The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility
By Jeffrey M. Berry and Sarah Sobieraj
Oxford University Press
288 pages, $34.95

The term “outrage industry” is hardly new. It has been bobbing around the English-speaking world for more than a hundred years, most often as a sarcastic epithet, somewhat in the same spirit as “the usual suspects.” For example, a 1994 article in New York magazine was titled “Rudy [Giuliani] and the Outrage Industry,” referring to the array of critics who automatically sprang forth to criticize the new mayor’s every move. More recently, Bert Brandenberg, a writer on legal issues, stated that “2005 marked the national coming of age for an outrage industry that stokes anger over controversial decisions”—in this instance, the anger aroused at the courts over the Terri Schiavo right-to-die case.

Now Jeffrey M. Berry and Sarah Sobieraj, a political scientist and a sociologist based at Tufts University, have given what was once a mere figure of speech new form and substance. They hypothesize an actual outrage industry, an apparatus that distributes record amounts of outrage and fattens as it makes its biggest practitioners wealthy. The big-time list (as of 2010) is topped, in estimated annual income, by Rush Limbaugh ($59 million), Glenn Beck ($33 million), Sean Hannity ($22 million), and Bill O’Reilly ($20 million). They were far ahead of the liberal outrage artists at msnbc, who earned only in the single-digit millions. Moreover, the media chains and networks that disseminate these commentators have also prospered because advertisers are drawn to the big audiences seeking to gorge themselves on outrage.

The techniques of outrage compiled by Berry and Sobieraj are familiar: A content analysis concludes that both left and right employ, first, mockery and sarcasm, then, insults and name calling. The right, however, far outdoes the left in another technique, misrepresentation (lying). My favorite single example in the book of the apparent lunacy that outragers can attain is that of Glenn Beck on camera gutting a fish he had dubbed “Larry” to illustrate the treatment he favored for the contemptible mainstream press; he finally poked out the eyes of the (presumably dead) fish.

The underlying premise is that outrage techniques are more widespread and more dangerous than ever before, not only because they have assumed the heft of a major industry but because they continue to spread. Hundreds of blogs have adapted outrage to their own purposes. The authors suggest, too, that the outragers aided in the birth of the frequently outrageous Tea Party, and that members of Congress make themselves famous, or notorious, by adopting the techniques of the outrage media.

At the same time, former counterbalances have been weakened: Many of the old institutions of impartial news have faded or collapsed; and such restraints as the government placed on use of the broadcast media largely vanished by the 1990s. At the end, Berry and Sobieraj attempt to provide a few glimpses of hope—that advertisers might back off, that other voices will appear in other rooms, that outrage may reach a saturation point.

Perhaps. While The Outrage Industry offers a thorough survey of recent and present developments, it does little to convey the historical depth of the phenomenon. Although the authors present liberal and right-wing outrage as roughly equivalent in technique if not in size, in fact their foundations are profoundly different. The historian Richard Hofstadter, who died too young in 1970, foresaw the persistence of right-wing outrage in his 1965 book, The Paranoid Style in American Politics. He saw in what he called the “pseudo-conservative” movement, which had pushed forward Barry Goldwater’s failed run for president, the appearance of an ostensibly patriotic faction that was, paradoxically, deeply unhappy and angry with America and the American system.

Hofstadter understood that elements of this movement would survive: “In a populistic culture like ours . . . in which it is possible to exploit the wildest currents of public sentiment for private purposes, it is at least conceivable that a highly organized, vocal, active, and well-financed minority could create a political climate in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety would become impossible.”

Not impossible yet, but the irrational clearly dominates the right wing of the outrage industry. It has not won power, but certainly it has made the rational pursuit of national well-being more difficult. 

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James Boylan is CJR’s founding editor.