Monday, October 26, 2015

The Distemper of Our Times: it's the business model, stupid

Ipod spawned the talk radio star.

Last summer I had the pleasure of attending the 50th anniversary reunion of my high school graduating class. One of the highlights was talking and joking around with an old chum who happens to be on the very conservative side of the political spectrum. We are facebook friends and from time to time he posts "provocative" tidbits like Fox News videos and placards extolling timeless libertarian "truths."

I have no objection to my friend having opinions diametrically opposed to mine or even to his reliance on sources -- such as Fox News -- that I consider to be without merit. But that doesn't mean I have to stifle my opinions about the credibility and lack of persuasiveness of his sources. Last night, after presenting documentation of why I found Fox News less than credible on the issues, I received a reply from a facebook friend of my friend in effect calling me an "intellectual coward" and instructing me to "Man up or shut up."

I have no retort for an uncivil "friend of a friend." But I am interested in the outrage phenomenon that seems to promote this kind of behavior. Sarah Sobieraj and Jeffery Berry are, respectively, a sociologist and a political scientist at Tufts University, whose book, The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility, I look forward to reading. In the meanwhile, I've read several of their recent articles and I am particularly intrigued by their argument in "Understanding the Rise of Talk Radio."

In that article, Berry and Sobieraj point to the deregulation of the broadcasting industry -- increasing concentration of ownership and elimination of the fairness doctrine -- along with the appearance of new and more appealing technologies for listening to music as creating an environment that has fostered the proliferation of political talk radio programming.

On the audience side, differences in the demographic make-up of conservatives and liberals and greater conservative distrust for the mainstream media may account for the overwhelmingly conservative bias of political outrage-fueled talk radio. Political talk radio is disproportionately white, male and conservative. Furthermore, "conservatives like talk radio because they believe it tells them the truth." Berry and Sobieraj conclude their article with the following observation about the talk radio business model:
The talk radio business model is worrisome because it represents the growth of an industry that makes profits in large part by peddling political outrage and fueling the fires of polarization. America has always had such businesses (think yellow journalism) but never on the scale of what is available today. Embedded in the successful business model for talk radio is an incentive for hosts to be provocative to the point of being offensive to people who are not among the loyal following. The program content we have described in this article may be part and parcel of a free society with a strong First Amendment, but that is no less reason to be concerned about the prevalence of political commentary designed to make us as angry and fearful as possible.


Thornton Hall said...

I'm not sure these folks are any more credible than Fox News. Doubt anyone who thinks the problem with the media is a lack of objectivity.

There is a massive bias in favor of the idea that the press got *better* when college educated white males brought "professionalism" to a field previously dominated by working class, high school educated hacks, prior to WWII.

There is a more insidious bias that says "corporate media" is bad, which again posits that the news was great until recently.

Both are nonsense.

What matters are the people who report the news, and it's never been a more elite pack of smarmy bastards than the peak of the objective news era: 1999 right before the age of the Internet.

The New Deal happened in the era of "yellow journalism", written by and for the working class.

We entered exactly zero unwinnable wars in the era of "yellow journalism". Objective journalism brought exactly the opposite: zero winners and 3 (4 counting Korea) losers.

Bask in the reflected glow of 100 white pulitzer prize winning faces:

Talk radio is dying.

Thornton Hall said...

A few other basic points about the press:

1. Beware a sort of type/token error. Is some glorious moment in history thanks to "the" Press, or to the existence of "a" press.
See: Edward Snowden, Mark Felt, Daniel Ellsberg and Ron Ridenhower. See also, Rather/Mapes. Whistle blowers don't need an "objective media" and the "objectivity" of the media doesn't weed out phony whistleblowers (the truth does).
2. Academics personal interaction with the press is very limited. They find that their work gets misrepresented, but imagine that's because it takes a genius like themselves to understand their work.
In fact, living in Washington DC and being friends with people in all the intersecting areas covered by the news, one learns that the news is always wrong. Always. About everything. Seriously. Robert Samuelson is only a little below average.
3. The objective media has taught us that individuals are great, but institutions corrupt. It's always a source vs his employer. But go to any news website and look at the top story. You'll find that every verifiable fact is from government. Only the sports page reports non-government facts on a regular basis. In fact, most "investigative journalism" amounts to revealing government facts written down but not made public.

Thornton Hall said...

Almost forgot. The yelling and extremism isn't due to the talk radio business. What happened was that racists used to be mostly Democrats and Birchers used to be mostly Republicans. When Ronald Reagan united them as the base of one party, they became a demographic worth broadcasting to. Previously both sides were too small on their own.

Sandwichman said...

"Doubt anyone who thinks the problem with the media is a lack of objectivity..."

That's not what they're saying. You seem to be attributing to the authors things you disagree with because they have failed to foreground what YOU think is the MAIN POINT. That strikes me as kind of perspectival imperialism and very limiting. What I like about their analysis is that they are looking at a business model. This isn't about "the good old days versus the bad new days" but about how broadcasters make money. It isn't about objectivity versus the yellow press but about how broadcasters make money. The media isn't in business to inform, entertain, elevate or humiliate you. They are in business to MAKE MONEY. Did you miss that point?

Thornton Hall said...

I didn't miss that point, but I did "almost forget" to respond. The audience is the environment that business models evolve to survive. You don't credit bipedal humans for creating a world where you can kill food by throwing rocks at it!

So that's the cause of the business model. The next interesting question is : What's the effect? But that's not the question they answer. Instead they describe what conservative talk radio sounds like, and make the point that it sounds the way it sounds because it gets ratings.

This near tautology is what they describe as "worrisome".

But w/ the context I provided it becomes clear that the only thing "worrisome" about it is that it is not more wide spread. My (rather clearly stated) point is that when the news is driven by profits and those profits depend on appeal to Anericans who are not college educate white males (i.e., Anericans, full stop) the news tends to serve the public interest.

What is interesting is how our news factories got away from the business model of appealing to their readers and viewers. That, is a man bites dog story if ever there was one.

Sandwichman said...

Oh, I get it. You are arguing with the paragraph I quoted not with the authors' full analysis. I guess that is one of the hazards of quoting. People mistake the part for the whole.

Thornton Hall said...

Indeed, I didn't click the link. Should I?

Thornton Hall said...

Here's what I can read for free:

They describe (before the fact) the media environment that brought us BLM after the press spent fifty years ignoring police murder and complain that it is too "cluttered". Then they describe politicians responding to the wishes of highly engaged voters (as they themselves describe) and claim that what the politicians are *actually* doing is responding to Rush Limbaugh.

They give the outrage industry the mysterious power to create a thing called a "primary"!

When Will Rogers said "All I know is what I read in the papers" it was a joke, because everybody knew (back then) that you couldn't believe what you read in the papers. That never changed. What changed is a weird CW that you can and indeed should believe what you read. It is only in the haze of this bizarre revisionist light that Father Coughlin gets off easy but Rush Limbaugh controls elections.

My wife is a senior staffer in the House. What these people believe about how that body works is rank nonsense.

Bruce said...

I discuss the rise of right wing talk radio & Fox in this paper.

Bruce Bartlett

Sandwichman said...

Thanks, Bruce, that's one that I downloaded and browsed -- looks interesting -- but haven't had a chance to read through yet.

Sandwichman said...


I don't always click links but I do when I want to comment critically on the opinions of specific authors.