My Way or the Highway

The political outrage industry on radio and TV—from Rush Limbaugh to Rachel Maddow—is driving us all further apart, say two professors
Sarah Sobieraj and Jeffrey Berry
“Outrage sells by creating content that makes people really, really angry,” says Jeffrey Berry, here with co-author Sarah Sobieraj. “It gets their blood boiling, so they come back the next day.” Photo: Kelvin Ma
January 28, 2013

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Another four years with Barack Obama in the White House is probably the best thing that could have happened to Rush Limbaugh and the rest of the talk show hosts, pundits and bloggers who offer a daily dose of invective against the president they love to hate. A Romney presidency, say two Tufts professors, likely would not have been as profitable for the right-wing stars of the genre of political media that these professors have dubbed “outrage.”

Now the conservative outlets will not lack for material to boost their numbers, if Obama’s first term is any indication. “Fox cable news ratings went up after the 2008 election,” says Jeffrey Berry, the John Richard Skuse Professor of Political Science in the School of Arts and Sciences. “They had a better product to sell. They could now say, ‘This is who is ruining America.’”

Berry and Sarah Sobieraj, an associate professor of sociology at Tufts, are the authors of The Outrage Industry, a forthcoming look at cable television news networks, talk radio and political blogs. The book, to be published by Oxford University Press later this year, examines media on both the right and left of the political spectrum, although conservative enterprises have thus far been the more commercially successful. What they discovered is disquieting: all this outrage seems to be bad for democracy.

“While outrage plays a bigger role in conservative politics, the liberals who are active in the industry draw on the same themes, rhetorical techniques and tropes.”— Sarah Sobieraj.

“These businesses need viewers, listeners and readers so they can in turn attract advertising dollars,” Berry says. “The business model that we identify is one where outrage sells. And it’s successful in that the audience is very, very large—we estimate the cumulative audience is 47 million people a day” for all such media outlets.

The mistake, Berry and Sobieraj say, is to assume that the popularity of these so-called outrage channels arose from sheer demand—a reaction to public sentiment. “The huge growth of the outrage industry did not come from people pounding their fists and demanding more red meat,” Sobieraj says. Rather it was changes in media technology and regulation over the past 30 years that created the impetus for this economically profitable model, they maintain.

Outrage in itself is nothing new in American public discourse. “There have always been people who say hateful, sensationalist things,” Sobieraj says. As far back as the 1930s, the Rev. Charles Coughlin was attracting millions of listeners with anti-Semitic and hate-tinged radio broadcasts. “But now because it’s profitable, it’s very visible. As these shows succeed, there are more folks who imitate the model, and this gives the impression that we’re much more politically extreme in this country than we actually are,” Sobieraj says.

Driven by Advertising

If you grew up in, say, the 1960s or ’70s, you’d likely remember getting the nightly news from Walter Cronkite or Huntley and Brinkley. The Big Three network newscasts pulled in an enormous audience—a plumber in Pittsburgh and a professor at Princeton were likely watching the same evening broadcast. To appeal to this wide viewership, the news broadcasts were as centrist as possible and worked not to offend large swaths of viewers. From an advertiser’s point of view, however, the demographic was too broad and, hence, not very profitable.

Then came niche marketing—first, the expansion of space on the radio dial, then cable stations and eventually online outlets—and suddenly it became a better strategy to target smaller, more narrow segments of the audience and offer more bang for the advertising buck. “Media doesn’t respond to audience demand. It’s advertiser demand,” Sobieraj says. “It seems like a semantic difference, audience versus advertiser, but it’s one of great substance.”

In the realm of news and current events, programmers discovered that the more they could appeal to their specific group of listeners, viewers or readers on an emotional level, the more loyal they would be. “Outrage sells by creating content that makes people really, really angry,” says Berry. “It gets their blood boiling, so they come back the next day.”

In the early days of outrage, controversy was often part of the formula—shows like CNN’s Crossfire that pitted opposing viewpoints against each other. But that has largely disappeared, Sobieraj says. Now the formula is to rely on one charismatic host—someone like Limbaugh, of course, on the right, or a Rachel Maddow on the left—who offers a particular view of the world. “It’s almost like listening to a preacher,” Sobieraj says. “It’s a cult of personality, one person who has this big, shining sense of injustice, this sense of frustration. “

Drowning Out the Moderates

Berry’s scholarship has focused on, among other subjects, American politics, lobbying and policy change. Sobieraj studies political sociology, mass media and social movements. The two came together through the Tufts equivalent of an academic blind date: the Bernstein Faculty Fellows program, which matches senior and junior faculty from different disciplines with the goal of collaboration.

Both now believe that the commercial success of outrage media has not been good for the democratic process.

“We barely knew each other,” Berry says. “We began by having coffee together and started talking about where our interests might overlap.”

Once they embarked on the book project, their results were not necessarily what they expected. “We didn’t set out to say this kind of media is the worst thing in the world,” Sobieraj says, “and ultimately that’s not what we found. There is some research that shows outrage has some positive outcomes: it makes people more interested in politics and more likely to participate. But it turned out to be a more complicated story than at first blush.”

Both now believe that the commercial success of outrage media has not been good for the democratic process.

One effect, they say, is that it drowns out the center. In the case of the conservative outlets, for example, what gets attention are the voices on the far right of the GOP. “Moderate voices don’t get you to stop channel surfing when you’re going through 350 cable stations,” says Sobieraj.

That in turn drives people further apart. “Research shows that when you’re consuming a lot of this type of programming, or reading a lot of these blogs, you’re less open to talking to people with different political viewpoints,” Sobieraj says. The shows and blogs—again, on both sides—also tend to rely on the tactic of vilifying their opponents. “They don’t say that someone’s idea for health care is a bad idea; they say it will ruin the country and the people behind it are bad people. It reduces people’s interest in talking through areas of common concern in their communities,” she says.

On a national level, “it makes compromise in Congress more difficult, as we’ve seen in the recent Congress,” Berry adds. While he notes that there are other factors that have contributed to the notorious gridlock on Capitol Hill, the influence of outrage media stigmatizes collaboration, he says.

These media outlets also wield outsized influence in elections. “We noticed that they often tar or anoint a candidate very early on,” Sobieraj says. “On the Republican side, they played a very strong role in influencing the primaries and the 2010 mid-term elections, in the surge of candidates associated with the Tea Party who won elections, sometimes over very conservative but establishment Republicans.”

And it’s not a phenomenon that’s limited to any one ideology. It’s no secret the biggest names in the outrage industry tend to come from the right. But, Sobieraj stresses, the right and the left sound a lot alike. “Their political ideologies are different, but the way they speak, the types of images they use, their techniques of belittling people, of name calling, of character assassination are similar,” she says. “While outrage plays a bigger role in conservative politics, the liberals who are active in the industry draw on the same themes, rhetorical techniques and tropes.”

Helene Ragovin can be reached at helene.ragovin@tufts.edu.

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