GUY RAZ, host:
Imagine toiling away on obscure academic work your whole life, and then in a matter of minutes, not just becoming famous but becoming infamous. Welcome to Frances Fox Piven's life these past three months. On his TV and radio programs, Glenn Beck identified her as the source of a conspiracy happening in real-time, a conspiracy to destroy American capitalism.
Mr. GLENN BECK (Fox News): Let me introduce you to the people who you would say are fundamentally responsible for the unsustainability and possible collapse of our economic system. They're really two people. I've been telling you for a while. There they are: Cloward and Piven.
RAZ: Cloward is Richard Cloward. He was Frances Fox Piven's husband and collaborator up until his death in 2001. Glenn Beck calls Frances Fox Piven one of the nine most dangerous people in America. And here's how she describes herself.
Professor FRANCES FOX PIVEN (Political Science and Sociology, City University of New York): I'm 78 years old. I'm about 5'6". My hair is partly gray. I'm quite thin.
RAZ: Piven teaches sociology at the City University of New York. Now, outside her field, very few people had ever heard of Frances Fox Piven. And late last year, some of her students came around to her office to say they'd seen her picture on the Fox News Channel.
Ms. PIVEN: And they said that Glenn Beck thinks that you are a plotter, a conspirator, that you have a plan to take down American capitalism. And then they giggled because my students think that's very funny.
Ms. PIVEN: So she tuned in and found herself right at the heart of one of Glenn Beck's trademark chalkboard diagrams.
Ms. PIVEN: And there I was with my longtime but now dead collaborator right at the trunk of the Tree of Revolution.
(Soundbite of TV show, "Glenn Beck")
Mr. BECK: The roots of the Tree of Radicalism and Revolution. It's Saul Alinsky. It's Woodrow Wilson.
Ms. PIVEN: And there were branches going off. And one branch went to SDS, Students for a Democratic Society.
Mr. BECK: Wade Rathke, right up the tree.
Ms. PIVEN: And another went to George Soros.
Mr. BECK: ...Jeff Jones, right up the tree.
Ms. PIVEN: And another went to Barack Obama.
Mr. BECK: Cloward and Piven.
RAZ: So what did Frances Fox Piven do to be called an enemy of the Constitution? Well, she and her husband wrote a plan that they believed could solve the welfare problem. It appeared back in 1966 in The Nation magazine.
Ms. PIVEN: We had monitored the welfare program on the Lower East Side of New York, and we knew that there were many occasions in which people were turned away for no good reason.
RAZ: People eligible for welfare weren't a part of the program because getting it was actually very bureaucratic and complicated. So Piven and her husband proposed that activists and social workers and lawyers help all those people who were eligible for welfare to apply. And that would create a bit of a mess. It would force the government, they theorized, to reform the system and make it less bureaucratic. But Glenn Beck interpreted their plan somewhat differently.
Mr. BECK: Overwhelm the system and bring about the fall of capitalism by overloading the government bureaucracy with impossible demands and bring on economic collapse.
Ms. PIVEN: On and on he went, week after week, hammering away at Cloward and Piven. From a single article written 45 years ago, he imagined a vast conspiracy to overthrow the American financial system.
And Beck's followers became enraged. Piven started to get letters and emails and phone messages.
Ms. PIVEN: May cancer overtake you soon, and some things they said, which I don't think I can repeat on NPR. After hundreds of death threats, I began to be wary. You know, I actually went to the state police. I went to the FBI.
RAZ: Glenn Beck never obviously called for direct violence against you, but do you think that he's responsible for some of the violent language that's been directed towards you?
Ms. PIVEN: Oh, absolutely. It's a lunatic story, but it's a story that nevertheless is clear: This woman is somehow responsible for the upsetting changes in your small town where the factory closed down.
I don't blame them for being upset. It is upsetting. But I blame Glenn Beck for telling them a factually untrue, crazy story about why those changes occurred.
RAZ: The story of Frances Fox Piven. Up until a few months ago, she was an obscure academic. She spoke with us from New York.