Thursday, February 02, 2006

Cable News as Manufactured Outrage

Sean Hannity, manufacturer of outrage. Picture from FoxNews.COMLife is just not exciting enough. How else can you explain the popularity of reality TV shows? We revel in the turmoil, intrigue and contrived spontaneity. At least that is what I think they offer from seeing the 30 second promos. I haven't been able to watch more than a couple of minutes of any of them. I get bored.

TV sports is another opportunity to live vicariously, feel the adrenalin rush and excitement of the unpredictably, bask in unmerited success and bathe in the knowledge that we are not as dumb and blind as the officials.

I do occasionally watch Cops, or shows like that. Although maybe for the wrong reasons. I don't watch to feel morally superior or excited by the pursuits. I usually come away knowing that life is not fair. For whatever reasons, a lot of people find life harder than others. I don't see how you can watch a show like Cops and not realize that given the right (or wrong) circumstances, you could be the loser on TV. I watch Cops and always come away more humble.

But my real reason for this post is a train of thought set off by George Will a couple of weeks ago on This Week (ABC). He used the term "synthetic outrage" and I immediately thought of cable news. Well, actually, I thought of Fox News and then realized they are not alone in manufacturing outrage.

O'Reilly likes to put down competitors because their number of viewers is not as high as his. I think the difference in popularity is how well a show can manufacture outrage. A really good news show would probably not be called entertaining. I love to watch the News Hour on PBS, but I would call it more informative than entertaining. This is partly because Rush calls himself an entertainer, not a journalist or commentator. I think Rush is sort of an entertainer, I just wish I could believe his loyal listeners saw him that way. I suspect most would call him a commentator and journalist.

But I digress. The cable "news" and commentary shows thrive on outrage. The more outrage they can generate in their audience, the more successful they are. When there is no convenient event or person to build outrage on, they invent something. I have sympathy for Natalee Hollaway's family and don't blame them for using any tool to keep interest in her story alive. But does anyone believe we would still be hearing about this case if it weren't for the outrage manufactured by cable "news"? The same goes for Terri Schiavo, cruise ship murders, Happy Holidays, etc. I'm sure with a little effort you can add to the list.

Fox, and maybe the other cable networks, have a nasty habit of picking guests more on their ability to generate outrage than on their ability to discuss an issue or defend a position. A good "kick me again" liberal can get a lot of air time. The same goes for sycophant conservatives.

As you watch news/commentary shows, even the individual segments in a show, make your own decision as to whether they are offering primarily journalism, commentary, entertainment or synthetic outrage. You can do this by analyzing what is being presented and the manner in which it is presented. Is what is offered fact or opinion? Is opinion offered as fact? Does the anchor or host sprinkle in personal comment and/or opinions while describing fact(the news)? Are you being given information by authentic sources? Are people telling you the thoughts and motivations of someone else? Do they offer these insights as conjecture or fact with supporting reasoning? Or have they somehow crawled inside the other person's head and are now reporting from a remote location? During an interview, does the host cut guests off, interrupt before the guest has a chance to answer or restate what the guest just said in a different way with the implication that the guest is lying or ignorant? Does the host treat the guest and their opinions with respect? You can disagree with someone and still treat them with respect (for examples, watch Now on PBS). Does the host end the interview and then give some comments that the guest has no opportunity to respond to? Is the host really trying to elicit information from the guest or trap them into saying something they can pounce on? I love the common tactic of cutting off an answer with a comment like "We only have a few seconds left and I wanted to ask you....". That really means, you aren't supplying enough outrage, let's try another subject.

If you like to watch Hannity and Colmes because it gets your blood boiling, that's fine. You probably spend too much time on the couch and this little bit of activity is probably good for your heart. But don't come away thinking all liberals are dim witted pin heads who look for every opportunity to dis the troops, hurt the country, lie, cheat, steal and evade the draft (yes, I know we no longer draft people into the armed services).

There is certainly enough stupidity, incompetence, ignorance, prejudice, hatred, injustice, violence, evil, perniciousness, arrogance, malfeasance, ...... to outrage us all. We don't need cable news to manufacture it.

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