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.