THE OUTRAGE CULTURE.

In an unusual "editorial comment", ace campaign blogger Marc Ambinder is pretty outraged about all the outrage:

There really is a politics of outrage, and it has spread like a cancer throughout the body politic. It's become the default currency of political conversation. [...]

Outrage is the easiest type of story for journalists to write about. We create crises when we report on aggrieved and outrage parties. and then we cover the reaction to the stories we write about.

Outrage journalism can serve an important function, namely drawing attention to a larger problem about a politician. When South Carolina governor and McCain campaign surrogate Mark Sanford can't tell Wolf Blitzer the difference between McCain and Bush's economic views, that should open up a conversation about whether McCain's policies really are that different from those that have failed for the past eight years. When Carly Fiorina, another McCain surrogate, voices her support for fully funding No Child Left Behind, something McCain has voted against time and again, that can lead to a discussion of McCain's education policy, or lack thereof.

The problem comes when this debate doesn't happen, or when the issue doesn't allow for it to happen. Unfortunately, one of these two failures seems to afflict most outrage-based news threads. When Obama made his now notorious "refine" remarks about Iraq, the 24-hour news networks didn't give much airtime to voices debating the relative wisdom of Obama and McCain's Iraq policies. The ensuing debate, instead, focused on whether Obama had flip-flopped. But at least the potential was there for constructive dialogue; something like Charlie Black's statement that a terrorist attack would help McCain, for instance, leaves no such opportunity. The electoral implications of terrorist strikes are totally irrelevant to the policies McCain and Obama would pursue in the presidency, the policies that this campaign ought to be about.

So while Ambinder is definitely onto something, he's imprecise in his diagnosis. The issue isn't outrage qua outrage; it's the all too familiar problem of journalists covering meta-level, horse-race stories instead of actual substance.

--Dylan Matthews