisted by the search for neat framing or catchy conceits. So for the record, here’s what I consider to be the analytic core of Salam’s piece, something that has nothing to do with Malcolm X:

This year, in contrast, will likely be the first in which non-Hispanic whites will be a minority among newborns. In part, this reflects an average birthrate of 1.87 for non-Hispanic white women as opposed to 2.99 for Hispanic women, with African American and Asian American birthrates falling in between. Without foreign-born mothers, the U.S. would have below-replacement fertility, like much of Western Europe. This would mean less demographic vitality, but it would also mean that the pace of cultural change would slow markedly. With each passing year, the cultural mix of the United States is growing more Latin and Asian and black. Non-Hispanic whites are just 56 percent of the under-18 population, a reality reflected in an increasingly pan-ethnic youth culture that seems baffling to older white Americans. Imagine how elderly viewers of Glenn Beck must feel when they accidentally catch themselves watching an episode of Jersey Shore.


This generational culture clash is already driving our politics. The battle over health reform pitted elderly citizens who feared Medicare cuts against less affluent younger voters clamoring for stronger social protections. A similar dynamic has defined bitter fights over school funding across the Southwest.

Beck is a greedy fraud who’s good at getting people to pay attention to him as a means of becoming famous and making money. He’s no Malcolm X. But he’s good at what he does, and it’s worth trying to understand what the waves of audience sentiment are that he’s riding. And these demographic shifts, paired with a bad economy, are driving a surge of white old person conservative nostalgia politics.