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December 16, 2010

Nina Berman & Alan Chin: Broke-Beck Mountains of Madness

Glenn Beck’s entourage of young assistants deploy off his bus in Wilmington, Ohio, uniformed in blue shirts emblazoned with his name and the title of his book “Broke”.

Part of it may have been the extremely cold weather, but the much-touted expectation of anywhere between five and twenty thousand Glenn Beck fans rallying to Wilmington to see their hero did not happen. There was a large crowd to be sure, but traffic alerts proved embarrassingly unnecessary, as local residents up to half a mile away forlornly offered parking for $5 or $10, even as ordinary curbside parking spots could easily be found a block or two from Main Street.

Beck started his day as host of a $500-a-person breakfast at the General Denver Hotel. The cost of the ticket included a photograph taken with him.

Hundreds wait for their numbers to be called before entering the Books ‘N’ More bookstore to get their Beck “Broke” books signed. Around 800 copies were sold, from which the store, but not Beck or his publisher, promised to donate part of the profit to local charities.


Head lowered, Beck holds a book buyer’s hands in a moment of prayer, while an assistant thrusts a volume forward.

In person, Glenn Beck seems like a teddy bear, wanting to be loved, wanting to give love. He is charming and squeezable, channeling a bit of the Bill Clinton magic, a little chubby, a little pasty, very white. Sincere. How could anybody be immune? But Clinton backed that up with an enormous intellect and powers of negotiation, whatever else you might think of him. In Beck, he triumphs his own ignorance while recycling long-discredited diatribes from the John Birch Society and McCarthyism.

Beck trumpets his appearances as celebrity stimulus to local commerce. But not only is the impact temporary and limited — mostly not out of his own pocket as he sells $30.00 books, $125.00 theater tickets, and $500.00 breakfast plates — it encouraged the most desperate sorts of free enterprise:

With a handwritten sign proclaiming “Patriot Bears For Beck” pinned to his chest, a local merchant advertises his store.

Judy Ahrmann sells tupperware in a vendor area set up in the basement of the bookstore. She was laid off by DHL when their air transport facility closed, costing the region 8000 jobs.

There is no question that Glenn Beck’s occupation of Wilmington for a day swirled some money around and some reached local businesses that need it badly. In Beck’s vision, Americans in struggling communities like Wilmington will save themselves by shopping. But when the only things for sale are meager and the only money to buy them came from selling goods and services equally meager, then the only one who ends up being anything but broke is Beck himself. There is something disconcerting about a book called “Broke” being aggressively sold to people who are, by a writer who isn’t.

And so with the breakdown of logic, a Beck event wouldn’t be complete without the presence of a few fringe characters. There was an insurance salesman in a Revolutionary War Patriot costume, holding a plastic chicken, railing about Obamacare, and this woman who circled downtown in a van with Santa Claus riding on the hood and stickers warning against an impending Communist takeover.

At the 24-hour Community Prayer Center on Main Street, Martha Wise is one of the volunteers. She says that, for three months, she has “tithed herself to God.”

Wilmington is a traditional small town — conservative in culture, moderate in politics, deeply religious — going through hard times. Its people were happy to host Glenn Beck, as they would have any celebrity or public figure. But if his ideology were implemented, the 16% of people unemployed, almost twice the national average, would lose all unemployment insurance, Medicaid, food stamps, and assistance to public schools. And that wouldn’t just be “conservative,” it would be brutal, and madness.

–Nina Berman and Alan Chin

PHOTOGRAPHS by NINA BERMAN / NOOR and ALAN CHIN / facingchange.org

This is the second of a two posts. View the first “Waiting for Beck” here.

Are you interested in seeing more great reporting like this at The Bag?  We’re asking each reader to contribute at least $20 to help underwrite our activities … ok, less if things are really tight, but more if you’ve got the means. Each $20 you contribute by December 28th also buys you a raffle ticket for prints and photo books signed by Bag’s contributors, and entry to our NY party if you’re in the neighborhood on the 29th. Click here to donate and check out what’s in the raffle. Thanks for helping underwrite this vital photojournalism  – Michael.

(note: 11am PST – minor edit for content)

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  • black dog barking

    The lady with the Xmas van has an Ed Wood thing going, lots of enthusiasm, interesting for its extreme oddity. Xmas fits quite well as a decorative accent to the right wing slogan fest. Some suggestions: “Jingo Bells”, “Put the White Back in Xmas”.

    (BTW, “I” before “E” except after “C”, not “L”.)

  • john thompson

    I’m not impressed with your assessment. You deserve Bill & Hilary Clintons’ legacy. JT

    • Charlie Evans

      Mr. Thompson,

      I believe the the legacy that you refer to, could be more honestly deemed: The Legacy of the Regan Revolution.

      Granted, Bill Clinton was just as republican as either Bush, and the Gipper himself; but isn’t Obama too?

      I don’t think the blame can be placed solely on the elected leaders of this nation as much as the boomer generation; the Me generation, the good time generation that wants everything, unwilling to pay anything, and cares more for their own ambitions than their own friggin children and grandchildren!

      Have no fear John, they are aging, and growing increasingly more irrelevant as time moves on. We, as a people, will not really get down to actually fixing the cornucopia of complex problems that we face until they have been put out to pasture.

      good riddance, boomers! (it couldn’t come soon enough!)

    • g

      wasn’t Bill Clinton’s legacy a budget surplus?

    • Charlie Evans

      Not exactly, G.

      His legacy was MUCH, MUCH, MORE: media consolidation, repeal of Glass/Stengal Act, Larry Summers, and MORE!

      I won’t discount the (projected) budget surplus, but the offset of so many deeper and esoteric turns to the right hardly seems as though it was worth it in the long run.

      I’m 43, and I don’t think that there has been an effectual President in most of my lifetime.

      Jimmy Carter was undoubtedly the most honest and sincere that I’ve seen in my memory, although that wasn’t enough chutzpah to get his agenda through Congress.

      Who represents the people?

    • http://motherrr.blogspot.com cmac

      Really? Boomers are to blame for everything bad in the country? Your analysis is simply bizarre. The boomer generation may be huge but it is not monolithic; boomers railed against the Vietnam War and fought for better government, civil rights, women’s rights, and respect for the environment. The tea partiers you see above do not represent my generation anymore than the young Beck supporters represent theirs. Every generation has its extremists of every stripe.

      Your enmity for a group of people whose only connection is the 15-year period within which they were born is beyond silly.

  • bystander

    The crux of it:

    …There is something disconcerting about a book called “Broke” being aggressively sold to people who are, by a writer who isn’t.
    []
    …But if his ideology were implemented, the 16% of people unemployed, almost twice the national average, would lose all unemployment insurance, Medicaid, food stamps, and assistance to public schools…

    Brutal? Yes. Madness? I submit pride. A brutal pride. And, Glenn Beck isn’t at all ashamed to manipulate it, although he should be. Sharing the shame are the Democrats and more traditional/honest Republicans who have nothing to offer as an alternative.

  • Bonac Bub

    Are you guys still journalists? Nice biased piece.

    • Alan Chin

      At the very top of this page: “BagNews is a progressive site dedicated to visual politics…”

      So to Bonac Bub, to answer your question, I am a journalist, but do not pretend to be without opinions or conclusions after seeing things for myself first-hand. Consider BagNews not to be AP or Reuters, but as a publication in some ways similar to The Nation, The New Republic, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Mother Jones.

      We work hard to get our facts right, both through research and direct interviews with the people we photograph. The analysis that then emerges does reflect specific points-of-view. And if we have done our job right, hopefully we have made compelling observations.

      And then, the conversations that can open up in this forum that we’ve created, that’s essential.

    • http://www.claireschneider.com Claire Schneider

      To Bonac; would you consider Fox News biased? Unfortunately opinion and news are not separate entities anymore, so don’t be a hypocrite

    • Bonac Bub

      Alan-

      Thanks for taking the time to to reply.

      I understand that BagNewsNotes has a liberal slant, so the piece did not surprise me in that way.

      I was just surprised that being journalists, you two wanted the images to be used in such a partisan way. I also understand that you have an opinion and may want to express that opinion.

      I guess what I am trying to say, is that as a photojournalist, I would have second thoughts of using my coverage from an event in such a biased way. I would be afraid that editors would see this, and not want to hire me in the future, because they would not be sure that I could give an impartial view of an assignment or a subject.

      I hope for your sakes, this does not effect your future prospects of being hired.

      Claire-

      I do consider Fox News incredibly biased. As I do MSNBC. Cant watch either one. I am a CNN addict, as I find it as close to impartial as I can find on cable. Not saying it is impartial, just more so than Fox News or MSNBC. It is a little boring though.

      I think you are right that opinion and news seem to be the same thing in what is considered media these days. But that does not make it right. I think journalists should still strive to not have an opinion and just write or show the facts, and let the reader surmise what they may. I guess I am old fashioned that way.

      Not sure how I am being a hypocrite here.

      Thanks guys.

    • Alan Chin

      Thanks for clarifying. This is something we’ve been talking about a lot. Here’s how I see it:

      If you’re a good reporter, if you’ve proven yourself on the metro desk and worked your way up, eventually you become a columnist (Maureen Dowd, Thomas Friedman, et al) or you get a better job at the New Yorker; jobs where you are definitely partisan and opinionated in your point-of-view.

      But as photographers, no matter how long we’ve been working, there’s this idea, a natural one, that we will always speak best through our photographs, and mostly keep our mouths shut. Certainly, there are different sets of skills in the world, and writing and analysis are indeed different from photography.

      Yet in our fast shifting moment, when technology changes the culture, our primary job as “photojournalist” is no longer just to get there fast and get you the most dramatic imagery. Anyone on the spot with a cellphone camera can do that now. Rather, our value is in our ability to provide a bit of nuance, in-depth documentation, and intimacy. No bystander with a cellphone can bring to bear that well of experience, ethics, and standards of quality that we have.

      And once we started doing that more, we started caring less about “getting the shot” and thinking instead about what that shot means in the world. Hence my comparison with magazines like The Nation or The New Republic. But when you look in their pages, you don’t see much good photography, not yet — (you do in Mother Jones and the New Yorker) — hence our mission here, in a nutshell, is to become the New Republic of photojournalism.

      So in these ways, our documentation and reportage ARE impartial. Our analysis and conclusions are NOT.

      Finally to address your point about editors and expectations, I wish there were still enough assignments going around to worry about. It’s no secret how rapidly our industry has changed, to the detriment of photographers, and no amount of hand-wringing or nostalgia is going to bring it back. So experimentation and risk-taking, while we continue as we always have to practice our craft, covering the stories we care about, that is both our only hope and our only option.

      Nonetheless, the assignments that do still exist will continue to be apportioned based on our skill, knowledge, and experience. I doubt most editors care very much what my politics might be; more that I am able to go out there and make images of a certain style and quality while adhering to rigorous ethical practice. (no setting up, over-Photoshop, etc.) And that I’ve been doing for 20 years.

      I hope this makes sense to you; sometimes it is hard to explain it even to my fellow photographers!

  • http://enitka.com Ernie Nitka

    Part 2 even better than part 1 – you guys did yourself proud.

  • Vvoter

    Yes, these photo essays have been remarkable. Glenn Beck is a real case study.

    Couple of observations…

    The first photograph of Beck’s assistants reveals a dimension of the Glenn Beck fringe/mainstream paradox that remains largely undiscussed, namely, the subtle visual embodiments of this paradox.

    Consider: trendy haircuts, good looks, ubiquitous dark rimmed glasses, and anarcho-london fog all reek of desire to be accepted and included in mainstream consumerist culture, while geek squad blue uniforms, and expressions of fear (left), disdain (middle), and shame (steps) reveal a fundamental separation from the mainstream.

    This separation is, I would argue, often felt among those who identify with radical figures. They aspire to cultural influence as an end, but feel fundamentally separated from the dominant culture at the same time.

    Out of many reasons to study Glenn Beck, understanding this paradox – a simultaneous craving for and separatism from dominant culture – can go a long way toward helping those who stand opposed to Beck’s enterprise understand him in a way that fosters more compassion than vitriol.

    Further down in the essay, the photograph of the lady selling tupperware speaks to a similar kind of void that grows out of the same paradox: “we want to participate in the rewards of consumer capitalism, but we feel deeply the inferiority of what we offer.”

    • http://www.asecondlookatthesaudis.com BillinChicago

      Speaking of those “assistants”, is he consciously trying to emulate Bob Roberts! (Or maybe Mark Foley?)

  • thomas

    Really great piece. What a weird and disturbing spectacle.

    I’ve been spending probably too much time over the last weeks reading through the WikiLeaks cables and the single most overwhelming impression I’m left with is what an absolute vacuum the state of “journalism” is in our country. The disparity between the highly nuanced, educated, knowledgeable and even elegant construction of the cables has seen some counterpart in their handling in the European press. But to contrast these actual communications of actual players describing actual political realities against this, the hustling clown show that is Fox/Beck, shows the true scope of the total failure of institutional journalism in America. Thanks again, Nina and Alan.

  • PWL

    It’s hard what to make of tis, but all possible explanations are disturbing.One explanation is that troubled times give rise to charlatans such as Beck.

    The other is that our politics are slowly descending into insanity…

  • William J. Mac Bean

    Damn, we have a lot of nitwits in this country!

  • shermhed

    The photo of the person in the bear costume was incredibly sad and moving, in a very odd way. There is a forlorn quality to it that I could not help but be moved by. There is also an element of shame associated with it, to me, because in some small way myself and everyone else is the cause for that person to have to gone to such lengths to extract some meager amount of financial gain when a charlatan and hack like Glenn Beck visits town. Things should have never gotten this bad, for anyone, and that some parasite like Beck continues to suck the life from good people everywhere makes me wonder what hope any of us have.

    Thanks for this photo essay. Your work speaks for itself.

    • Powkat

      I agree – I immediately thought of Diane Arbus

    • http://spockosbrain.com spocko

      Shermhed:
      Well said. That is exactly my feeling. So forlorn.

      And the last photo of the woman who “tithed herself to God” What does that mean? I have no money so all I have to offer the church is my time and prayers?

      Beck’s move into more overt religion is especially frightening, since that activated a lot of triggers that are deep and go beyond logic.

  • FastEddie

    Beck is proof that P.T. Barnum was right.

  • g

    The idea that these poor people are spending $500 for breakfast and a photo, $30 for a book to further enrich Glenn Beck is appalling.

    • Amy Miller

      I live in Wilmington and can tell you that most of the people at the breakfast were not from Wilmington. Also, all of the money from the breakfast and the show are going to local charities. I would say at least 80% of the people at the show were from out of town. Most of the ones at the show who were local got free tickets. I love how you twist everything around. Sure, local people bought the book, but they weren’t the same people who are standing in line at the local food pantry. Our town is in bad shape, but there are plenty of people there with money.

  • tinwoman

    Now these are some really great photos.

    I agree with the posters who found the bear picture sad and forlorn. Worse, for me, was the evident poverty of the town, the faces on the crowd with the decaying buildings behind them. When was the last time anyone was able to afford a professionally made sign in that village? Yeeks.

    If they are willing to cling to Beck for a shred of hope–think about what is going to happen when someone who is a true politician shows up, someone truly ruthless, who is not out for money, but power. Someone much more charismatic and compelling (Beck isn’t really, he’s too silly). It will be madness.

    Good job Mr. Chin.

  • momly

    The play on Broke/Beck made me think of the movie Brokeback (Mountain) and the first photo of the attractive and styled young men made me wonder if there were some psycho-sexual hints being dropped.

    I guess it was just me.

  • Peter Everts

    My first reaction is that I want to kill Glenn Beck and cleanse the gene pool. However, I haven’t killed anyone since my country sent me to sunny SE Asia in 1967. The danger of the Becks, the McConnels, the Boehners, et.al. is much greater than the Viet Cong, NVA, Al Qaeda, Taliban, etc. ever have been. Their eradication through education, elimination, whatever, must proceed before the US can become a country the founders would be proud of based on the Constitution the right is destroying.

  • http://www.ninaberman.com Nina Berman

    In response to Bonac Bub, I would suggest that it is not so much the photographer conveying bias messages through individual pictures, but the sequence and framing of the post and then of course the viewer who interprets the images according to his or her own beliefs.

    Any one of the photographs published in the last two days could easily have been published in the mainstream “neutral” press or even as pro-Beck images on Fox News.

    The power of the post and what in my opinion makes the Bag such a special place, is the editing and sequencing of images into full formed narratives which prompt political discussion.

    In the glory days of print photojournalism, remember the 10 page photo stories we used to see these narratives. The photographer would work with editors and consider what is the opener, what is the closer, how should the narrative be built.

    The shift to digital largely eliminated this kind of this collaboration. Instead we find an endless number of click through slide shows designed not so much to convey ideas or feelings, but to throw up content and log hits.

  • http://www.tomdegan.blogspot.com Tom Degan

    What jackass in his or her right mind would pay five-hundred dollars to have breakfast with Glenn Beck? I would probably pay that much money to have a beer with Beck – but that would only be so I could smash the hideous little bastard in the face with a bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon.

    http://www.tomdegan.blogspot.c...

    Tom Degan

  • ROGER

    Yeah!!!!

  • http://motherrr.blogspot.com cmac

    The picture that broke my heart was of the lady selling her tupperware under one sad strand of tinsel garland.

    The other image that struck me was the woman with the van. Her face is more worn-out than strident, yet the angry signs covering the vehicle rage at us. The word ‘believe’ is misspelled in enormous letters on the window, marking her as exactly the sort of ignorant soul who will forever and always vote against her own best interest.

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