Shutting Down the Outrage Machine
We’ve seen how the media manufactures the racial strife it then blames on President Trump.
The media’s deliberate amplification of voices that accuse America of being irredeemably racist is but a symptom of a syndrome afflicting our mass communication media.
It is addicted to outrage. And it’s peddling outrage to make addicts of the rest of us, too.
The outrage generator is driven by several factors inherent in today’s electronic mass communications media.
The first of these factors is an imperative need to deliver an audience to advertisers. Commercial media has to keep you tuned in, watching, clicking at all costs so it can sell your eyeballs to advertisers. It’s a war for your attention and the content providers will do anything to win it.
This in itself is of course nothing new. Newspaper publishers always wanted the widest circulation possible and all writers want their work to be read. God wasn’t content to simply inscribe the Commandments on a tablet with his finger; He commanded Moses to show them to the children of Israel. (They were unfortunately distracted by the Golden Calf, an early example of the shiny object triumphing over more important substance. This made the Lord and his messenger very sore indeed.)
But the tremendous amount of corporate money sunk into electronic mass media to reach audiences of tremendous size has raised the stakes considerably. The science and technology for commandeering our attention have grown more sophisticated even as the ends for which they are employed, and any moral awareness restraining their use, have not.
The media’s need to keep you watching and clicking at all costs conspires with another element embedded in the television medium that we have grown so accustomed to it is invisible to all but the trained eye.
In his prescient 1985 commentary, Amusing Ourselves to Death, the late media theorist Neil Postman described how television’s presentation of decontextualized information makes us stupid:
“Now . . . this” is commonly used on radio and television newscasts to indicate that what one has just heard or seen has no relevance to what one is about to hear or see, or possibly to anything one is ever likely to hear or see. . . . There is no murder so brutal, no earthquake so devastating, no political blunder so costly . . . that it cannot be erased from our minds by a newscaster saying, “Now . . . this.” . . .
Programs are structured so that almost each eight-minute segment may stand as a complete event in itself. Viewers are rarely required to carry over any thought or feeling from one parcel of time to another.
So we have a situation where commercial news media will do anything to attract an audience, outrage sells, and viewers are not expected to know or remember anything beyond what’s “happening now.”
Put it all together and we have a formula to make every story the most outrageous story imaginable!
“Coming up . . . the bombshell constitutional crisis that has panic sweeping the White House. Stay tuned.”
The president can’t be wrong. He must be literally Hitler. No, he’s worse than Hitler!
Hillary Clinton or Stacey Abrams or Andrew Gillum couldn’t simply lose their elections. No, their elections were stolen!
The tax cuts don’t just favor the rich. They are Armageddon and will literally kill people!
Changing climate means the world will end in 12 years! Maybe sooner.
There is only one level on the outrage machine. It’s always cranked to 11.
Now . . . this: Children in cages, Russians in Trump Tower, white supremacists with guns in your town, transgender prepubescents in your nursery, rapists on the Supreme Court.
Note that there is no way to rank what to be more outraged about. There is no context, all we have is this moment, the eternal “now . . . this.”
Not only can you not rank the bad, worse, worst outrages, you’re not allowed to. That’s another effect of the media outrage machine.
The immigration food stamp debate provides a recent example of the problem.
The concept that noncitizens shouldn’t be allowed to enter our country and take advantage of welfare programs should not be particularly controversial. It’s been enshrined in the federal Immigration and Nationality Act for decades, and for well over 100 years the government has had a policy of denying entry and citizenship to those a subordinate official deemed could become a “public charge.”
Some people may be surprised the immigration system should now consider food stamps and public housing as welfare; others would be surprised they weren’t considered welfare already.
But such subtleties are lost in what passes today for reporting.
In elementary school we’re taught literature, language, and history are open to interpretation. In civics, we’re taught reasonable people can disagree over public policy.
No more. The media outrage machine allows only one interpretation of words, events and policies—the one it tells you. It tells “the president tweets are racist,” “nationalism leads inevitably to fascism and crematoria,” not “some believe this while others disagree.”
In this environment of manufactured outrage, you cannot respectfully disagree. If you disagree, “you’re part of the problem, not part of the solution.” You don’t deserve respect because you are a racist, sexist, misogynist, white supremacist, fascist deplorable.
At precisely the moment critical thinking is more needed than ever, the news media has replaced its critical thinking with its totalitarian impulse to tell the rest of us what to think.
And it’s telling us to be outraged. All the time.
It may be good for business—their business—in the short term, but it’s hazardous to our mental health and society. In pursuit of maximizing shareholder value, the mass media is generating mass hysteria.