Quantcast

Selling Outrage: How the Media’s Lazy Commodification of Anger Devalues Our Democracy | The Nation

  •  
Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

Selling Outrage: How the Media’s Lazy Commodification of Anger Devalues Our Democracy

Roger Ailes and Bill O'Reilly

Roger Ailes, left, and Bill O'Reilly (Brian Ach/AP Images for The Hollywood Reporter)

My new Nation column is The Power of Piketty's ‘Capital’.

It is described as follows: “A brilliant book has named the problem of our time. But will anything change?”

I’ll be at Jazzfest this weekend, weather-permitting. Feel free to email me your NOLA dining suggestions. For those of you in the city, check out the schedule for Harlem Jazz Shrines. It looks pretty fun (and cheap). It’s also got some intellectual meat to it; one more reason I live in the Greatest City…

Alter-reviews

Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues by Joel Selvin

Review by Danny Goldberg

Anyone fascinated with the history of rock and roll should check out Joel Selvin’s new book Here Comes The Night, The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and The Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues. It’s a deceptively down-beat title because Selvin’s opus is an exhaustively researched love letter to an era of R&B and rock and roll in the early nineteen sixties that created classic music, helped facilitate racial integration on a cultural level and directly inspired the Beatles, The Rolling Stones and decades of subsequent rock and roll artists.

Bert Berns, a brainy and charming street kid from a Jewish family in the Bronx, was a songwriter and producer, who worked closely with The Drifters, Solomon Burke, and the Isely Brothers among others and later an indie label head (Bang Records) who signed Van Morrison, Neil Diamond and The McCoys (“Hang On Sloopy,” also written by Berns).

Berns is known for injecting a Latin music influence into R&B (he’d been a fan of the mambo growing up), for lyrics full of angst, and for uncanny commercial clarity in synthesizing the rapidly changing pop, sounds du jour. (There was a dizzying series of musical trends that had seemingly overnight been injected into the pop music charts in 1963. Selvin writes, “The twist, the bossa nova and surf music all in a year. Who knew anything?”)

Because R&B was shunned by major labels, a number of independently owned companies run by music business outcasts had sprung up in the years after rock and roll burst onto America’s pop scene in 1954. Three major labels, Columbia, RCA Victor and Decca had controlled more than ninety percent of the Top Ten. By the time Berns entered the business in 1960 the power of the majors had collapsed and the indies represented more than two-thirds of the top ten.

While using Berns as its centerpiece, Here Comes The Night is really a far broader history of the era in New York’s R&B business featuring songwriters Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, Carol King and Jerry Goffin, and Dom Pomus and Mort Schuman, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, genius producer (and later killer) Phil Spector and Atlantic Records partners Ahmet and Nesui Ertegun and Jerry Wexler. Atlantic, for whom Ray Charles made his first hits, was the most prestigious of the indies and the company where Berns did most of his work. Selvin quotes Ben E. King fondly referring to the Atlantic partners Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler as “a better class of thieves.” Wexler was Berns’s mentor until they had a bitter falling out the year before Berns’s untimely death in 1967 from congestive heart failure at the age of thirty-eight.

Also prominently featured in Selvin’s demi-monde are mafia figures involved with the record business such as Tommy Eboli and Sonny Franzee and the record executive best known for mob connections, Morris Levy.

It was an era when songwriters ruled, when producers, arrangers and studio musicians were responsible for the sound, and when with rare exceptions artists, despite their visibility to the public, were less important and powerful. Selvin explains, “In 1960, Berns entered an enchanted village inhabited by a tribe of crazy geniuses. They made records and had no idea they were developing an entire school of art. They worked alongside each other. They collaborated, they competed and they copied each other, they stole from one another, they ate and drank together and used some of the same musicians and arrangers on records which they made at the same studios. They kept offices in the same buildings and rode the same elevators together. They were tough desperate men… bottom feeders of the New York music world, hucksters and grifters.”

But some of them, like Wexler and Berns, were also in love with the music and were genuine visionaries. Berns brand of R&B/rock had a particularly strong influence on subsequent rock superstars. Janis Joplin memorably covered Berns’s songs “Piece Of My Heart” and “Cry Baby.” Andrew Loog Oldham selected three Berns songs for inclusion in the early Rolling Stones albums (“Under The Boardwalk,” Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” and “Cry To Me.”). The Beatles covered Berns’s “Twist and Shout,” the hardest rocking song of their early work.

And the week that Selvin’s book was published, a new YouTube clip appeared of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band performing a particularly engaging rendition of “Brown Eyed Girl”—a song which had been a hit for Van Morrison on Berns’s Bang Records, forty seven years earlier, in 1967.

Back to Eric...

Bullets Over Broadway

I saw Bullets Over Broadway last night. It has not exactly killed (ouch) with the critics and did not much impress the Tony voters either. It was among the best-looking productions I have ever seen. Sets and costumes were funny, inventive and frequently eye-popping, as the saying goes. The songs were almost all reworked classics from the great days of tin-pan alley and early jazz and R&B, but without much jazz or R&B feel to them. The book, written by Woody Allen, was disappointingly thin—despite the fact that it is based on a brilliant and original premise. (See the movie if you doubt this.) The cast was almost uniformly winning and wonderful, with the exception of the lead, Zach Braff, who was just awful; loud and unconvincing in his over-acted scenes and second-rate, at best, as a singer. He was a clear play for out-of-towners who want to see a “star” on Broadway however miscast and a clear miscalculation on everyone’s part. But otherwise, the actors and singers were a delight. Nick Cordero and Betsy Wolfe were both mini-revelations and will almost certainly grow up to be big stars. Marin Mazzie already is a big star and gets plenty of opportunity to show you why. And Vincent “Big Pussy” Pastore does what he does as well as anyone. Brooks Ashmanskas also shows remarkable range in a role that looks like it might have been written for Nathan Lane—which is quite a challenge, but he pulls it off with aplomb. Again, was it fun? Sure was. Was it original? Absolutely. Was it nevertheless a disappointment? Well, it has Woody’s name on it, so yes, but still...

David Bromberg/David Johansen at Town Hall

I caught a David Bromberg Big Band/David Johansen double bill at Town Hall on Friday night. It was a wonderful combination if you grew up seeing both of these guys all the time in the last seventies. They have both given me lessons in how to age, if not gracefully, then intelligently and on their own terms. And both remain committed to their own unique art forms, and at the same time, sense of professionalism before their respective audiences. David Jo was received as well as any opening act as I’ve ever seen and gave a funny and moving performance. Bromberg had some trouble with the drunken shitheads sitting right in front of me, but gave a typically virtuosic performance on multiple instruments, but mostly electric guitar, of which he is a (largely) unappreciated master. He has so much great material, he’s got to leave out most of it, but still a happy time was had by all. They did not play together, however, because David Jo had to leave for another gig. (Amazing, “Buster” is playing the Cafe Carlyle in two weeks. I wonder what the lead singer of the New York Dolls would have had to say about that way back when. I’ll be there though.) Back to Bromberg, he’s had an incredible musical renaissance of late so check out his most recent CDs if you’ve lost track of him, catch him live if you can, and read this really interesting piece about his life in Delaware.

A Celebration of Blues and Soul: The 1989 Presidential Inaugural Concert

Back in 1989, Lee Atwater, who played in a band in college and used to make hay of his love of soul and R&B, put on a concert to celebrate the 1988 election of George H.W. Bush over Mike Dukakis. I went to this show. It was one weird show. Big donor Republicans pretending to like music they couldn't stand to suck up to the new head of the Republican Party; great musicians playing for people who looked nothing like the people they usually play for and kept waiting for someone or something to relate.

It was mostly old soul guys with Stevie Ray Vaughan and his brother Jimmie closing the show. Some of it is great and some of it is kind of embarrassing. The opening, Chuck Jackson’s “Any Day Now,” is wonderful and amazing. Eddie Floyd and Sam Moore are also pretty great. There’s way too much Delbert McClinton, which worries me, because, you know it looks like it’s because he’s a white guy. One does not feel the same way about the Vaughan brothers or Dr. John who are the only white performers not in the band or the Bush Administration.

Also on CD and DVD from the way-back machine is Little Feat’s “Live In Holland 1976” recorded at the Dutch Pinkpop festival. It’s the classic band, Lowell George (vocals, guitar); Bill Payne (keyboards, vocals); Richie Hayward (drums); Paul Barrere (vocals, guitar); Sam Clayton (percussion) and Kenny Gradney (bass), and I’ve never seen any video of them before so it’s a keeper. The performances of “Rock And Roll Doctor,” “Dixie Chicken,” “Feats Don’t Fail Me Now,” “Skin It Back,” “Teenage Nervous Breakdown,” “Fat Man In A Bathtub,” are only okay, it must be admitted, but still, it doesn’t suck.

Hill Street Blues: The Complete Series

Remember Sgt. Esterhaus reminding everybody, “Hey, let’s be careful out there”? Well, now you can watch 144 episodes on thirty-four DVDs of it. The original show, created by Steven Bocho and broadcast on NBC from 1981 to 1987, was pretty great in its day. The excellent ensemble cast (including Daniel J. Travanti, Veronica Hamel, Bruce Weitz, Dennis Franz and Betty Thomas) won it twenty-six Emmys and some people think it’s the best show ever. I’m not one of those people but I wouldn’t say you were crazy if you were. It comes with lots of extras including a history, a bunch of interviews with Bocho and the writers, a gag reel and some episode commentaries.

Also, from the same machine, but not as big a commitment is the first season of “L.A. LAW,” also created by Steven Bochco (with Terry Louise Fisher). It’s twenty-two episodes on six DVDs and it includes interviews with Bochco and the cast members Harry Hamlin, Jimmy Smits, Jill Eikenberry, Michael Tucker, Alan Rachins,  Susan Ruttan and Susan Dey.

Now here’s Reed:

Selling Outrage: How the Media’s Lazy Commodification of Anger Devalues Our Democracy
by Reed Richardson

Find out what a society gets angry about and you’ll find out what it thinks, who it cares about, and how fairly—or not—it functions. Does its anger dwell on isolated actions or does it challenge systemic ideas? Is it mostly directed at individuals or institutions? Is it driven from the bottom up or the top down? Does it seek change or simply retribution? Make no mistake, public anger is a necessary element of civil society and can be a public good, but not if it never does any good—if it’s only ever about settling scores, gathering scalps, documenting gaffes, and calling on others to apologize.

But outrage—as merely another form of regularly scheduled programming over time—clouds our perspective and dulls our ability to discern what really matters. For example, it’s no coincidence that you couldn’t escape hearing the names Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling in the media during the past few weeks, but the names Thomas Piketty and Martin Gilens have gone—with rare exception—almost unspoken on cable TV and talk radio.

Bundy, of course, is the white Nevada rancher whose standoff with the federal government earlier this month instantly made him a Fox News cause célebre and was transformed into a passion play of paranoid, anti-government angst that other news organizations soon followed as well. (It also occasioned some of the most crudely inapt historical analogies ever—Wounded Knee?! Gandhi?! George Washington?! Rosa Parks?!). That is, Bundy was a budding right-wing celebrity up until he revealed that his antebellum political beliefs about states’ rights also included a rancid nostalgia for chattel slavery, at which point many (but not all) of his high-profile right-wing devotees quietly abandoned him. And then there’s Donald Sterling, the billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, who was recorded privately encouraging his bi-racial girlfriend to avoid inviting black people to Clippers games. The ensuing uproar scared off pretty much every one of his team’s corporate sponsors, and left some conservatives predictably trying to paint the racist (and sexist) Sterling as a Democrat. (For the record, he is a registered Republican.)

While these media firestorms raged, however, little attention was paid to folks like Gilens and Piketty, the latter of which just published a book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. In it, Piketty’s meticulous research leads to some outrageous—which is to say, outrage-worthy—conclusions about the real impact of capitalistic society and how our nation’s economic growth is fundamentally structured to lead to inequality and concentrations of wealth. On top of that, Gilens just co-authored an academic study that found our democracy increasingly functions more like an oligarchy, where the rich and powerful hold sway over government policy and the rest of us have no say in how our own country works.

To recap, in the past few weeks, we’ve been presented with damning evidence that the American dream is more and more a distant mirage. And yet the media discourse has instead spent this time angrily obsessing over a deadbeat rancher potentially losing some cattle and a slumlord owner potentially losing a sports franchise. While no doubt satisfying and justified, the comeuppance of Bundy and Sterling still won’t do much of anything for ordinary Americans. This inversion of news priorities would be troubling enough as an isolated case, but as Jeffrey M. Berry and Sarah Sobieraj point out in their new book The Outrage Industry ($29.95, Oxford), this kind of misdirected anger now happens time and again and suggests a deeper, systemic problem:

“Outrage discourse and programming may be effective at increasing advertising revenue and political support, but our research suggests that the mainstreaming of outrage in American political culture undermines some practices vital to healthy democratic life. […]

“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.”

While this analysis is fairly intuitive, Berry and Sobieraj, both professors at Tufts University, have painstakingly backed up their book’s conclusions with data. Sobieraj, a sociologist, and Berry, a political scientist, are particularly well paired to map the full impact of the outrage media on society and create a taxonomy of its various forms. But before they do, they make a point of dispelling two myths about the level of outrage we experience now.

The first of these might be labeled “it was ever thus.” While outrageous commentary has always been a part of recent Western civilization as a “rhetorical style”—think back to Swift’s A Modest Proposal—the authors claim that its elevation to a “genre” is a relatively new phenomenon seen only in the past 30 years. Likewise, they dispel the notion that constant outrage is simply a by-product of an increasingly polarized populace. Instead, they cite a “perfect storm” of economic, technological, regulatory, and cultural changes, marked by milestones like the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine, the rise of the Internet, and the relaxing of rules on media consolidation.

The daily audience for outrage, Berry and Sobieraj calculate, now stands at roughly forty-seven million Americans, three quarters of which comes from talk radio. (Cable news accounts for another ten million, and blogs the last two million.) Thanks to its relatively low production costs and ease of syndication across huge corporate entities, talk radio has proliferated at an incredible rate. Between 1998 and 2011, the number of US talk radio stations has more than tripled, from 1,200 to 3,800.

The spoils of this media renaissance haven’t been equally distributed across the political spectrum, though. The most popular talk radio shows in the nation uniformly offer right-wing viewpoints and, perhaps not coincidentally, Berry and Sobieraj point out that nineteen of the top twenty-one talk radio hosts in America are white men. (The other two are white women.) In total, right-wing talk beats left-wing talk by an incredible ten-to-one ratio in airtime every day.

This outsized ideological imbalance in talk radio and elsewhere in the outrage industry clearly presented something of a research challenge. At times, the authors simply could not find comparable left-wing equivalents to the right. In one laugh-out-loud example, the book casually notes that it has matched up in one data set perennial purveyors of bombast Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin against the notorious liberal bomb-throwers on NPR’s Morning Edition and the Diane Rehm show. (I mean, pledge drives are tiresome, but really…)

There are other examples of this trying-too-hard effect. For instance, the book’s survey of major right and left-wing op-ed columnists placed Maureen Dowd in the “liberal” column. Yes, the same Maureen Dowd who consistently praises Republicans and routinely uses gendered attacks to single out Democratic politicians. To lead off Chapter Two, the book dramatically cites a long, execrable quote by “liberal radio host Mike Malloy,” whom I’ve never heard of. Nearly a hundred pages later, you find out that Malloy is carried on just thirteen radio stations nationwide. (Rush is on more than six hundred.)

There are a few other blind spots in its scholarly field of vision. In a discussion of outrage as a lobbying strategy, the book looks back at the 2011 Occupy movement and blithely notes the protests “garnered enormous press coverage” during their first few months, a grossly imprecise statement that betrays a lack of context about the mainstream press’s reluctant, often condescending coverage. In revisiting the poisoned media climate during the Clinton administration, the book completely overlooks the Wall Street Journal op-ed page’s potent role in helping conservatives foment outrage and spread scandalous hearsay about the president. And, at times, Berry and Sobrieraj fall victim to old-fashioned nostalgia, bemoaning today’s sensationalized media and lauding the sober voices of journalism’s “golden age” in the nineteen-sixties and seventies. You know, back when the diverse range of viewpoints expressed in the press ran the gamut from middle-aged white men to old white men.

Despite these occasional lapses, Berry and Sobrieraj don’t fall into the trap of a pox-on-both-houses false equivalency in their broader conclusions. Why not? In a word, data. Or as they put it: “[I]s one side really worse than the other? In a word, yes. Our data indicates the right uses decidedly more outrage speech than the left.”

In fact, in studying the two media platforms where conservative voices are the most prominent—cable TV and talk radio—outrage was all but inescapable, having been used 100 percent and 98.8 percent of the time, respectively. Overall, the authors found that right-wing media engaged in fifty percent more acts of outrage, on average, than those on the left (15.57 acts per example vs. 10.32). What’s more, the right employed significantly more of ten of the thirteen types of outrage documented by the pair, while the left most commonly used only two of thirteen types.

The right’s tremendous advantage in the outrage industry is what enabled it to midwife the conservative Tea Party movement five years ago. In the subsequent 2010 and 2012 elections, the book notes that the conservative outrage outlets—Rush, Glenn Beck, Fox News—became the “central nervous system for an insurgency within the Republican Party.”

This wasn’t a one-sided transaction, however. Fostering an amped-up Tea Party political constituency attuned to the latest Obama scandal was also a convenient way to build one’s audience. (Chapter Four of the book is bluntly titled: “It’s a Business.”) But with more competition in the political commentary space comes more pressure to stand out, to keep listeners and viewers tuned in for the newest outrage. Or if that doesn’t pan out, an old one.

Of all the left-right differences uncovered in the book, however, the most striking one was how political anxiety over racism has created a strong persecution complex only among the right-wing audience of outrage media. The research echoes a point Jonathan Chait made in his essay about how race has impacted Obama’s presidency earlier this month. As Berry and Sobieraj explain:

“The experience of being perceived as racist loomed large in the minds of conservative fans. In fact, every conservative respondent asked how he or she feels about talking politics raised the issue of being called racist without even being asked. […]

“All respondents allude implicitly or explicitly to wanting to avoid offending others or engaging in awkward social exchanges, but conservative respondents alone describe feeling wary of being judged negatively as people because of their views.”

This defensiveness has more than a whiff of doth-protest-too-much air to it. In fact, the book cites numerous studies that show this right-wing cohort harbors a much higher degree of resentment toward minorities. For example, a University of Washington study found that Tea Party supporters are “25 percent more likely to be racially resentful.” Likewise, a Ford Foundation-backed study discovered that sixty-two percent of Tea Partiers said discrimination against whites was as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and minorities. When the authors questioned Tea Party members about why their movement attracts so few minorities, the response was telling: “The most common answer we got was, in effect, denial.”

That’s where we are today in America. Conservatives have convinced themselves that liberals routinely employ charges of racism against them in a careless, devious manner, which frees them to ignore the possibility that the claims might have actual historical or empirical merit. This cognitive dissonance plays out, writ small, when the authors interview a conservative named Missy: “It is not criticism of her views that concerns her,” they note. “Instead, Missy’s account suggests that she is afraid that people will think differently of her as a person because of her political views.”

This is exactly backwards. Missy’s political views are the core issue. It sounds glib to say if one wants to stop being mistaken for a racist one should avoid policies that support racism, though it’s nonetheless true. But ensconced in a world of angry, like-minded partisans, Missy and other right-wingers like her feel no need to examine their views for racially-based motives, let alone change them based on what they find. Instead, they simply interpret any challenge from outside her worldview as a personal attack. This breeds a kind of siege mentality, the authors note, which “is mirrored in the work of many conservative outrage hosts, creating a media space that is compatible with, and supportive of, racial resentment.”

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

This compartmentalized approach to dealing with racism—and the modern conservative compulsion to find the real racists (i.e. Democrats)—is but one of the symptoms of an unbroken cycle of perpetual outrage. It also exacts an opportunity cost on our politics, both figuratively and literally. A political environment polluted by rhetoric mocking the ideological opposition as stupid or evil offers little intellectual space for finding compromise. What’s more, elected officials more concerned with passing purity tests are more likely to grandstand in committee meetings or Congressional speeches rather than spend time actually passing legislation that helps people.

The book offers up some brief recommendations to improve outrage politics, but the authors’ advice seems either too unrealistic or ineffectual to work. It speaks to a remarkable naivete, for instance, when the pair finds it surprising that moderate voices of outrage—an oxymoron if ever there was one—haven’t arisen to counterbalance the left-right narrative. And hoping that a combination of more robust fact-checking and a rollback of relaxed media ownership rules will stem the tide of media anger feels like throwaway ideas with little chance of success.

In the end, what the authors mostly overlook—and we shouldn’t—is what else all this selling of outrage crowds out: legitimate outrage. As Berry and Sobieraj concede, our democracy is a messy and impolitic endeavor, one where righteous anger can be an entirely appropriate response. But all-outrage-all-the-time is enervating, robbing us of a vital tool for checking power or righting a wrong. It’s time we start reclaiming anger for what matters. And though it may sound counter-intuitive, perhaps a good first step to countering all this phony outrage is by directing a healthy dose of the real thing at it.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson@gmail.com. I’m on Twitter here—@reedfrich.

The Mail:

Lisa Andrea

Anyone insightful of the Middle East knows Arabs are the obstacle to peace with Israel The so-called palestinians have been offered peace dating back to 1937 before they adopted the invented palestinian identity, thru to Bill Clinton's offer in 2000, all rejected.

Instead of lecturing Jews on peace, why don't you go to Gaza & lecture Hamas? Because you're a weak coward & a fraud, which is why you never got anywhere in life. Schmegegge.

Lisa

Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Read Next: Gary Younge: The Unbearable Whiteness of the American Left.

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.