Michele Bachmann as William F. Buckley's spawn: How right-wing media spiraled out of control

The right attacked journalists for decades. Cable forced the mainstream to pay attention -- then it all went sour

Published December 21, 2013 2:45PM (EST)

William F. Buckley, Jr., Michele Bachmann                     (AP/Nancy Kaye/Cliff Owen)
William F. Buckley, Jr., Michele Bachmann (AP/Nancy Kaye/Cliff Owen)

Excerpted from "The Outrage Industry"

Michele Bachmann kicked off her 2012 presidential campaign in Waterloo, Iowa, where she was born and spent most of her childhood. During the speech announcing her candidacy, Bachmann emphasized her connections to the community, a theme she continued in subsequent interviews. In one interview with Fox News, Bachmann suggested that she shared the spirit embodied by John Wayne, Waterloo’s other native son. Unfortunately, the candidate’s facts were incorrect; John Wayne hailed from Winterset, Iowa, not Waterloo. This would have been a small detail, except that another nationally known John Wayne, John Wayne Gacy—who raped and murdered 33 boys in the 1970s—did, for a time, live in Waterloo. This left some in the media assuming that she had confused the two men. In an information environment rife with outrage outlets, it was more than a gaffe. It was political pornography.

If you are an outrage-based liberal blog, headlines such as Wonkette’s “Michele Bachmann Launches 2012 Presidential Campaign by Praising ‘Killer Clown’ John Wayne Gacy,” are great for traffic, even if they are patently inaccurate. The video clip of Bachmann’s blunder hit YouTube and was posted on several liberal blogs including the Huffington Post and the Daily Kos, and reappeared on the left-leaning cable news analysis shows. After Keith Olbermann aired it on "Countdown," he quipped (in response to Bachmann’s reference to her “spirit”), “The kind of spirit that mixes fact, fantasy, and often sheer stupidity in a potent blend that is really all her own.” He then went on to ridicule other errors made by Bachmann while in the public spotlight. Olbermann quickly returned to the John Wayne mistake, working the subject over with a guest on the show, belaboring this trivial and politically irrelevant mistake for nearly 10 minutes.

A case could have made that Michele Bachmann was unqualified to serve as president, but that isn’t what "Countdown" or Wonkette or any of the other outlets where terms like “moron” and “idiot” flow cheaply and quickly set out to do. On the day she announced that she would be running for president, it seems possible that liberal venues would take up something of greater substance, her policy positions perhaps, but that’s not their modus operandi. Instead, they perseverated on an error about an actor’s hometown. And although that error could have been explored in less adolescent directions—interrogating the depth of her Iowan roots, for example, or speculation about how Iowan voters might react to the error—liberal outrage personalities opted for playground-level mockery.

Like Sarah Palin’s “refudiate” or Anthony Weiner’s repeated sexting faux pas, Bachmann’s serial killer faux pas was tantalizing click-bait—a snarky jab at a favorite target—too good to pass up. Indeed, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s New Media Index, a full third of the newslinks on blogs from the week of the John Wayne Gacy error were about Michelle Bachmann, with her candidacy and the John Wayne Gacy gaffe noted as sharing the spotlight.

This political mudslinging is not new, but over the last 25 years outrage as a genre has grown exponentially. In this chapter we dispel the myth that the outrage we see today has always been present—an unfortunate but unavoidable side effect of American democracy—showing that while outrage as a rhetorical style was not recently invented, its emergence as a genre is new. Its popularity and prevalence have grown in the political arena much like reality television grew in the entertainment arena during the mid 2000s. We will also work to dispel a second myth— that the emergence of the genre is a simple byproduct of an increasingly polarized populace pounding their fists for more red meat. While a plausible and tidy hypothesis, it is nonetheless flawed. As we note in Chapter 1, the research on polarization is conflicting. Even if polarization has deepened, the level of increase is not enough explain the dramatic growth of outrage. What’s more, the history of commercial mass media in the United States does not suggest it is particularly responsive to audience desires. Social change is rarely simple, and the development of the Outrage Industry is no exception. We offer a more complicated accounting of its rise, showing that outrage has been propelled by a synergistic confluence of economic, technological, regulatory, and cultural changes that converged to create a media environment that proved unusually nurturing for outrage-based content, “Bachmann praises serial killer” isn’t as simple as it seems.

Before the storm
Fire and brimstone political inflammation was first brought to mainstream American media by a Catholic priest, Charles Coughlin, who captured the rapt attention of an estimated third of the country during his radio show’s peak in the 1930s. Remarks such as “When we get through with the Jews in America, they’ll think the treatment they received in Germany was nothing” remind us that the vitriolic personalities we know today are not the first of their kind. And yet, Coughlin’s work came long before outrage could be understood as a genre.

For his time, Coughlin was more aberration than exemplar. American mass media have not always delivered an abundance of such voices. The new popularity of today’s outrageous political personalities comes in the wake of a golden age of journalism when the most visible voices in political television were known for their sobriety rather than their sensationalism. In the 1960s and 1970s political information was dominated by the three broadcast networks and the leading newspapers, especially the New York Times and the Washington Post, which reached new heights in the quality and depth of reporting. Although news gathering by such organizations today is undertaken with leaner staffs and budgets than in the 1980s, the spirit of the work done in large conventional news organizations creates a product that remains profoundly different from the political information circulated by the colorful giants of political opinion media.

It may seem unfair to draw this contrast—there is, after all, an important, if blurry, distinction between news and opinion and people certainly still get news from traditional news organizations. Access to conventional political reporting has become ever easier in the Internet era and more people today read content produced in a newspaper newsroom than at any time in American history. But political news and commentary must be discussed side-by-side as both make up vital pieces of our broader political curriculum via the media, and the information, arguments, and stories presented in both venues work their way into public political discourse, becoming part of the cultural landscape even for those who do not tune in directly.

Political news and commentary were born and remain in dialogue with one another. While it is not necessary to revisit the entire history of American journalism, we see the history of network news as a particularly important point of reference for placing contemporary political commentary in context. Unlike early American newspapers, which were born teeming with opinion and persuasive content (having pre-dated our socially constructed notions of journalistic objectivity and, indeed, pre-dated even our notion of journalism), broadcast news was mindfully presented as unbiased from the outset. This attempted objectivity had little to do with the new medium but rather reflected a complex history of postwar anxieties about the use of newspapers as political tools. Journalists and editors began to frame their profession in general, and news products in particular, as objective in order to build their credibility. This commitment to neutrality was then canonized through the growing ranks of journalism schools, professional associations, and awards, most notably, the Pulitzer Prize. In the process, value-neutrality became not only the hallmark of high-quality news but also a requirement for ethical reporting. This objectivity imperative transferred to both radio and television news.

The beginning of televised news in the late 1940s was less than auspicious. In 1948 NBC and CBS each initiated 15-minute news programs, but with few television sets in American homes, broadcasters invested only modest resources in these early news shows. Radio dominated the networks’ news divisions and radio newshands protected their budgetary turf with great vigor. John Cameron Swayze (NBC) and Douglas Edwards (CBS) became the first anchors of nightly network news shows on TV, each of which used a format aimed at emulating the movie newsreels. The NBC show evolved into the Camel News Caravan. The cigarette manufacturer generally avoided involvement in news content but did forbid any mention of cancer. If someone died of the disease, they would be described on NBC as passing away from “a long illness.”9 While imperfect, the Camel News Caravan was considerably more dignified than NBC ’s other notable initiative, the Today Show, which paired a chimpanzee (J. Fred Muggs) with host Dave Garroway.

As television sets became commonplace in American households in the early to mid 1950s, network news began to serve as a source of social cohesion as well as a source of information, by linking inhabitants of the United States in a way that was unprecedented. Wire services and radio networks had provided limited national news reporting, but families increasingly tuned in, watching the same content at the same time, as part of an evening ritual that formed a connective common stock of knowledge. The novelty could have worn off, but the nightly news ritual instead gained traction as CBS and NBC began to expand their TV news operations, gradually building in nightly news programs that offered more reliable reporting and eye-catching images in a straightforward manner; the viewer need not be particularly sophisticated to understand the information presented.

TV news gained gravitas through the investigative journalism of CBS’s Edward R. Murrow who took on Senator Joseph McCarthy at the height of the senator’s power on Murrow’s program See It Now. The most critical episode, in which Murrow interviewed McCarthy himself, opened the senator up to national scrutiny and ultimately contributed to his censure. Given the tenor of the times, Murrow’s work, and CBS’s support of that work, was extraordinarily brave. Murrow demonstrated the potential of the medium and set a new standard of excellence that the networks failed to meet with their pedestrian evening newscasts.

The pairing of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley on NBC marked the transition to contemporary newscasts. Teamed together for the national nominating conventions in 1956, they took over the nightly news in October of that year. They were an unusual duo. Huntley was pensive and serious if not downright somber; Brinkley always seemed slightly amused by the absurdity of the human comedy. As television historian Barbara Matusow notes, “Brinkley’s irreverent, offbeat sense of humor [played] well against Huntley’s air of settled authority.” The odd chemistry worked and together with a small number of regular correspondents, their 15-minute program led CBS in the ratings. Their trademark was their signoff; broadcasting from Washington, Brinkley would say “Good night, Chet,” and in New York Huntley would then respond, “Good night, David” (or vice versa). NBC executive Reuven Frank, who crafted the simple lines, recalled that the two newsmen hated the closing, believing that it was effeminate. To Huntley and Brinkley’s dismay, their signoff became a national punch line and they could not abandon it.

As Huntley and Brinkley’s stature grew over time, CBS executives became increasingly concerned about the bland Douglas Edwards and his lackluster ratings. In 1962 they replaced him with veteran journalist Walter Cronkite. A year later both networks expanded their evening news broadcasts to 30 minutes. To staff this expansion, both NBC and CBS opened bureaus in key US cities and devoted more resources to existing foreign bureaus. Ratings improved; in 1970 three quarters of those who had a TV on in their house at the appropriate time (6:30 est) had it tuned to a network news show. The point is not that the ratings were high—given the limited alternatives on television, finding a lower percentage would be surprising—but it is significant that so many people shared the nightly news ritual. There was reason to tune in. The 1960s were replete with extraordinary and often traumatic events, all of which middle America watched in their living rooms. This decade of reporting included the Kennedy-Nixon debates, the moon landing, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the civil rights protests, the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War and the domestic protests against it, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the tumultuous protests at the Democratic convention in 1968, and race riots in urban America.

"Firing Line" emerged in the context of these dramatic and often divisive events. The program was a one-hour debate-style public affairs show hosted by conservative William F. Buckley, during which Buckley posed challenging questions of the day to high-profile guests ranging from Hugh Hefner to Noam Chomsky. The interviews were interesting, with a more adversarial tone than found in network news and yet markedly more civilized than today’s cable news analysis shows. Questions were thoughtful, answers tended to be substantive, and those involved treated one another respectfully. Disagreement was ever present, but disparagement was rare. "Firing Line" is noteworthy not only because it created space for extended exchange of political opinion on television, but also because it aired for over 30 years. "Agronsky and Company," which debuted a few years later, but had less durability, also began to offer opinion-laden public affairs programming on television with a recurring slate of combatants who would reliably disagree with more personality than was typical of other news-based content of the time, though still in a far more respectful manner than is characteristic in similar formats in the outrage era.

The tumultuous events of the 1960s combined with technological improvements and increased financial support culminated in broadcasts that paired compelling storylines with arresting visuals from the location of the unfolding events. Americans turned to the news to witness these historic events in real time. Media events such as these are atypical and have a distinctive disruptive dimension—commanding the viewers’ attention in a way that routine news does not, yet this string of pivotal moments characterized by a norm of viewing altered our relationship to televised news in its more mundane forms. By bringing these historic events into American living rooms, TV news networks became both the filter and amplifier through which Americans observed the political world. Watching these pivotal events live as they transpired heightened the sense of trust in news anchors and correspondents. Over time, many in the viewing public developed a sense that they had experienced the events first-hand rather than through the lens of editorial judgment. When Walter Cronkite ended his show with his signature tagline, “And that’s the way it is,” that was the way it was for many viewers.

Cronkite became a towering figure in American journalism, widely respected as a paragon of common sense and integrity. For 20 years he anchored the CBS evening news and narrated the live events that drew Americans to the program, helping them to make sense of turbulent times. There are few moments in the history of TV journalism more poignant than when Cronkite told viewers that President John F. Kennedy was dead. As he made the announcement, he took off his thick glasses and struggled to retain his composure, communicating both his professionalism and his humanity. A poll in 1973 ranked him as the most trusted figure in America. When Cronkite came to believe that the war in Vietnam was a mistake, President Lyndon Johnson told an aide, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

In spite of the high level of trust in broadcast news, or perhaps because of it, the 1960s were also the early days of conservative antagonism toward the networks and, more broadly, toward the “eastern establishment” press. The Nixon administration seethed at CBS, the Times, and the Post (even before Watergate). In the words of Theodore H. White, “the hostility of the Liberal Press obsessed Nixon.” Nixon transformed his resentment of an elite that he believed used every opportunity to undo his career into an institutionalized response. His White House created an office led by firebrand Pat Buchanan that monitored press enemies and responded emphatically to what was regarded as biased coverage. CBS reporter Daniel Schorr made the infamous White House “enemies list” and CBS White House beat reporter Dan Rather was also a particular irritant to Nixon.

What was important about the Nixon response to adverse press coverage was that it appeared to tap into a broader resentment by conservatives, especially those who lived away from the East Coast and regarded the perceived values of the eastern establishment (whatever that was to them) to be contrary to traditional American values, values they believed they embodied as middle-class Americans. The attack on the news media did not end with Nixon but would become a staple of conservative rhetoric. Indeed, there has been no more enduring theme in the conservative sector of the Outrage Industry than criticizing the perceived liberal bias of the mainstream news media. As addressed in Chapter 2 and as we explore further in Chapter 5, the antagonism has culminated today in a constant drumbeat of criticism of the mainstream media on Fox News and on conservative talk radio. Distrust of the conventional news reverberates through liberal political commentary as well, though the criticism is less frequent and usually framed as concern about corporate influences rather than political ideology, even if those influences are thought to map fairly well onto conservative policies and priorities.

Perhaps somewhat ironically, these charges of bias helped to expand the role of opinion in mainstream news. This is most visible in the growing opinion and editorial pages of the major national newspapers during the 1970s. Creating more robust opinion sections helped editors highlight the distinction between fact, which was idealized, and opinion, which was suspect. This strategy also saved money because contributors were happy to have visibility and did not demand a regular paycheck. Thicker op-ed pages also created space for a greater diversity of voices, which provided editors tangible evidence of political openness in the face of the alleged liberal or corporate bias.

Despite conservatives’ dissatisfaction with the network news, these programs dominated the political media landscape until the proliferation of cable. With cable came exponential growth in the number of channels from which audiences could choose, and with these choices came a steady stream of viewers switching from the network news to the entertainment available on new rival networks. The introduction of cable television exposed the fact that a large segment of the news audience had been attracted by the time rather than the programming, tuning in because that’s what happened to be on when they wanted to watch TV. Even though cable offered news channels of its own, such programming appealed primarily to those with great interest in politics who wanted more news to watch and not to the previously casual or even accidental audiences lost by the networks.

The fortunes of network news have only continued to decline, as shown by a 2012 poll conducted by Pew Research Center for People and the Press, which found more Americans using the cable channels for news about the elections than the network news; the results further confirmed the continued decline in the number of adults who report getting campaign news from newspapers, and local and network TV news. What do they value in cable news? In 2010, a poll on campaign information sources conducted by Politico and George Washington University found that among cable hosts, Glenn Beck scored the highest among respondents for having a “positive impact” on political debate in this country. Even optimists among TV industry insiders do not envision the legacy networks recovering their lost audience as each heads toward being just another channel among the hundreds that now flow into the home.

But if audiences want alternatives to network news for their political information, why has outrage-based political material, in particular, emerged as such a successful political genre across media platforms? Why has a hyperbolic, politically superficial, and often inaccurate species of political commentary taken hold in place of something more trustworthy and penetrating? If there is interest in political commentary, rather than “value-neutral” political news, why not a growth in more reliable and informative opinion formats, which examine political issues in detailed, compelling ways? Or, at the very least, why not greater diversity among the political alternatives?

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.

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By Sarah Sobieraj

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

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