Mr. Limbaugh if you're nasty: How right-wing mean media keeps conservatives on the fringe

Outrage sells. Rush, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity might make megabucks and have real influence, but there's a limit

Published December 14, 2013 2:45PM (EST)

Ann Coulter                        (AP/Jose Luis Magana)
Ann Coulter (AP/Jose Luis Magana)

Excerpted from "The Outrage Industry"

Many will rightly note that American political media have always had outrageous elements. Whether we think of yellow journalism in the 1800s, firebrand Father Coughlin on the radio in the 1930s, or belligerent radio and television host Joe Pyne in the 1950s and 1960s, we can see that Glenn Beck and Chris Matthews are not particularly groundbreaking. Yet, while this kind of speech has deep roots in American media, modern incivility is, in many ways, a new ball game. Outrage today is found in a far greater number of venues, circulates quickly, has vast audiences, and often gathers momentum from the attention of conventional news organizations and the synergistic coordination between media organizations, pundits, bloggers, and politicos.

More than anything else, the sheer volume of outrage media today sets it apart from political media of days gone by, giving it density. Even at our most divisive historical junctures, the acrimonious debates and accusations that emerged had few venues beyond the mainstream press. There has always been a small alternative press, but nontraditional venues for dissent were but a modest sliver of all media and had relatively small distribution. By the 1960s, the broadcast networks were at their peak and together with mainstream newspapers and magazines, they dominated the market for political news and commentary.

Research suggests that political commentary is increasingly replacing conventional news and much of this commentary is outrage-based. As newspaper readership and nightly national news viewing on networks have declined, outrage news analysis audiences have simultaneously expanded, and the number of outrage venues has grown. The rate of increase in the number of outrage venues is evident in radio where there are 3,795 all-talk or all-news stations in the United States, more than triple the number in existence just 15 years ago. Radio is not an isolated case; the emergence of cable and ultimately satellite television increased the array of television stations exponentially, to be topped perhaps only by the birth and proliferation of blogs in terms of the number of new platforms for outrage content. Of all the news and commentary Americans seek out over the course of a day or week or month, the Project for Excellence in Journalism finds that a significant percentage comes from these alternatives to network news and newspapers, making for a political media environment markedly different from that of just a generation ago.

Another important attribute of the new incivility is its immense popularity. As much as some people might like to think that outrage personalities are fringe figures whose distortions and conspiracy theories are ignored or irrelevant, they have found an audience. Talk radio is the second most popular radio format in the nation, falling only slightly behind the number one format: country music. Data from radio research firm Arbitron indicate that Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity draw 15 and 14 million weekly listeners to their respective radio shows. Meanwhile, on television, the "O’Reilly Factor" has over 3 million nightly viewers, not including those tuned in for the repeat showing that airs at 11:00 pm. Although liberal hosts attract a far smaller audience (a difference explained in part by liberals’ greater trust in traditional journalism), the "Rachel Maddow Show" still draws nearly 1 million viewers a night, and programs such as "Hardball with Chris Matthews" and "The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell" draw close to three quarters of a million viewers according to the Nielsen ratings. As a point of comparison, the offerings on Fox and MSNBC are both routinely rated higher than their more moderate competition on CNN. Glenn Beck’s ratings on Fox dropped from their peak of nearly 3 million viewers between the summer of 2009 and the winter of 2010 to 2 million viewers when the termination of his nightly show was announced in 2011, but even with these “low” ratings, he was still trouncing his competitors; at the time he was cancelled Beck was still regularly tripling to quadrupling the viewership of the "Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer" which aired in the same time slot on CNN.

The aggregate audience for outrage media is immense. Our estimate for talk radio, using Arbitron data for the top 12 hosts and extrapolating to the larger talk radio world, roughly 35 million listeners daily. Nielsen data suggest the nightly outrage programs on cable attract close to 10 million viewers. Utilizing figures from Quantcast for the 20 top political blogs and, again, extrapolating to the broader blogosphere, we estimate 2 million people log on to at least one outrage-based political blog on a daily basis. Taken together, this suggests an audience of up to 47 million people daily. The audience is composed largely of those who are most likely to vote, most likely to donate to political causes, and most likely to be politically active in many other ways. For example, 78 percent of listeners to talk radio voted in the 2010 election as compared to 41 percent of the eligible electorate. In short, the outrage audience is quite large, politically active, and valuable to both advertisers and politicos.

Another noteworthy difference between outrage today and incivility of the past is the speed at which it circulates. The voracious appetite of the 24-hour news cycle with blogs and programs in constant need of content, the work of news aggregators such as the Drudge Report that curate thematic news stories and blog posts, and the efficiencies of digital technology have given outrage great velocity. In moments past when things got ugly— the partisan press of the early 1800s comes to mind—publication and circulation was much slower. The rate of diffusion has increased over time, but accelerated exponentially in the last 30 years. Consider this comparison. In 2005 President George W. Bush nominated his White House Counsel Harriet Miers for a position on the Supreme Court. On October 3 he made the announcement at 8 a.m. and by 9 a.m. Laura Ingraham was on the air across her 340 radio outlets excoriating Miers. A few minutes after that William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, was on Fox News attacking the choice. The conservative onslaught continued throughout the day on cable, talk radio, and the Web. A little more than three weeks later Miers withdrew as conservative opposition was simply too great for her to go forward.

Contrast this with two of President Nixon’s nominees to the Supreme Court, Clement Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell, who were rejected in the wake of bitter opposition from civil rights groups and other liberal lobbies. Although all three Supreme Court nominations were sidelined by withering ideological opposition, the differences are profound. There was a full debate in the Senate over Haynsworth and Carswell and both went through hearings before their fate was ultimately determined by a floor vote. The blitzkrieg against Miers was so fast and so broad that her weaknesses metastasized before any hearings could be held. The Bush White House, hardly an inept political operation, was outmatched. Ingraham said it best: “Without alternative media, the [White House] talking points on Miers would have carried the day.” And this transpired before the mainstreaming of social media that has occurred since 2005, which has further heightened the rate at which information travels.

Although the columnists, analysts, and writers in conventional news organizations often scoff at the celebrity hosts of the genre, outrage outlets today are closely monitored by mainstream news organizations and often receive significant attention from them. Occasionally, outrage venues bring issues to the fore that had been overlooked or under-covered in the conventional press, but more often they enter the news because of the controversies they generate. The Limbaugh/Sandra Fluke story and Glenn Beck’s public declaration that President Obama was a racist, for example, were covered by mainstream news outlets. And outrage personalities also appear in mainstream news stories as sources, to represent conservative or liberal views on political issues. For example, in its initial story on revelations that GOP presidential aspirant Herman Cain had been accused of sexual harassment, the Washington Post addressed the question of conservatives’ reaction to the controversy. To reflect conservative thinking about Cain in light of the allegations, the story quoted Rush Limbaugh and fellow talk radio host Laura Ingraham, both of whom said the mainstream press has been racist in their treatment of him. The New York Times followed suit in its coverage, using the inflammatory pundit Ann Coulter as its representative of conservative thought. Coulter minced no words in declaring that the story (not yet 24 hours old) smacked of a “high-tech lynching”—Clarence Thomas’s evocative phrase from his Supreme Court confirmation hearings. The presence of outrage in mainstream news and opinion venues brings it to audiences who might not seek it out.

When these changes combine they gather force. There is synergy in the complementary incentives shared by outrage commentators, party leaders, candidates, and interest group activists. Producers need guests while candidates, legislators, and interest group leaders want airtime. The Democratic National Committee might host a lunch for leading liberal bloggers and provide them with talking points that Democrats in Congress will be emphasizing that day. The subsequent posts by these prominent bloggers will be picked up by other bloggers across the country, who link to particularly provocative entries.

Explaining the change

Given the extensive expansion of outrage media and the formidable audience numbers some of these outlets attract, it seems reasonable to assume that a growing number of people share the anger and sharply ideological positions showcased in these venues. If outrage politics are more prevalent today, it seems that this must be a logical outgrowth of our fiercely divided populace. Yet the relationship between what’s offered to consumers, their political ideology, and the nature of their appetite for such content is complex.

The scholarly literature on political polarization in the United States does not align with the growth of outrage commentary. Despite lay assumptions that polarization has increased dramatically, academic research offers a murkier picture of contemporary political culture. Political scientist Morris Fiorina concludes that in terms of its ideological composition “the American public looks much the same as it did a half century ago—centrist more than polarized in its specific positions, pragmatic more than ideological in its general orientation.” Alan Abramowitz rejects Fiorina’s belief that the polarization that seems so visible in our culture reflects the political beliefs of only a highly active political class. Rather, Abramowitz writes, “Polarization in Washington reflects polarization within the public.”

Despite this fundamental disagreement, in some aspects of this problem there is consensus among scholars. Most significantly, we see that the two major political parties have both become more philosophically homogeneous over time. In the wake of the civil rights movement in the 1960s an ideological sorting out of the American electorate took place. White southern conservatives migrated to the Republican Party while newly enfranchised blacks identified with the party of civil rights, the Democrats. The increasingly conservative Republican Party became less welcoming to moderate Republicans and over time many moderates left to become independents or Democrats. This is documented by Matthew Levendusky who finds that public opinion has not shifted markedly toward the ideological poles, but rather that today people have more closely linked their partisanship with their beliefs. This suggests that our beliefs haven’t changed significantly; we have simply sorted ourselves more neatly along party lines.

How, then, do we square the vast increase in the number of outrage outlets and the growth of the audience for their content with scarcity of ideologues in the population? Even if Abramowitz is right and the number of Americans who hold polarizing attitudes has increased, it is implausible that such polarization can fully explain the current scale of outrage enterprises. Remember the case of radio, where the number of all-talk stations tripled in a period of under 15 years. Changes in public attitudes alone cannot explain such enormous growth; the source of talk radio expansion must derive primarily from other causes.

For a more robust understanding of the growth of the genre, we look to those who produce and distribute outrage-based content. We see outrage as a practical and savvy response to political, technological, and economic shifts that have transformed the media landscape since the 1980s. We’ll consider just one here: the fragmentation of the audience as users have dispersed across the rapidly expanding array of media choices on and offline. Why is a fragmented media environment hospitable to outrage? Think of the case of television: During the era of big-three network dominance, when programming choices were based on garnering the largest possible number of viewers from the mass audience, the goal was to offend the fewest, to program the least objectionable content. Today, the broadcast networks must work to attract a large audience amid an expansive sea of cable channels. In contrast, cable networks can produce content aimed at smaller, more homogeneous audiences. With this niche-orientation, individual cable channels can afford to offend segments of the market that are not their target audience. In fact, many cable television programs, radio shows, and blogs deliver niche audiences to advertisers specifically through the use of objectionable programming, which is dramatic, entertaining, and shocking enough to “break through the clutter” in a crowded field of cable choices.

Identifying niche audiences, which exist in cluttered and highly competitive markets, allows advertisers an efficient and cost-effective way to reach these targeted consumers. As a result, agent provocateurs, a nearly unthinkable risk in a least objectionable programming mind-set, now present a far more palatable option. The highly competitive radio and blog universes are similarly focused on niches: If Rush Limbaugh was concerned with attracting a broad audience (presumably including Democrats and Latinos), he would have been unlikely to denounce Sonia Sotomayor as a racist after she was nominated for the Supreme Court or to compare her to Ku Klux Klan firebrand David Duke or to a housekeeper. Of course, there are reasons this particular type of discourse proves culturally resonant, and we return to these shortly, but the point here is that the changing media terrain creates platforms for outrage to become economically viable. Indeed, it is our argument that it has been able to solidify into a genre largely because of this profitability.

The varied structural changes we describe have rendered outrage politically and financially profitable, whether those profits appear in the form of increased advertising revenues (linked directly to ratings and traffic) or fundraising dollars (recall the way Limbaugh’s remarks about Fluke were leveraged by the left), or political support, coming in the form of votes, increased support for policy positions, or increased membership in advocacy groups.

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.

By 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

By Sarah Sobieraj

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

MORE FROM Sarah Sobieraj