Left wing liberals and right wing conservatives can’t seem to get enough of the bluster and anger-baiting rhetoric of their favorite network – MSNBC or Fox News. If they believe all this verbal warfare and partisan acrimony is somehow helpful in coming to some sort of consensus or at least have the country take a small step forward, they couldn’t be further from obvious reality. The blatantly hateful diatribe is odious to a large degree and the motives are primarily for ratings and financial profits, not advancing the national conversation. Tirade politics, furious rants and uninhibited bitterness have become the new normal.
In a lengthy and insightful piece for The Atlantic, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and non-fiction author Charles Duhigg eloquently describes the new self-destructive madness that has descended on a large part of America:
“In 1987, a television reporter named Geraldo Rivera began hosting a daytime talk show. It failed to attract much attention in its first year. Then he tried a new formula, inviting white supremacists, skinheads, and black and Jewish activists into his studio, all at the same time. A brawl broke out. The set was trashed; punches were thrown; Rivera’s nose got broken. The episode was a hit.
“Cable news didn’t immediately sink to the same depths, but the influence of the daytime shout-fests was undeniable, especially once Fox News and MSNBC entered the fray, in 1996. Broadcast news had been constrained by regulations that enforced fairness and encouraged decorum. Cable executives, however, could do whatever they wanted. One former Fox producer I spoke with said that his network realized early on that if watching anger was entertaining, then getting a chance to participate in it—hearing your indignations given voice by a bombastic host—was irresistible.
“This was the model of one of Fox’s early hits, The O’Reilly Report, in which host Bill O’Reilly spent each episode airing his grievances: against elitist academics who questioned America’s fealty to its ideals, against the liberal media establishment, and, a bit later, against people who said ‘Happy holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas.’ Rush Limbaugh had pioneered a similar approach on talk radio, but whereas he also devoted airtime to advancing conservative political principles, O’Reilly made resentment the main event.
“Executives from other cable-news channels publicly disdained his approach—and rushed to imitate it. In 2009, a Tufts University study of opinion media found that ‘100 percent of TV episodes and 98.8 percent of talk radio programs contained outrage.’ On MSNBC, commentators such as Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann, and Rachel Maddow found ratings success by playing on their viewers’ discontent, even if they stopped short of borrowing O’Reilly’s most demagogic tactics. In 2012, Bill Clinton ruefully observed that the network had become ‘our version of Fox.’ Later that year, the Pew Research Center found that MSNBC devoted 85 percent of its programming to opinion, and just 15 percent to news. At Fox, the split was 55/45.
“The method at both networks was, and is, to tap into our reservoirs of moral indignation. But the point isn’t to start a social movement or really even to effect political change, though the programming on Fox News and MSNBC does have political consequences. The point is to keep viewers tuned in, which means keeping them angry all the time. No reconciliation, no catharsis, no compromise.”
Charles Duhigg, “The Real Roots of American Rage” https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/01/charles-duhigg-american-anger/576424/
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