Glenn Beck must have thought he had an easy mark when he targeted Frances Fox Piven. Let’s face it. On paper she’s a female widowed lefty academic now approaching eighty. Most of her life’s work has been focused on enfranchising the poor through welfare reform and voter registration. Surely Beck thought that nearly fifty broadcasts worth of inflammatory disinformation and hate-mongering about Piven and their inevitable result—hate mail, comments and phone calls that range from brutally nasty and paranoid to those that cross the line into the genuine death threat category—would shut her up.
But Beck was wrong. Yes, Piven finally called the New York State troopers last Friday, but that was only after a fresh wave of death threats. And some of her friends are reaching out to the Manhattan District Attorney’s office and the FBI to see if there’s anything they can do. (After all, those e-mailed death threats may be anonymous, but ISPs can be traced.) But she’s not shutting up or going away. And she sees right through Beck and his ilk.
“The right’s propaganda campaign continually accuses the left of conspiracy when in fact the real conspiracies are on the right,” Piven told me. (This was after she carefully parsed the distinction between genuine death threats and people who write her notes saying, “I hope you fucking die you fucking bitch.” The latter, she explained, “Are just people wishing death on me.”) “The Koch brothers have called a meeting in CA next week for their supporters. Glenn Beck has these different corporate entities that boost him.”
Beck’s biggest corporate supporter, of course, is Fox News, whose very business model relies on false, inflammatory attacks. Hell, let some lefty like Vince Warren of the Center for Constitutional Rights talk about how “Fox has a moral responsibility to make sure their employees are reporting the news accurately and are not inciting violent reactions to the subjects of their commentary.” The lock-and-load-‘cause-they’re-coming-to-get-you attitude that fuels Fox’s commentators and feeds their base keeps ratings high and revenues flowing. (Full disclosure: I've done consulting work for CCR.)
And every so often someone gets killed: Fox host Bill O'Reilly popularized the inflammatory “Tiller the Baby Killer” tag and inveighed against Dr. Tiller in nearly 30 episodes before his murder. And then Fox News and the right are shocked, simply shocked, that the liberal media would be so base as to imply that people like O’Reilly and Beck help create an environment where violence against the left and government targets is acceptable.
So what happens when Beck’s repeated mischaracterizations of Piven as an “enemy of the Constitution” or “fundamentally responsible for the unsustainability and possible collapse of our economic system” get Fox’s viewers a little heated up—say to the point where they post comments like “ONE SHOT...ONE KILL!”? The Center for Constitutional Rights sends Fox CEO Roger Ailes a letter asking him to “help in stopping false accusations by Glenn Beck that are putting Professor Piven in danger.” Fox’s legal department sends back a letter that evades all responsibility for the hatred their business model incites and accuses CCR of “trying to create ill will for our company.”
And Piven? “They’re trying to shut the left up and make them hide,” she says, “So I think that every bit of public outrage we can muster against them is useful.” When I press her to explain, she mentions that she appreciates the protests against Fox and Beck, but quickly moves from there to the bigger picture. “I’d like more and more re-assertion of the politics being attacked—more focus on the economic and political rights of working and poor people, such as welfare rights and voter registration. These are the victories that have suffered the biggest reversals. We need to stop letting the right peel us off.”