Not just Americans but Kiwis too

Jeffrey M. Berry and Sarah Sobieraj ask if Americans are addicted to outrage.

Perhaps they are but not just them…look at the “outrage” that our media cultivates.

On cable news networks, talk radio and in the political blogosphere there is a constant stream of name-calling, belittling, character assassination and falsehoods.

Americans tell pollsters they dislike this kind of talk and believe it degrades our political system. But the audience data tell a different story: In fact, Americans find this type of political commentary quite compelling. By our calculation, part of an analysis we did for our new book, The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility, the aggregate daily audience for such content is roughly 47 million people. In a cluttered media landscape where advertisers have a sea of choices, anxious television and radio producers hungry for revenue have sought new ways to break through the clutter—to stop the channel surfers as they peruse other options—and reach audiences. And the popular agent provocateurs of political talk media not only do the job—they also do it relatively cheaply. (Consider that CNN’s administrative expenses make up about twice as much of its budget share as at Fox or MSNBC.) As a result, America has developed a robust and successful Outrage Industry that makes money from calling political figures idiots, or even Nazis.

Sounds familiar. As I said, not just America.  

The basic business model encourages hosts and bloggers to court controversy as a way of generating higher ratings (and, thus, more advertising dollars). This week’s uproar over Harris-Perry’s treatment of Romney’s grandchild is illustrative. Harris-Perry subsequently apologized, but while she and the network may regret having offended the Romneys, it’s doubtful they regret the fallout for her program. The episode has garnered a good deal of attention in the mainstream press, putting Harris-Perry square in the national spotlight. Unless she loses her job (as Bashir ultimately did), the controversy could prove more a blessing than a curse, because carefully negotiated shock is profitable.

I guess I am guilty as charged, but then I am a firm believer in the power of the market. And it is my belief that the market likes what I produce despite the “outrage” from liberal, panty-waits, professional wringers who seem to think that only their world view is the right one.

Outrage is popular and effective…look at the Roast Busters debacle.

Five years ago, when we started discussing this brand of incivility, and how common it seemed, we decided to investigate more deeply, by measuring the use of outrage on the most widely followed television shows, talk radio programs and blogs in the United States. We defined “outrage” for our purposes as talk designed to provoke emotional responses in the audience (anger, fear or moral indignation, for instance) through the use of overgeneralizations, sensationalism, inaccurate information and ad hominem attacks. Outrageous political content, in particular, sidesteps the messy nuances of complex policy issues in favor of melodrama, misrepresentative exaggeration, mockery and hyperbolic forecasts of impending doom. Despite its coarseness, outrage is engaging, usually driven by a charismatic figure audiences find persuasive and trustworthy. Personalities such as Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Rachel Maddow, Bill O’Reilly and Ed Schultz are loved by their fans not simply because they entertain and inform, but because their followers believe they stand up to the other side and tell the truth. And advertising executives told us in interviews that audience trust in these hosts is particularly valuable to commercial sponsors.

People identify with a host, or a programme but almost never with a masthead or channel.

To assess the pervasiveness and character of outrage in U.S. political media, our nonpartisan research team conducted a large-scale quantitative content analysis of the most popular cable and radio shows and political blogs over the course of 10 weeks in 2009. Coders measured 13 distinct forms of outrage that we identified, ranging from misrepresentative exaggeration to the use of ideologically polarizing language (such as calling someone a “right-wing extremist”). To ensure consistency across different forms of outrage and different media, coders were instructed to follow a lengthy guidebook developed through four rounds of pilot tests with expansive definitions and examples for each variable. (We will spare readers further details here, but a comprehensive description of the methodology can be found in our book.) We evaluated 10 top-rated shows on cable news, 10 top-rated shows on talk radio and 20 widely read political blogs. For cable and blogs, we divided the outlets between those that are liberal and those that are conservative. Talk radio, which is more than 90 percent conservative, offered only a modest selection of liberal programs, all with much smaller audiences; as a result, only two of the 10 radio programs we studied are oriented toward liberal audiences.

What we found was a constant outpouring of venom that overwhelmed the political commentary. In many cases, outrage is not part of the content, outrage is the content. Fully 100 percent of the cable program episodes our coders watched contained outrage, while close to 90 percent of radio shows and about 80 percent of blog entries were characterized by outrage. On the Fox and MSNBC shows that predominated in our cable sample, outrage appeared roughly every other minute of non-commercial airtime. Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann (both still on cable at the time) were the worst offenders, with Sean Hannity close behind.

I think it is safe to say that these two authors are clearly in the hand-wringing brigade. We see this a lot…and some take it upon themselves to devote their own blog into trying (in their mind at least) to hold people like me to account….meanwhile the audience here continues to grow…if it starts dropping them I might consider that something needs to change.

Of the 13 unique forms of outrage we tracked, mockery was the most prevalent—not affectionate, light-hearted teasing, but rather the kind of ridicule intended to degrade. For instance, there was Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson targeting Republicans for denying they played a role in the country’s financial crisis by writing, “They had a decade long toga party, safeguarding our money with the diligence and sobriety of the fraternity brothers in Animal House.” The next most common form of outrage was what we called “misrepresentative exaggeration”—hyperbole that significantly distorts or obscures the truth. For example, at the blog “Gateway Pundit” Jim Hoft wrote that “Nazism and communism couldn’t bring down capitalism. Instead it will be leftist hacks pushing global warming junk science that will cause the economy to collapse.” (At least you’ve been warned.) Closely following misrepresentative exaggeration was insulting language; in coding this we counted only language with insulting words like “idiotic” or “pompous,” not more generic insults like calling someone a “child.” The liberal blog Firedoglake, for instance, posted, “Jindal, you sucked!” after the Louisiana governor’s GOP response to President Obama’s first nationally televised speech to Congress.

Mockery is the best. We make news fun and we make fun of the news…it’s a full time job now. My favourite word is sanctimonious…Martyn Bradbury’s is hegemony…each to their own. Apparently though according the “Outrage Gap” right wingers are more outraged than leftists…I’m not kidding.

When we talk to liberals about our work, they invariably tell us stories about how awful Fox is, while MSNBC is just a conventional news network that strives for neutrality in the tradition of NBC. Curious about this, we compared left and right outlets and found that, in fact, MSNBC, liberal talk radio and liberal blogs are quite nasty. Wild exaggerations, conspiracy theories and ridicule abound. Bashir and Harris-Perry’s recent controversial segments are just the latest examples.

That said, the data from our analysis still show that the liberal outrage media is no match for the conservative side. Looking at low levels of outrage—say, two to five incidents per episode—we found that left- and right-leaning programs and blogs were roughly equal. However, as the number of outrage incidents per episode or post increased, the source was more and more likely to be conservative. This is most visible at the far end of the spectrum: The most outrageous cases (with 50 or more incidents per episode or post) come almost exclusively from conservative sources.

The worst practitioners of outrage in NZ are the political left, especially Labour and the Greens. Labour just the other day was outraged that Japanese were legally operating in international waters and the Greens so outraged they called for military intervention in the issue…and both claimed that all of New Zealand was outraged along with them.

The politics of outrage is well practised on the left…look at the Roast Busters attack on Willie Jackson and John Tamihere…conceived, orchestrated, fed and salivated over by the baying hounds of the left wing.

There’s no question outrage has become a fundamental part of the American political media landscape, and if anything, its presence has grown stronger since we conducted our study. But should we worry? There’s plenty of balanced journalism and more restrained political opinion available, and no one is forced to watch, read or listen to outrage. Plus, for many happy producers and devoted fans, outrage is invigorating—they like watching, hearing or reading it.

Our research, however, suggests that outrage poses a threat to some of our most vital democratic practices. Because rage in the media is almost exclusively directed at political opponents—invariably portrayed as malfeasant, dangerous or inept—the industry sharpens and deepens societal divisions. At the individual level, such discourse can undercut our tolerance of other views (as anyone with a different worldview is a fool or a menace) and promote misunderstandings about public issues. Recall the myth that circulated that “death panels” would be part of Obama’s health-care overhaul; in a pre-outrage era the misinformation might have been corrected or simply gone unrepeated, but instead commentators including Glenn Back and Rush Limbaugh circulated and re-circulated the claim, such that Pew Research ultimately found that 30 percent of those polled in total, and 45 percent of those polled who watch Fox News, believed the panels were real. Dramatic exaggerations and misinformation have consequences.

  • thor42

    So-called “outrage” is very much a product of left-wing “education”.
    The left-wingers are unable to mount a reasoned and logical argument for almost all of their policies and viewpoints, so their default mode of interaction with non-lefties is abuse and shouting. “Outrage”, in other words.

    They cannot bear the thought that non-lefties can not only think for themselves but can put forward a reasoned explanation for their position on a topic.

    They *also* cannot bear the thought that non-lefties may have views that are non-PC – in other words, they do not correspond with lefties’ “only-possible viewpoints and opinions on the world”.
    *Heresy!*

    • Agent BallSack

      Isn’t it just as much that we dont have to hold conflicting ‘truths’ and whore out our sensibilities and morals to do so?

      • thor42

        Yes, that’s fair comment, A.B. True.

  • Agent BallSack

    I would agree it is the right in America and the left here. In America the right are generally god fearing, gun-wielding, poorly educated white people from the central and southern states. Redneck territory. In NZ the left are generally blinkered socialists who’s views are unable to be swayed by argument or entreaty. Both use emotive memes designed to appeal to like minded people and the comments on propaganda material shows a very thinly veiled mindset. Almost a pack mentality when attacking reasonable debate because they are unable to comprehend or accept it. The Standard and The Daily Flush no exception.

    • WABloke

      That’s outrageous. (Regardless of the accuracy of the post.)

  • jb

    The outrage here is that the left have had it so good in NZ since Mickey Savage. When Rogie and Lange branched out and gave the welfare state a haircut, followed by Ruth and Jenny, that is when (roughly) the outrage began. The left are fearful they will lose their grip on the system in NZ.

  • Peej

    Just checking to see if any outrage is occasioned by making a couple of observations…

    “So-called “outrage” is very much a product of left-wing “education”.
    The left-wingers are unable to mount a reasoned and logical argument for almost all of their policies and viewpoints, so their default mode of interaction with non-lefties is abuse and shouting. “Outrage”, in other words” …and, “The worst practitioners of outrage in NZ are the political left” are piffle and simply one-eyed opinions.

    This blog site glories in the swill of outrage.

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