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Why Are TV’s Talking Heads So Angry All the Time?

Two researchers dive into the spittle-flecked world of outrage media.
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Sixth Avenue headquarters of Fox News in New York City, New York. (Photo: Jim.henderson/Wikimedia Commons)

Sixth Avenue headquarters of Fox News in New York City, New York. (Photo: Jim.henderson/Wikimedia Commons)

If there’s one thing American media does well, it’s outrage. Take a quick glance at your favorite news source, whether The O’Reilly Factor or Pardon the Interruption, and you’ll see it: wide-eyed, incredulous, puffed-up outrage that anyone could be so stupid!

Despite our nation’s saturation with outrage, argue two Tufts researchers, we know very little about how the genre works. So Jeffrey M. Berry, a political scientist, and Sarah Sobieraj, a sociologist, assembled a research team and dove into the spittle-flecked world of outrage media. They listened to and read countless transcripts, coding it for content; interviewed fans of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and other superstars; and examined the regulatory and business shifts in American mass media that led to our current screamfest.

In a recent interview, Sobieraj spoke with Pacific Standard about the formula of outrage media, why the right wing dominates it, and the weirdly intimate relationship between talk radio hosts and their listeners. The below transcript is edited for length and clarity.

So what exactly is outrage media, and how do you differentiate it from a regular lack of civility?

When we think about outrage, we think of political speech that is intended to provoke an emotional response. So fear, anger, or moral indignation—that sort of thing. Most of the existing literature on incivility talks about interruptions or sighing or things like that, and what we notice is that outrage is such a muscular negativity that it’s not captured by those kinds of studies or questions. It’s just a whole different ballpark. The research on incivility tended to look at things like political advertisements, for example, and we were thinking about this whole other area, this genre where there is a mainstay of emotionally laden speech and behavior that is really designed to rile up the audience.

Emotion has a place in political speech. It’s actually quite important if you think about something like the civil rights movement or 9/11. People’s stories and the social problems they animate are often very important. But what’s different here are the calculated techniques that they use in an effort to evoke those emotions.

"Most of the research shows that we only talk about politics with people we already know agree with us and we usually do it in the privacy of our own homes."

And it sounds like “calculated” is the right word, because you guys write that outrage media is pretty formulaic.

It is. It’s very predictable. In fact, sometimes when I’m having a better day or in a better mood or feeling more tolerant, I can find it in myself to find it amusing, the way that the techniques are so similar on the left and the right.

You know you could hear, for example, a host talk about the fringe far-left and if you’re on another network you can hear them talk about the fringe far-right, and so sometimes the language is literally the same. And not just the language, but the techniques, the things like misrepresentative exaggeration and belittling and conspiracy theories.

Are there any other big markers? Misrepresentative exaggeration, belittling....

Insulting language is another really important one. Calling people idiotic or pompous. Name-calling is definitely one too. I’ve heard, for example, bloggers refer to Obama’s supporters as “Obamatards,” things like that.

As for exaggeration, there is lot in political life, but this is a different level of a very dramatic negative exaggeration. For example, saying that something is intended to bring down capitalism. That would be a good example—very few things are actually designed to bring down capitalism. So I would say that misrepresentative exaggeration, mockery, definitely the ideologically extremizing language like “radical right-wing nut,” “socialist,” “fascist.” Those types of things are probably the most common.

I think a lot of people are skeptical of the claim that it’s as bad on the left as it is on the right, and you did a good job of pulling quotes from folks like Mike Malloy that really are angry and negative and out there. But you did find, overall, that there’s something about this sort of media that appeals more to folks on the right, and there’s a huge gap in the amount of outrage media between the two sides.

Yeah, so there are actually two different questions embedded in there. One is whether it’s the same or different in terms of the intensity and the volume and that sort of thing. Some people have suggested that when we point out that it happens on the left it’s a false equivalency. And that’s actually not what we’re doing at all.

What we notice is that the techniques are very similar on the left and the right. So something like belittling or exaggeration—you’re going to find that with Ed Schultz or Lawrence O’Donnell just like you’ll find it with Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity. But the volume is very different, in terms of the sheer number of platforms on the right. Talk radio is over 90 percent conservative so there’s just more of it.

Now the other question that you’re asking is whether outrage is more attractive to those on the right, and I think it is for a number of reasons. It’s actually kind of complicated—there are a lot of things going on. One is that the left is less distrustful or more accepting, depending on how you want to say it, of conventional news. So the right has historically been less comfortable with the major networks or The New York Times, for example, and the left is more comfortable in those spaces.

Another thing that comes into play is that there is some research that suggests that conservatives have a personality type—this is, of course, not all of them—and that there’s a greater propensity for comfort with black-and-white argumentation, which is very common in the outrage genre. There are good guys and there are bad guys. You are with us or you are against us. So there is that type of appeal.

But also, and I think probably most interestingly, since the rise of multiculturalism, with words like “tolerance,” “inclusion,” and “diversity” being viewed as good and important, for those who are conservative, to share your political views on things like same-sex marriage or immigration—those views can be viewed as intolerant and you can feel as though you are being judged and stigmatized. So we think that these shows, or what we hear when we talk to fans, are that these shows and blogs really become a safe space where their views are validated and they’re not criticized.

That struck me actually, because I really did like the interviews you had with fans of Beck and Limbaugh and some other conservative hosts, and there was this genuine fear that I found surprisingly easy to empathize with. They said they feel like they can’t talk about these issues or they’re going to be tarred as racist.

It makes me feel really happy to hear that you were able to empathize with it because I think that whether someone is racist is sort of beside the point. I think we can find racism on both sides of the political spectrum, and it just wasn’t the question that we were measuring for, but what we find is that fear of racism just looms over them in such a different way.

I felt like when we were doing the interviews and a respondent would start to tell a story of a time that that happened to them, that someone perceived them as racist, it was as if that had just happened. They really react strongly to being perceived as racist—it was so fresh in their memories and so powerful to them because it’s really upsetting.

I think it’s a big social risk. Nobody likes to talk about politics very much publicly these days no matter what your views are, but I think the difference between those on the left and those on the right is that those on the left are criticized as being bleeding heart or being socialist or unpatriotic. It’s insulting, but it just doesn’t sting in the same way that being called a racist does. And so I think that the conservatives feel that it’s not that their policy preferences are judged necessarily, but rather that they themselves as people are judged because of their views. And I think that that’s a terrible feeling, and I think that it’s meaningful, and these shows do everything imaginable to make coming and tuning in feel good, and it does.

Whatever you think of Limbaugh or Beck, their shows are some form of political discussion. But you write that part of their appeal is they let people avoid more contentious real-world political discussion.

This was something I didn’t necessarily expect. I thought that on these programs there would be more on-air conflict. But there’s actually so little of it—they rarely have people on who disagree with them, and if they do they’re folks who disagree but who are more prone to acquiesce, or they are going to disagree softly or quietly. And so I think that that conflict isn’t present but if you’re even on Facebook, on the other hand, if you share your views publicly, you could end up with a slap on the wrist quite easily. Most of the research shows that we only talk about politics with people we already know agree with us and we usually do it in the privacy of our own homes.

I was very much struck by the rather intimate relationship between outrage hosts and their audience, as though the hosts are serving some sort of deep-seated psychological needs.

They eliminate the fear of social conflict, that someone’s going to reject you. They also reduce discomfort that people express in feeling ill-informed. That’s another thing that can happen if you talk politics, even with somebody who agrees with you. Maybe you don’t know enough about whatever the events of the day are, and when folks tune in to these shows they feel like they are being informed, and so that’s another fear that sort of disappears for them.

You also write that part of the appeal of outrage hosts is that they’re a bit self-deprecating. So how does that jive with research suggesting that people are drawn to figures who provide strong predictions or black-and-white authoritarian viewpoints? It sounds like part of the art of being a successful outrage host is marrying those two almost conflicting characteristics.

I think that part of what’s really important, especially on the right where there’s a lot of criticism of the liberal elite—you may remember at various points during Obama’s campaigns he was called “professorial” as an insult—there is a real disdain for being talked down to. There’s that accessibility, the fact that somebody is going to say, “Well, I’m just a regular guy,” or “Well, you and I, we’re sort of cut from the same cloth.”

This happens on the left, too: Ed Schultz is really proud of talking about hunting and fishing and meat and potatoes. He gives all these working class or middle class signifiers constantly to let people know this he is someone you can relate to. There’s an appeal to that that really resonates in an era where we’re used to things like reality television and we want people to be sort of “real.” We want it to feel authentic.

On the other hand, what fans admire in these folks is not necessarily just their breadth of knowledge—though that comes up a lot when people talk about Glenn Beck, for example, or sometimes Michael Savage or Rachel Maddow. But they also really respect the way that they can articulate the things that are frustrating them. So it’s sort of: You or I may have these feelings of frustration or anger that we can’t really put into words, but when we tune into our favorite radio show or television show and we wait and we listen to the person we admire sort of zing it to the other side, they’re saying the things we wish we had thought to say. They are us, but better.

That ability—the charisma and the zing—is what’s desired. Somebody was saying recently, and I thought this was a really good analogy, that in a way it’s like professional hockey, where you’re waiting for the big conflict to happen, the big fight to happen. And if it doesn’t you almost feel disappointed, and that is how you watch outrage programs in some ways. Maybe fans are enjoying the information or the details, but what I think they really value are those outrageous moments, the zing, the insult that’s flung in an artful way. It feels good. It’s satisfying. As one respondent told me, “I guess these guys are obnoxious in a way we can’t be.”

So you had to listen to a lot of this stuff and code the individual moments of outrage. Do you think that did any lasting psychological damage to you or your research team?

You know, there are moments when I came to really appreciate the art form, the genre as a genre, and I would enjoy listening to someone do this routine well, and there were moments I found it funny or ridiculous. But there were also moments when I found it really disturbing. And the one that stands out for me was when health care was on the agenda in 2009 quite some time ago, watching the misinformation wing around from program to program to blog to social media and really have quite a significant impact. I found that pretty sobering, a reminder that this isn’t just entertainment, that this has significant political consequences.

So what are the next steps for research into the outrage industry?

I think one thing that’s interesting, which we thought about including but decided we already had plenty on our plates, is that advocacy groups certainly use these same techniques. They’re not trying to get ratings, per se, but they’re trying to get donations or members, and so you might have your favorite advocacy group using these very same techniques. It would be interesting to look at how outrage appears in other spaces.

It would also be useful to do a content analysis when we have a Republican in the White House and see if the balance of outrage tips. You could make the case that perhaps there was more outrage on the right because the right had more fodder with Obama in office—that may be the case. And so I would be very curious to see if that gap narrows somewhat if we did that.

That could at least provide some insight as to why Air America was such a colossal flop.

Yeah, I think Hollywood in general has a real reluctance around innovation, so when something—not just Hollywood but entertainment—when something fails like that it sends a very strong message, and it becomes something that looms over thoughts of repeating that attempt in the future.

Similarly, when something works we end up with spinoffs and sequels and prequels and all of these type things, because they want to continue to work that. And I think that’s one reason, again, that outrage on the right has been successful, because there were models that it could be very profitable: Rush Limbaugh probably has many folks who have come in his wake because of his success.

Anything else you wanted to add or anything I should have asked?

I guess one thing that didn’t come up that I think is significant is sort of the consequences that we see. On one hand, as you mentioned, it is political discussion and there is some research that suggests that people who watch and use these programs are more politically engaged. And that feels positive, so there may be some good things that come of this in that way.

On the other hand, we worry somewhat that there is a fair amount of misinformation. I alluded to the health care issue before: 30 percent of Americans believed that death panels were a part of the proposed health care plan and 45 percent of those who reported watching Fox News thought that was true. So if you’ve got folks who are misinformed and are more active than the average person that’s probably not great.

But there are other consequences, too: We worry very much that it lessens our openness to the views of people who disagree with us in our communities and our workspaces and neighborhoods. We also worry that it stigmatizes collaboration and compromise in Congress because every vote becomes a test of party purity and ideological truth, with legislatures very well aware that their votes are being monitored by the outrage industry. It can be scary to rethink a position and that’s not healthy—that’s certainly not healthy. So those are two things that we worry about as potential consequences of the success of the genre.