Outrage-Based Media and the Specter of False Racism Charges

I've often wondered how conservatives can tolerate a steady diet of the likes of Limbaugh, O'Reilly, and Hannity. I don't mean why they find those kinds of programs appealing, because there are many reasons for that. I mean as a steady, long-term part of your daily routine. Doesn't the steady stream of outrage just become overwhelming after a while? Can you really shake your fist at the TV and sputter with rage every single night without making yourself crazy? That's not to say there aren't liberals with similar rhetoric, but there are fewer, and they aren't as successful. Keith Olbermann did it for a while, and Ed Schultz isn't that far off. But it does seem that liberals' taste in talk runs more to people like Rachel Maddow, who delivers her outrage with a smile and a joke, or the wonkishly thoughtful Chris Hayes. People on the left aren't averse to getting mad, but they don't want to be mad all the time.

Which brings us to this very interesting paper by Sarah Sobieraj and her colleagues, which sought to examine "outrage-based political opinion media" from a sociological point of view. That is, they talked to both liberals and conservatives who tune in to these programs about what they get out of them. Since the article is paywalled, all I have to go on is a description of it in Pacific Standard, so it's possible that some or all of my questions are discussed in the article itself. In any case, their main point is that these programs provide a kind of no-risk community, where people can feel a connection to others without the potential pitfalls that come from talking about politics in other contexts like work.

I'd add that there's a particular kind of emotional interaction going on when you watch one of these programs. The host—someone who is almost certainly more articulate than you (that's why he has a job talking for hours on the radio and TV, and you don't)—mirrors the emotions you feel about current events and controversies back at you in a way that's satisfying on multiple levels. He assures you that you're right, and he offers you clever arguments you can use to convince yourself (or others) that you're right. He usually tells you your side is going to prevail. And he validates your feelings by giving them back to you in a heightened way. Are you mad at Barack Obama? Well watch this: I'll give you the thunderous rant you wish you could deliver right to that jerk's face. You think he's a liar? Let me tell you all about his lies.

There's another fascinating element of this interaction that the paper explains. Here again is the description from Pacific Standard:

But why is their pull apparently stronger among conservatives, who gravitate to such programming in much greater numbers than liberals? Based on their interviews, the researchers believe the answer lies in the fact those on the right have more to fear in terms of social condemnation for their views.

In conversation with conservatives, liberals risk being called naïve or willfully blind to potential threats—not very pleasant labels, but not especially damaging ones, either. In contrast, conservatives risk accusations of racism—and "being called a racist carries a particular cultural force," the researchers write.

"The experience of being perceived as racist loomed large in the mind of conservative fans (we interviewed)," they report. Every single conservative respondent raised the issue of being called racist, and did so without even being asked.

"What makes accusations of racism so upsetting for respondents is that racism is socially stigmatized, but also that they feel powerless to defend themselves once the specter is raised," the researchers add. "We suspect that this heightened social risk increases the appeal of the safe political environs provided by outrage-based programs, and may partially explain the overwhelming conservative dominance of outrage-based political talk media."

I don't know if the authors addressed this, but there's a real causal direction question here. Are conservatives avoiding political discussion in places like work and gravitating instead to conservative talk media because they're afraid they'll be called racists for their views? Maybe. But conservatives who use conservative media are constantly—and I mean constantly—being told that liberals argue about politics by accusing conservatives of being racist. They hear this again and again. There's a further element of it, too, which is that according to Limbaugh, Hannity, et al, actual racial discrimination against blacks and other minorities is about as rare in America as three-headed guinea pigs, while the only real racism that remains is either a) white people being denied jobs, admission to colleges, etc. by affirmative action, and b) conservatives being falsely accused of being racists by cruel liberals.

What does surprise me is the finding that every conservative they interviewed brought this subject up. I guess the hosts are doing their job well.

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