‘The Outrage Industry’ Examines Polarizing Political Commentary

Tufts professor of political science Jeff Berry says hosts like MSNBC's Rachel Maddow (left), Lawrence O'Donnell (center) and Chris Matthews (right) appeal to liberal viewers by confirming their beliefs. (Chris Pizzello/AP)

Tufts professor of political science Jeff Berry says hosts like MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow (left), Lawrence O’Donnell (center) and Chris Matthews (right) appeal to liberal viewers by confirming their beliefs. (Chris Pizzello/AP)

BOSTON — In the age of talk radio and cable news on TV, personal digs, aimed more at insulting than informing, are all too often the norm. Conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh draws audiences with his colorful talk, while liberal TV host Rachel Maddow is also known for her candor.

Jeff Berry, professor of political science at Tufts University, calls all of this “the outrage industry” and explains the rise of this media genre in a new book, “The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility,” which he co-authored with Sarah Sobieraj. Berry joined WBUR’s Morning Edition.

Jeff Berry: This is a business that tries to polarize us—that’s their function in the business world. They make money by offering political commentary that gets us riled up about the political system.

Bill O'Reilly hosts "The O'Reilly Factor" on Fox. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

Bill O’Reilly hosts “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

Bob Oakes: Before I dip deeply into business, let me ask about consumers. What draws people on the radio and on the TV to such programs? What’s your research find about that?

Yes, the audience—it’s a niche audience. A lot of people hate this stuff, but let me give you an estimate based on Nielson ratings, Arbitron ratings and some ratings from the Internet: we find that the average daily audience is 47 million people for this programing. That’s MSNBC, Fox, talk radio–which is the biggest part of the industry–and the top political blogs. So that’s a very, very large audience that wants to hear, read or listen to this stuff.

And why?

It’s interesting. First of all they do feel they’re being informed so that’s a good thing—they’re engaged. But the business model is that it engages people in a way that makes them angry, so that the hosts of these programs on talk radio and on TV, they are very good at getting you riled up and really angry at the other side—the idiots on the other side, whether it be conservatives or liberals.

It pushes buttons. When I was reading the book, I couldn’t help but think that in a way it’s a little bit like fighting in pro hockey. We expect it. It’s part of the game, and for some fans if they don’t experience it at any given game they feel a little bit of a letdown. And for viewers and listeners of the outrage industry I imagine it’s a little bit of the same thing.

Yeah that’s a great analogy. It’s a genre, and you expect this and you’ve come to trust the hosts. So a lot of the business is built around hosts like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Rachel Maddow—these are people that you trust, and you want to hear what they have to say about the events of the day, and you’re waiting for them to throw the punch. You’re waiting for them to just excoriate the other side and take them to a level that is going to make you just furious. And yet at the same time it comforts you by knowing that these people are on your side and you are right thinking because they reassure you. They validate your feelings as a political observer.

All right now the business side: Is it a successful business? And what fostered its growth?

What fostered its growth was technological change. It used to be that when you watched the network news it would have to be very broad and reach an audience that had many different components. Once cable TV came along, you could make money through finding a niche audience. So as much as we focus on Fox, for example, the largest Fox program, which is “The O’Reilly Factor,” draws only 3 million people a night.

But it can make money because it doesn’t have the requirements of a big news network. And so they find advertisers that want to reach their demographic, which is older, white males, and they have very low productions costs. It doesn’t cost a lot of money to put a program on cable where people are just sitting around talking.

Now we’ve been talking mostly about Fox, but this is not an industry, the outrage industry, practiced only by the right, the political conservatives.

No, it’s not. We find it is the same business model. MSNBC is the network where Martin Bashir said that someone should defecate in Sarah Palin’s mouth. It is the network where Lawrence O’Donnell made fun of the Mormon Church, so they are trying to do the same thing that Fox does, and that is to provoke. There is a difference between left and right, though, in audience size. The audience on the conservative side is much larger.

Where is social media in this? Do you think since anyone can have a comment about anything and say it in any way, does that sort of add to the overall outrage out there?

Yeah the social media act as megaphone for the outrage industry because the people on social media are not themselves. What they’ll do is they’ll take something from a program, and they’ll tweet it or they’ll put it on their Facebook page. But I don’t think social media is the source of this, but rather a reflection of it.

In a piece that you wrote for Politico you said that outrage has been a fundamental part of the American media landscape and then you pose a question: should we worry? What’s your answer?

Yes, I think we should worry because I think that one problem is that people who watch conflate commentary with news and feel that they’re hearing the news. They’re not. They’re hearing people talk about the news and offering opinions, and that’s not the news, and it’s highly inaccurate and highly hyperbolic.

The other danger is that the outrage industry is adding to the dysfunction of our Congress by making it difficult to compromise. So people who are compromisers are denounced on talk radio. The outrage industry feeds on that, and because of the primary system in this country, members of Congress are afraid of people running at them from the far right or the far left. And it pulls them in that direction and makes it that much more difficult to find middle ground.

Considering a lot of this all about speech, do you see signs that the government may try to regulate this industry or can it, given the first amendment?

No, it cannot. The outrage industry was created by the market. If it’s to fall, it will do so because of market forces. So as long as there are audiences there will be advertisers that want to reach those audiences and right now there are audiences, and I don’t see that audience declining significantly.

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  • lawyermomma

    Another false equivalency debate. MSNBC is NOT the liberal flipside to Fox News. There is no liberal equivalent to Rush Limbaugh. And to draw a parallel between Rachel Maddow’s “candor” and Rush Limbaugh’s “colorful talk” is easy but lazy. Limbaugh on a regular basis name-calls and on many occasions borders on the slanderous. Look what he did over a long period of time to Sandra Fluke, who had the audacity to want medical coverage for birth control. Candor means honesty, which really shouldn’t be used as a slur. Martin Bashir’s one-time outburst (for which he lost his job, while Limbaugh laughs all the way to the bank) is not a regular feature.

    And where is the left wing equivalent of right-wing talk radio? Oh, that’s right – there isn’t one. Who is the liberal Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and the entire Fox News personalities? Where do liberal politicians go for a sinecure the way Tea Partiers go to Fox? Does one Bashir outburst really equal the fulltime junk that comes out of Rush?

    It has been shown that the “outrage industry” is a rightwing creation to which the left has been slow and clumsy in response. But, to draw equivalence between what is even here, euphemistically, “candor” and “colorful” is once again painting with too broad a brush. Until there is a liberal Limbaugh (I’d even settle for a conservative Maddow) these types of stories just create a universe not quite tethered to reality.

    • atheistcable

      Rush Limbaugh isn’t all that bad–it got Sandra Fluke to run for US House–and I hope she wins! She’s young, intelligent, articulate. I hope the US House is a stepping stone to the Supreme Court for Ms Fluke.

      Likewise I smile when I see re-runs of Mike Huckabee’s rant about women’s libidos. Thank you Rev Huckabee for your support of Hillary Clinton into the White House.

    • Ozstickman

      Actually the reason progressives have not succeeded in talk radio is exactly the same reason Fox News ratings are greater than progressive outlets combined ….. the progressive message does not resonate with the audience. Fox succeeds and Limbaugh succeeds because the analysis and views expressed are more aligned with the views of more people, whereas progressives cannot tell the truth about the details of their philosophy and policies because they are rejected by a majority of constituents. Progressives lead with “good Intentions”, but the truth is that when their policies are implemented they fail. Current ACA debacle is a case in point. To win the election “You can keep your plan, and your doctor and premiums will be reduced by $2,500 for an average family” The truth in the implementation is that you cannot keep your plan or your doctor and premiums and deductibles have risen. Progressives cannot advance progressive philosophies and policies openly because they know the electorate will reject them. So they attack those who espouse conservative principles and policies as “extremists” “homophobes” “heartless cruel folks who want dirty water, want to exploit the poor … etc” 2010 saw ordinary Americans spontaneously join grassroots tea parties and other groups because of ACA. 2014 will see 2010 on steroids … Progressives for years could count on biased press …. now the balance is being redressed and the nation is proving that it does not want to fundamentally change, but wants to restore the principles and values shared by most Americans.

      • Jim Nelson

        Well said. You nailed it with the “good intentions, but horrible results” analysis. Progressive policies run often run contrary to basic human nature and usually end up in encouraging bad behavior. Although progressive types are loath to admit that their programs always fail in the long term, they are fully complicit in the breakdown of the black family (The Great Society War on Poverty welfare programs) and the economic disaster created by the bursting housing bubble (The Community Reinvestment Act) just to name two of the more egregious programs foisted on us under the guise of “good intentions”. The more the folks understand about these issues, (and they won’t hear it from the MSM much less MSNBC) the more the folks will realize that what the left is peddling is harming the country.

  • J P Fitzsimmons

    Typical of NPR and PBS. They will interview a liberal and a conservative on an issue. But the whole conduct of the interview is designed to give equal validity to both points of view instead of ferreting out the truth by exposing each parties statements to a critical analysis.

  • J__o__h__n

    I’m more concerned about the false equivalency industry.

  • J__o__h__n

    What is wrong with making fun of the Mormon church? Making fun of a political opponent has a long history in public discourse. If the church involves itself in political matters, it becomes a legitimate target.

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