Professors examine outrageous political speech in current election cycle

Professor of Political Science Jeffrey Berry co-authored "The Outrage Industry." He poses for a portrait in his office in Packard Hall on Feb.10. Jiaxun Li / The Tufts Daily

The road to the White House has been filled with angry rhetoric on both sides of the aisle. Amid the mudslinging and escalations are media personalities such as Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly and Rachel Maddow providing strongly ideological election commentary, a media scene called “the outrage industry” by Tufts professors.

Professor of Political Science Jeffrey Berry and Associate Professor of Sociology Sarah Sobieraj, who wrote a book titled “The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility,define “outrage” as any media content aimed at provoking emotional responses in an audience, according to their Jan. 3, 2014 Politico articleThis content is manifest in everything from cable television to talk radio to online blogs, they said.

“Outrage is not new,” Berry said. “If you have a free media, people are going to say what they feel — and what they feel is not always nice.”

Berry said the fundamental incentive behind the outrage is the profit the outlets can gain.

“What our book brings to the table is an understanding of the underlying business behind why [media outlets] find it profitable to try to divide us…and whether these businesses have a financial interest to keeping us divided,” Berry said.

The presidential candidates in this year’s election cycle are quickly gaining notoriety, with the help of media outlets aimed at procuring content that elicits the greatest emotional responses, according to Berry.

“I’m taken aback by just how visible the anger that is always manifested in these outrage programs has burst onto the election tap load,” he said.

The more novel aspect of this outrage industry is the technology that allows outrage to propagate rapidly, according to Deborah Schildkraut, Chair of the Department of Political Science.

“Social networking allows people to comment on the news in a way that [wasn’t possible before],” Schildkraut said. “One of the charges that you hear sometimes is the declining civility in the comments that people attach when they are forwarding a news story or a link to a news story.”

Schildkraut explained one reason for the increase in outrage material on cable news networks: in the realm of television, the majority of viewers stay informed by watching local news, which report more on weather and sports than opinion-based politics. According to an Oct. 2013 study by the Pew Research Center, only 38 percent of Americans tune in regularly to cable news networks, while 71% of U.S. adults watch local news. Schildkraut said that since cable isn’t viewers’ primary news source, networks have time to fill with non-news content.

“We used to think of cable news as being CNN, which delivered straight news all the time,” she said. “There’s still a role for that in cable news… but they realized there’s all this other time to fill. They don’t need to be the place that most people go to for their news — they just need to be doing better than their competitors in the other cable news channels.”

Associate Professor of Political Science Consuelo Cruz said this outrage in media has also influenced the political system.

“Everybody is taking on a theatrical persona, and what drives the drama is the idea that they can give voice to the anger, the anxiety, the fear that people are feeling,” Cruz said. “The political system therefore becomes a kind of echo chamber for outrage.”

Cruz said that talk radio hosts represent an important growing faction of pundits, a body of political commentators she calls “outrage entrepreneurs.” Berry, like Cruz, acknowledged talk radio’s massive influence on political discourse, especially among conservatives.

“Conservatives love talk radio. Rush Limbaugh himself has 13 million listeners a week and Sean Hannity is not too far behind,” Berry said.

Berry explained that candidates are aware of this desire for incisive and divisive political speech.

“They’re trying to appeal to the same audience — people who watch outrage programs, or listen to them,” Berry said. “Proportionally, these are activists…and these programs feed their anger — that’s their business model. So they’re disproportionately represented as voters in the Republican primaries.”

Berry and Sobieraj concluded their Politico article by stating that the outrage industry threatens the fundamentals of our nation’s democratic practices. Many of their peers, including Cruz, agree that a change has to be made for compromise and bipartisanship to overcome the internal fractures of the American political system.

“Words are powerful,” Cruz said. “They do have an impact. And political discourse can be degraded.”