Our outrageous media created the Tea Party

How "melodrama, misrepresentative exaggeration and mockery" became the dominant tone on cable and talk radio

By Jeffrey M. Berry - Sarah Sobieraj
December 7, 2013 7:30PM (UTC)
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Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Malkin (Reuters/Mike Segar/AP/Chris Carlson/Fox News/Salon)

Excerpted from "The Outrage Industry"

Sandra Fluke’s statement on behalf of Georgetown Law Students for Reproductive Justice during a House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee in February 2012 placed her in the center of a firestorm. Her public advocacy for insurance coverage of contraceptives resulted in an extended series of personal attacks from radio personality Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh’s three-day tirade began on February 29, when he offered demeaning characterizations of Fluke, including that she “wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex. What does that make us? We’re the pimps.” Although this suggests that Fluke proposed that tax revenues be used to pay for contraceptives, her actual position was that contraception should be covered by the student-funded health insurance in place, which was not subsidized by the (Catholic) university or the government.

The next day Limbaugh was even more aggressive, revisiting his prostitution analogy and adding new fuel to the fire remarking, “Ms. Fluke, have you ever heard of not having sex? Have you ever heard of not having sex so often?” Over the course of the broadcast he said that Fluke was having so much sex that it was “amazing” that she could still walk, questioned her morality, suggested that her life had no purpose, commented that she had no self-control or personal responsibility, and said he would have stayed away from someone like her when he was in school because they might carry sexually transmitted diseases. He also pretended to be Fluke, using a crybaby voice to suggest she was an entitled whiner. Perhaps most crudely, he suggested, “So, Ms. Fluke and the rest of you feminazis, here’s the deal: If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it. And I’ll tell you what it is. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch ... if we’re going to have a part in this, then we want something in return, Ms. Fluke, and that would be the videos of all this sex posted online so we can see what we are getting for our money.” On the March 2 show, Limbaugh repeated variations on the statement that she was having “so much sex that she can’t afford it” at roughly 10 separate points in the broadcast, erroneously indicating more than once that this information came from Fluke’s testimony in front of the committee, although Fluke did not comment on her sex life in her statement.


Limbaugh’s commentary about Fluke produced the most dramatic outcry against the show in its 25-year history. Criticism came from all quarters: Liberal media watchdog group Media Matters organized a social media campaign lobbying Limbaugh advertisers to drop his program. Advocacy groups, particularly women’s rights organizations, also took action. The National Organization for Women called for Clear Channel Communications, the corporate parent of the Rush Limbaugh Show, to drop the program. Seventy-five Democratic members of Congress signed a letter to House Speaker John Boehner urging him to condemn Limbaugh’s behavior, and President Barack Obama called Fluke to express his personal support. Republican leaders who were asked to comment chose their remarks gingerly; presidential candidate Mitt Romney said merely, “it’s not the language I would have used.”

Under pressure from advertisers who were dropping the show, Limbaugh made a half-hearted apology to Fluke on his March 6 broadcast, expressing regret over his use of “those two words to describe her” (presumably slut and prostitute), but he also continued to offer criticism of Fluke and of the contraception policy she endorsed. The apology did not stem the tide; in a little more than a week Limbaugh lost more than 50 advertisers. He publicly claimed the loss was not hurting business, “That’s like losing a couple of french fries in the container when it’s delivered to you in the drive thru. You don’t even notice it.” The long-term impact on Limbaugh’s advertising revenue remains to be seen, but it is clear that the Fluke controversy amounted to free publicity for the program and further solidified his standing with his conservative audience.

Liberal organizations and political opinion outlets used Limbaugh’s remarks to stoke the anger of their constituents, churning up ratings, traffic, dollars, and votes. MoveOn and Democratic congressional committees used the vitriol as a fundraising tool. Some liberal advocacy groups also used Limbaugh’s diatribe to their advantage. UltraViolet, for example, created a political advertisement including footage of Limbaugh to criticize Mitt Romney in an effort to sway the 2012 presidential election. And riding high on moral indignation and the opportunity to dress down one of their audience’s favorite villains, the liberal cable news analysis programs lavished airtime on Limbaugh’s remarks and the subsequent boycott efforts. Among them was television and radio host Ed Schultz, who interviewed Fluke on his show and expressed dismay at the sexist personal attacks, something he must have been more comfortable with in 2008 when he suggested that vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin was a “bimbo” and in 2011 when he called conservative radio host Laura Ingraham a “slut.”


Given the magnitude of the response to Limbaugh’s remarks, an unfamiliar outsider might assume his behavior to be highly out of the ordinary. In fact, what is perplexing is that the attacks on Fluke struck so many as shocking. This is, after all, the same Rush Limbaugh who coined the term “feminazi,” called Hillary Clinton a bitch, Chelsea Clinton a dog, and Nancy Pelosi a “ditz”—he who had also suggested that Anita Hill had probably had “plenty of spankings.” This is the same Limbaugh who regularly refers to the National Organization for Women as “NAGS,” and more recently responded to the multiple allegations of sexual harassment against Herman Cain by suggesting: “You women, why don’t you just make it official, put on some burqas, and I’ll guaran-damn-tee you, nobody’ll touch you. You put on a burqa, and everybody’ll leave you alone.”

Rush Limbaugh’s remarks were outrageous, but such behavior is de rigueur in a political media genre where being offensive (and reliably indignant when offended) is the foundation of most content. Popular conservative radio host Michael Savage has no qualms yelling “take your religion and shove it up your behind” at Muslims on his national broadcast. And liberal radio host Mike Malloy seemed to take great enjoyment in making a mock phone call to Satan to check on conservative blogger and commentator Andrew Breibart, shortly after he passed away. In one of his many ludicrous statements, conservative Glenn Beck told viewers on Fox’s morning show that FEMA could very well be building concentration camps for those opposed to the policies of the Obama administration.

Controversial content like this has always existed in small pockets of the media landscape, but in the last twenty-five years this form of commentary has come into its own, as a new genre of political opinion media that we term outrage. The genre has several distinctive attributes but is most easily recognizable by the rhetoric that defines it, with its hallmark venom, vilification of opponents, and hyperbolic reinterpretations of current events. With this book, we undertake a much-needed examination of this overlooked development in the political media landscape.


We begin descriptively, identifying the attributes of the genre and documenting its prevalence, showing the ways outrage traverses media platforms and political ideologies. We argue that outrage-based political content cannot be explained by increased political polarization in the United States but rather requires an understanding of the structural changes in the media landscape—primarily regulatory and technological—that have rendered such content newly profitable. This profitability has spurred imitation and unprecedented growth.

The visibility of the genre has been further bolstered by the synergistic relationship between political parties, candidates, social movements, and advocacy groups on the one hand and outrage platforms such as political talk radio, cable news analysis programs, and political blogs on the other. We find that many advocacy groups, social movements, and political operatives draw on the themes and narratives offered by outrage personalities to convince potential supporters to rally behind their cause, party, or candidate. We look, in particular, at how the Outrage Industry shaped the development of the Tea Party, serving as a vital communicative link among disparate independent Tea Party chapters and contributing to the success of their insurgency during the 2010 Republican congressional primaries.


Outrage discourse and programming may be effective at increasing advertising revenues and political support, but our research suggests that the mainstreaming of outrage in American political culture undermines some practices vital to healthy democratic life. Specifically, we show that outrage tactics such as ideological selectivity, vilification of opponents, and fear mongering make talking politics beyond our most intimate circles extraordinarily difficult, complicating our ability to have meaningful discussions about politics in our communities. We also see outrageous voices wielding disproportionate influence in elections, independently vetting candidates, anointing or tarring the contestants, particularly during primaries. This has been most evident on the right, where outrage media are more abundant and mature. Finally, we believe outrage to be increasingly divisive in the world of congressional policymaking, as it works to brand collaboration, open-mindedness, and compromise as weak. This stigmatization of cooperation has particular gravity because public servants are well aware that key votes will be closely monitored by outrage venues and heralded as tests of ideological purity.

Outrage as a genre

We use the term “outrage” to refer to the genre as well as the form of discourse that defines it. While political opinion outlets within the genre are recognizable by a distinct clustering of several attributes, they are recognizable primarily by a hallmark discursive style. Outrage discourse involves efforts to provoke emotional responses (e.g., anger, fear, moral indignation) from the audience through the use of overgeneralizations, sensationalism, misleading or patently inaccurate information, ad hominem attacks, and belittling ridicule of opponents. Outrage sidesteps the messy nuances of complex political issues in favor of melodrama, misrepresentative exaggeration, mockery, and hyperbolic forecasts of impending doom. Outrage talk is not rational-critical discourse in the Habermasian sense, nor is it accurately characterized as deliberation (although users may certainly draw upon or challenge perspectives and information from outrage media during their own political deliberation); instead it takes the form of verbal competition, political theater with a scorecard. What distinguishes this type of discourse is not that it seeks to evoke emotion in the political arena. On the contrary, emotional speech has an important place in political life, and many emotional appeals are not outrageous. What makes outrage distinctive are the tactics used in an effort to provoke the emotion.


Although outrage has some commonality with its conceptual sibling, “incivility,” the terms are not interchangeable. Diana Mutz and Byron Reeves use incivility to denote “gratuitous asides that [suggest] a lack of respect and/or frustration with the opposition.” In a sense, outrage is incivility writ large. It is by definition uncivil but not all incivility is outrage. Rude behavior such as eye-rolling, sighing, and the like are not outrageous because they do not incorporate the elements of malfeasant inaccuracy and intent to diminish that characterize outrage.

In addition to its unique discursive style, the genre also has other recognizable attributes. First, it is generally personality centered, with a given program, column, or blog defined by a dominant charismatic voice. We can think of liberal columnist Maureen Dowd, conservative television host Bill O’Reilly, conservative blogger Michelle Malkin, or liberal radio and television host Ed Schultz as examples of these distinctive personalities. While many of these programs and blogs include other voices such as those of guests, callers, and commenters, these voices take a backseat to the host, whose charm, emotional sensibilities, and worldview define the content. Unlike a conventional news program, in which the news itself is central and anchors are often replaced, there would be no Rachel Maddow Show without Rachel Maddow.

The genre is also recognizably reactive. Its point of entry into the political world is through response. The episodes, blog posts, and columns rarely introduce breaking news or political information. Instead they reinterpret, reframe, and unpack news from the headlines, political speeches, or claims made by other outrage hosts. This reactivity is closely linked to another attribute, ideological selectivity. Like news programs, producers in the realm of opinion are not expected to address all major political developments but can instead choose to explore what they see as most compelling. However, while conventional commentary might focus on what issues of the day seem most pressing, of particular interest to their audience, or in greatest need of in-depth examination, outrage commentary filters content selections through the lens of ideological coherence and superiority. The preferred focus is stories in which hosts can position themselves or their political compatriots in the role of the hero or can taint enemies, opponents, or policies they dislike as dangerous, inept, or immoral. This often means the emerging content provides additional space for the discussion of issues that concern their audiences. However, because of the approach used in outrage venues, the ensuing attention offers something more akin to the captivating distortions of a funhouse mirror than to the discriminating insights of a microscope. In this arena, issues of import to fans are used for maximum emotional impact, such that tiny niche issues are reshaped into scandals and significant developments that are less ideologically resonant are dismissed as trivial or ignored.


Outrage is also engaging. It is easy to see why audiences might find their favorite columnists, bloggers, or hosts more entertaining than a conventional commentator. In outrage there is performance. There are jokes. There is drama. There is conflict. There is fervor. There is even comfort, as audiences find their worldviews honored. Adding to this level of engagement is the sense of inclusion offered to those in the viewing, listening, and reading community. Hosts help fans feel that they are connected to like-minded others and sometimes even create tangible linkages through blogs, meet-up groups, and social media. In spite of the negative tenor of much of the content, fans feel refreshed by the programs. In many ways, outrage venues serve as political churches. The faithful attend, hear their values rearticulated in compelling ways, and leave feeling validated and virtuous for having participated.

For those seeking to understand the genre, recognizing the various writers and speakers as part of a densely connected web is vital, as outrage is marked by internal intertextuality, with personalities from outrage venues constantly referring to one another. This is true for those on the same side of the ideological rift, but it is also difficult to imagine progressive and conservative outrage media being separated, as each plays an instrumental role in creating fodder for the other. Think back to Rush Limbaugh and Sandra Fluke, and consider the ways in which Limbaugh himself became the subject of liberal blogs such as Daily Kos and liberal television programs such as the Ed Schultz Show. The feedback loop continued to cycle as Limbaugh, in turn, criticized progressive outlets for exaggerating the controversy and using it for political ends.

Finally, we note that although outrage trades in overly simplified stories that paint conservatives and progressives as fundamentally different, the way conservative and progressive commentators use outrage unites them. The same rhetorical techniques are deployed by those on both sides of the political divide. Consider practices such as using ideologically extremizing language (e.g., describing someone as “far-right wing” or “far-left wing”), “proving” an opponent is a hypocrite (often with decontextualized quotes offered as evidence), presenting their version of current affairs as the “real story” and other accounts as biased. Taken together, we find remarkable mirroring between conservatives and progressives. There are scripts that could easily be rewritten for the other side by simply replacing the nouns. Think, for example, of the reverse characterizations of Tea Party and Occupy activists; in outrage, dissent is brave and admirable (and, analogously, misguided and dangerous) only some of the time.

The attributes of the genre we have just described are best illuminated by example. On September 24, 2011, one week into the Occupy Wall Street protests, amateur videos captured Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna of the New York Police Department (NYPD) pepper spraying a group of activists after a march against economic inequality. Two of the protesters, 24-year-old Kaylee Dedrick and 25-year-old Chelsea Elliott, were hit at close range. In the video, the use of the spray appears unprovoked: the protesters are shown standing calmly on the sidewalk, behind an orange mesh police fence, at which point Bologna approaches, takes out the canister, and sprays them in their faces. The video next shows both women crumpled on the ground, screaming and crying in apparent anguish, with Dedrick gesturing toward her eyes.


The footage caught the attention of the mainstream news. Joseph Goldstein’s September 26 piece in the New York Times described it as follows:

protesters were corralled by police officers who put up orange mesh netting; the police forcibly arrested some participants; and a deputy inspector used pepper spray on four women who were on the sidewalk, behind the orange netting....The events of Saturday are certain to be examined, especially since so many protesters were recording the events with cameras; videos of the pepper spray episode, for example, offered views from several angles.

Goldstein’s full story was insightful, framing the police response as related to both anti-terrorism training and police fears about Seattle-esque lack of control over crowds of protesters, implicitly suggesting that these factors may have made police overly reactionary. It offered a fairly detailed account (roughly 1,000 words), including statements from the chief spokesman of the NYPD, the chair of the city council public safety committee, a representative from the police union, an officer who had been in touch with Bologna, and the associate legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). A response from an affected protester or other activist from Occupy Wall Street was notably absent. The article indicated there was disagreement over whether the use of force was appropriate, addressed other protesters’ complaints against police, and discussed the role of permitting in marches.

MSNBC’s The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell offered a different sort of analysis. O’Donnell devoted nine minutes of airtime to a dramatic monologue on police brutality. He aired four videos of alleged acts of brutality against Occupy protesters, including the Bologna pepper spray incident. Differentiating himself from the sedate neutrality of evening news anchors, O’Donnell grimaced with moral indignation as he offered scathing indictments using the video footage (in slow motion, at one point) as a jumping-off point for a biting denunciation of law enforcement. His outrage is fully justified if one accepts the premises upon which it is predicated: first, that these examples of police misconduct are rules rather than exceptions; second, that law enforcement, as an institution, has no interest in serving the public but rather in perpetrating crimes; and third, that there is methodical and effective collusion at work ensuring that these crimes go unpunished.

Police brutality is an issue of grave concern, particularly in poor communities of color, but O’Donnell’s assertions are hyperbolic and distorting. Unlike the journalistic account, O’Donnell includes no voices other than his own. His evidence includes his own insistence that, “As usual, the police department is defending its troublemakers as having done absolutely nothing wrong. The department insists that the pepper spray was used appropriately” [emphasis in the original], a statement that mischaracterizes the police position. And we find two different forms of outrage discourse, misrepresentative exaggeration and conspiracy theory, in his response to the suggestion of an investigation, when he argues that such efforts are “always a sham designed from the start to the finish to defend the police conduct.”


Further, it was not enough to suggest that the officer or the police department had behaved abusively. O’Donnell framed the issue more grandly. He appears livid as he explains, “I haven’t bothered to mention where this took place or what police department was involved because this is an American police work that we’re watching....Every day in America, police are too tough. Every day in America, police cross the line and abuse citizens.” Then, to drive his point home, he links Bologna’s use of pepper spray to the most notorious case of police brutality of our time, the Rodney King beating. He doesn’t simply allude to the case, he replays the original, excruciating video. In it, police officers viciously beat King—assailing him over 50 times with violent baton blows and kicking him—while other officers watch, some offering encouragement. “There’s a Rodney King every day in this country,” says O’Donnell. Then, with the King beating and subsequent acquittals fresh in our minds he offers, “None of the officers who crossed the line this weekend will be disciplined in any way.” The suggestion, of course, is that somehow—defying reason—these two acts of force are equivalent, and that injustice is inevitable.

This is outrage: from the way O’Donnell works to transform the upsetting, yet uninvestigated actions of one police officer into unassailable evidence of widespread police abuse in America that is insidiously covered up as a matter of course (supported by misrepresentative information about the police response), to the sensationalistic way he uses the stomach-turning video of the Rodney King beating to remind the audience of one of the ugliest incidents in law enforcement history, to the controlled rage he exhibits in his delivery. This embodied rage is part of the personality-centered nature of the genre; it is O’Donnell’s emotional response that fills the screen as opposed to anger from the affected protesters, other members of the Occupy movement, or bystanders.

In comparing the Lawrence O’Donnell segment to the New York Times story, we can see that outrage can be engaging. Viewers are able to see the pepper spray video firsthand and listen to O’Donnell’s impassioned commentary, and they have their frustration over the pepper-sprayed protesters validated as it is stoked and blessed with moral authority through the narrative linkages made between this act and larger social problems such as social inequality, corruption, and racial profiling.

The story ricocheted across cable news analysis shows, blogs, talk radio, and social media—at least in the progressive circuit, where it was featured on television shows such as Countdown with Keith Olbermann and the Rachel Maddow Show, discussed by radio hosts like Thom Hartmann, and featured prominently on blogs such as Daily Kos and the Huffington Post. Given the genre’s tendency toward ideological selectivity, the popularity of the story in these venues is something we would expect since liberal protesters were the ones whose rights were violated. Conservative outlets largely ignored the story.


Excerpted from "The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility" by Jeffrey M. Barry and Sarah Sobieraj. Copyright 2013, Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

Jeffrey M. Berry

Jeffrey M. Berry is John Richard Skuse Professor of Political Science at Tufts University. He's on Twitter at @JeffreyMBerry.

MORE FROM Jeffrey M. Berry

Sarah Sobieraj

Sarah Sobieraj is Associate Professor of Sociology at Tufts University. She's on Twitter at @sobieraj.

MORE FROM Sarah Sobieraj