Hailing from California, and now residing in New Hampshire (by way of New Jersey), Michael Charney is the award-winning author of more than two dozen short stories, essays and technical articles covering a wide range of topics, including fiction, science fiction, technology, education and knowledge management, with such works as ”Punks on the Admiral”, “Moths”, “Self – Judgment”, and “A Dialectual Model for Best – Practice Development”. When not writing Michael provides expert services in team building, communication and success management, at Charney Coaching & Consulting LLC. No doubt, pioneering the early days of social media and the world of corporate social networking have helped Michael on his journey into the “Twitterverse” for his latest literary adventure “Chasing Glenn Beck: A Personal Experiment in Reclaiming Our Hijacked Political Conversation”.
You were very generous to donate 10% of your book’s proceeds to Colbert SuperPAC. When did it strike you as a good idea to make this donation, and were you concerned that it would be misinterpreted as a ruse to get you on ‘The Colbert Report’?
The idea struck me as I was finishing up the book’s marketing launch plan, timed to coincide with the NH primary. At about that time the SuperPAC seemed to be picking up steam, and I
realized that it was a natural fit for what I was trying to do, especially since the book is primarily about how political marketing has so taken over the national conversation. There was never any real expectation that I would get on the show — I don’t have that much ego! — and I haven’t talked to anyone who thinks it’s a ruse. Did I want to sell a few more books? Sure! I’m a capitalist, after all. (By the way: if the show calls, I wouldn’t say no….)
Did writing a book examining Glenn Beck make you a fan of Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart? Or were you already a fan of their work?
I’ve been a fan of both for quite some time. (I actually started watching The Daily Show back in the Craig Kilborn days…). As I’ve mentioned in some of my blog postings, satire is not only something I enjoy, but something I think is very important. I refer to satire as the “archeologist of truth.” One quick point, to add: while the book is entitled Chasing Glenn Beck, it’s less about Beck than it is about what he represents — the hijacking of our political conversation by those with the most extreme views. Glenn Beck is merely the poster boy for that issue. For those interested, here’s a link to a review of the book that captures its essence very well: http://amzn.to/yD7jWy
From your viewpoint, what are some similarities between the personas of Glenn Beck and Stephen Colbert’s character?
Stephen Colbert is a character? I didn’t know that …
Seriously, though, both use a bastardized logic to make absurdity sound almost plausible, and both pretend that they have some special political acumen or knowledge when, truthfully, they’re just entertainers.
Do you think Glenn Beck is really a liberal?
No. But what I do believe is that he started out as neither liberal nor conservative, just an entertainer desperate to find a path to success. He then built a mythology for himself, one that includes his upbringing, his drug and alcohol use, his newly found religion, and his mission in life. He’s lived it for so long that he certainly appears to believe it now. It’s not lost on me, though, that key individuals in his entourage—his agent, for example — are politically very liberal.
As a Colbert SuperPAC donor, what do you hope to see from the PAC this election year?
That’s a great question. My short answer would be visibility and controversy. I want to see ads that irritate vast numbers of people on both sides of the aisle, and that raise questions that reach town hall meetings. I want both Romney (I’m presuming here) and Obama to have to justify why such enormous sums of invisible money have to be spent in order to buy our votes. In a perfect world, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow becomes a meta-SuperPAC, one that has as its main agenda the exposing other SuperPACs and how they work.
You have praised Stephen Colbert for “pulling back the curtain” on our maze of electoral laws. What do you think needs to change in the near future to make the politics freer and fairer? Are Super PAC’s here to stay?
What needs to change? In a nutshell: Citizens United. The idea that corporations are people is an example of the inmates running the asylum. If that’s true, then how do we throw a
corporation in jail? Imagine if we said to McDonald’s, “You’re guilty of aggravated assault because of that hot coffee thing you do, and we’re imprisoning you for a year.” That would mean that McDonald’s wouldn’t be allowed to operate any store, anywhere, for any reason, for a year. When that happens, then I’ll believe that corporations are people!
Do you feel that in today’s political landscape, it feels more as if politics have become a type of ‘brand’ and that the voters have become another market demographic?
The word “brand” is perfect. That’s exactly what it’s all about. Words are being hijacked and repurposed. When did “patriot,” for example, mean “someone who never questions conservative principles?” And as for demographics — that’s been the case for a while now. We are segmented by race, gender, income, geography, education … you name it. And somewhere, someone has a pie slice on a chart that represents you and all the people supposedly like you.
Cable news programming is so polarised now, and heavily dominated by corporate influence. Can blogs and social media serve as a venue for moderate and/or unbiased debate to occur? Is there hope that traditional media outlets can return to more truly “fair and balanced” reporting? Or are Glenn Beck – types here to stay?
There are three predominant factors in media-based polarization, all of which argue that it will get worse, not better. The first is the deregulation that’s occurred over the past thirty years, which now allows for the unprecedented growth of media conglomerates. The second is the demise of the Fairness Doctrine; when I was growing up networks had to give “equal time” to differing viewpoints — that’s not the case anymore. The third factor — and probably the most powerful — is the rise of virtual tribes. People seek out and find others with similar opinions, and “block” or “unfriend” those that don’t agree with them. As a result, people reinforce views that gradually become more extreme, while refusing to engage in meaningful conversation with those who think differently. And as long as Beck, or Limbaugh, or Schultz can make money promoting those views then, yes, they — or others like them — will stick around.
What do you think is the key to Glenn Beck and his contemporary’s success in taking over political dialogue? What is it about that style of commentary and theatrics that seems to drag people in by the droves?
I wish I knew. I wish anybody knew. However, Beck isn’t the first — not by a long shot. There was Father Coughlin back in the thirties, for example, who had a weekly radio show every bit as absurd — and vile— as Beck’s can be (though Coughlin was an anti-Semite, which Beck certainly is not). However, what also seems clear to me now is that very few are actually convinced by someone like Beck — most probably they believed something similar anyway and Beck simply serves as the metaphorical village green at which they gather. (Feel free to add your own “village idiot” joke here if you like.) From there it seems a little bit like mob psychology: the more who gather, the louder it gets.
Do you think that the blind faith and extremism that is erasing the little civility, rational thinking, and reason that is left in American society today will one day be viewed with caution and outrage as it once was?
Let’s hope. No, actually, let’s not just hope. Let’s change our behavior, one person at a time, and make it so. Call others out. Demand respect. Demand a voice. And, as Colbert proves every day (well, four days a week, anyway), if we can be funny and satirical doing it, great!
How do you feel your “Twitter” experiment changed your perception of politics and the media? Were you surprised by what you discovered as you did your research? Are you more or less optimistic than you were at the start?
I’m more optimistic. There are many, many more out there who will engage then I expected — though still far fewer than I would hope. My perceptions have changed dramatically,
too… well… I have to admit that “perceptions” isn’t really the right word; the right word is “prejudiced.”
I expected people to behave according to the stereotypes I had in my head. It made me realize that even as I was noticing political marketing, I was also its victim. Not pretty. At one point I actually became a bit of a troll — the Twitter term for someone who just wants to stir up the pot and get people screaming at each other. It was not a very attractive reflection, let me tell you.
You have written numerous short stories, essays and technical articles on a wide range of topics. How does immersing oneself into the ‘Twitterverse’ compare to the more traditional means of researching a topic?
The Twitter experience was completely unique. Imagine that you’re putting a jigsaw puzzle together. Writing a conventional piece is akin to looking at the picture on the box, putting all the edge pieces together, deciding which sections you want to do next, and assembling the chunks into a finished picture, one that matches the box. Writing based on Twitter experiences is like taking that same puzzle, throwing away the box with the picture on it, dipping every individual piece in black paint, throwing all the pieces into a blender, and then sticking your hand in while the blades are still spinning. If not for the help of many, many people, I’m not sure the end results would have been coherent. As it is, I’m incredibly proud of the book.
Does having a constant source of ideas and inspiration, as provided by a Twitter feed, help or hinder the writing process? Did you find that it helped with ‘writer’s block’, or did it have the reverse effect and cause ‘writer’s overflow’?
I love the concept of “writer’s overflow,” and that’s exactly what I experienced. I wrote the book in real-time, which meant that during any given week I was spending hours and hours on Twitter, watching and recording tons of television (including Colbert), writing about what was happening (during one week, for example, we got Bin Laden, while during another week we were awaiting the Rapture), all while editing, researching and refining what I had written the previous week. There was no time for writer’s block. There was barely time to walk the dogs. Fortunately, they’re quite persistent or things could have gotten messy.
Do you think that the parameters of your experiment affected the results? For example, when you tweeted most provocatively, you got equally provocative responses. When you changed, and began to advocate a middle ground, you discovered the more reasonable voices that were hidden before.
Very insightful question. I hadn’t thought about it before, but I think you’re right. I might even take it a step further: I actually sought out provocation at some times and moderation at others. I went Twitter – hunting for certain kinds of people, as it were. Still, the fact that provocation was so much easier to find tells me that my basic premise is still valid: the extremists have learned from Spinal Tap: turning it up to “eleven” gets you more attention.
It seemed that at one point you began to find the attention on the internet very seductive – almost addictive. As you look back, did you ever feel your persona was beginning to take over? And did you ever worry about how your Twitter / Klout stats kept gaining more and more importance in your life?
God, yes! It was scary, and I talk about it a lot in the book. The internet is very seductive and when you combine that with a slightly obsessive and highly competitive personality… well, let’s just say I had more than a few Jekyll and Hyde moments when I wasn’t sure if I was thinking as Michael or as @BeckIsALib, my Twitter persona. My wife would gently remind me that I was getting cranky and that I wasn’t sleeping well, but it took a couple of well-timed summer power outages to really shake me loose. Ironically, the virtual disconnection actually recharged my batteries and gave me some fresh perspective.
Near the end of the book, some of your descriptions of the “silent majority” struck as a bit Jon Stewart – like, particularly when you expressed a desire to restore sanity and a belief that most of us are too busy working and taking care of day – to – day things to become part of the most vocal contingent. Do you relate to Jon’s point of view? Is it close to yours?
I very much agree with the need to restore sanity, and I imagine (though I can’t be sure) that Jon Stewart and I would agree on many things — this even though I’m a Republican and he’s … not. I think where we might differ is in approach: he seems to want to encourage quiet from the extremes — something I don’t think will happen — while I want the silent center to get louder. We’ve already seen that volume gets attention, and I think we should use it. But loud doesn’t have to be illogical, belligerent and abusive. That behavior the fringes can keep.
Was it your intention from the beginning to weave autobiographical accounts from your life with your experimental journey through the “Twitterverse” or was it something that emerged during the writing process?
I always intended to use personal narrative as part of the story, though I didn’t know which ones. As themes emerged for each chapter (and as specific incidents occurred in the real world) certain memories would come back. There was also the very fortuitous emergence of a Facebook group consisting of people I went to school with. Sharon Russell — whom I’m very much indebted to — had photos that went back forty years, many of which jogged memories I thought were long gone.
I very much enjoy narrative non-fiction, especially when authors become characters in their own story. I had one early reader tell me that the book reminded her of Julie and Julia, which I initially thought odd. But now I can see the similarities: both books are about personal experiments undergone in order to somehow grow or change. Pretty cool comparison, actually, and fine company to be in.
You recorded a theme song for the book with your son Gabriel. Where did the idea to create a theme song for a book to come from? Will we ever get to hear this masterpiece?
Like much of the music my son and I write, the riffs came first, and then I realized that there was this interesting counterpoint between the guitars; they were dueling, in a way. It made me think that it fit the theme of the book — the chronically difficult discourse in today’s politics — and I decided then to make it the theme for the book. We went through about a dozen versions of the song before I settled on this one.
You can hear the song at SoundCloud; it’s entitled “Liberals and Conservatives” and I’ve opened it up for download; anyone can grab it, play with it, modify it, etc. I play all the guitars and my son programmed all the other instruments.
You recently started the publishing company ‘Riddle Brook Publishing’, to help, as you call them the “New” New England writers get their work published. Was this a goal you had always had in life, or was it something that came out of the book writing process, and realising how hard it is for “unknown” talent to get their work out there?
The idea of publishing others came to me as part of the process of putting my own book together. As I became more and more involved in the writing and publishing community up here in New England, I found myself continually amazed at the talent around me — and the difficulty those people were having, largely because they didn’t have a history of successful writing. It’s a bit of a vicious circle when you’re just starting out. When I realized that I had a way to get more involved — and that becoming a small independent publisher could be viable as a business — I decided to go forward. Right now I’m reading several excellent manuscripts from early-stage writers, and I expect to make announcements as to my plans in the near future.
What is next for Michael Charney? Any more forays into the Twitterverse on the horizon?
I’m still in the Twitterverse as @BeckIsALib (though everyone knows who I am by now), and I still engage with others. Turns out, it’s fun. (I’ve also got pages on Facebook both for Chasing Glenn Beck and for Riddle Brook Publishing.) I’ve also begun putting together notes for another book, this one on the way pundits use rhetoric to manipulate us. That will be a while coming, though, since I’m very much invested in the new writers I’m planning to publish through Riddle Brook.
As a final note, thank you very much for this opportunity to speak with all the many Colbertians out there. And remember, everyone: every copy of Chasing Glenn Beck that’s sold means a donation to the Colbert SuperPAC!
A big thank you to Michael Charney for taking the time out to talk to us, and to the Hub Staff for helping me put the interview together!!