The Media Rage Machine

Shockingly, when the most-watched news outlet is built on divisiveness, the country becomes divided.

American Enterprise Institute senior fellow Chris Stirewalt takes to the pages of POLITICO to explain “What I Learned About Media Rage After Getting Fired From Fox.” Much of it is amusing anecdote excerpted from his new book, Broken News: How the Media Rage Machine Divides America and How to Fight Back. But here’s the bit that justifies the headline:

The lesson I learned was that Hannity, Morris and the rest of the crew of the crimson tide were certainly engaging in wishful thinking, but certainly also motivated reasoning. The story they were telling was good for ratings or the frequency of their appearances. They wanted it to be true because they wanted Republicans to win, but keeping viewers keyed up about the epochal victory close at hand was an appealing incentive to exaggerate the GOP chances. It was good for them to raise expectations, but it wasn’t good for the party they were rooting for.

Early in an election cycle, crafty partisans want to play up their side’s chances. It helps their candidate recruitment and fundraising and may lead vulnerable incumbents on the other side to just go ahead and retire. But at the end of a cycle, the preferred message whenever possible should be that the race is tight-tight-tight — every vote could be the winning vote, so don’t forget to cast your ballot. Ask Hillary Clinton how overconfidence can depress turnout as marginal voters opt to stay home. It occurred to me in 2010 and was confirmed to me in 2012 that despite all that Fox’s detractors said about the network being a mouthpiece for the Republican Party, the two organizations had fundamentally different aims.

Except, he learned that lesson early in his tenure as the network’s political editor, not at the end. With the advantage of hindsight, he reflects:

Good politics is often bad TV. As much as we rightly lament the decline of the American electorate’s aspirations and expectations, at least a plurality of voters still clearly prefer competency, cooperation and decency. And what could be more boring than that?

As a journalist, I believe that what is wrong with my vocation and the industry in which I work is harming Americans left, right and center. Major players in the news business are abusing their privileges and shirking their duties, and we all pay the price. The agenda at many outlets is to move away from even aspirational fairness and balance and toward shared anger and the powerful emotional connections it can create.

Unable to sell large, diverse audiences to advertisers, news outlets increasingly focus on developing highly habituated users. To cultivate the kind of intense readers, viewers or listeners necessary to make the addiction model profitable, media companies need consumers to have strong feelings. Fear, resentment and anger work wonders. It helps news outlets create deep emotional connections to users not just as users of a product, but as members of the same tribe.

Reporters increasingly disdain the old virtues of fairness and balance as “bothsidesism,” reimagining the ancient vice of bias as something honorable. Opinion pages become more homogeneous. Story selections become more predictable. Most ominously, post-journalism produces stifling groupthink inside news organizations and serious consequences for journalists who dissent.

What we think of as “bad news” can score like gangbusters if it is scary and anger-inducing. But news that is bad for your audience’s ideological in-groups is clickbait kryptonite. In such a competitive marketplace, riling people up against the other side isn’t enough. You’ve also got to create a safe space for consumers to plop down and contentedly contemplate ads for beet-based nutrient powders, reverse mortgages and copper underpants. If you challenge their assumptions or suggest that their avatars in the culture war are wrong or losing, they may leave for competitors who offer more complete protection from harsh realities.

Chris is a smart guy. Even though he was motivated to see the best in his colleagues and superiors at Fox, he know the score well before he get fired for his early call of Arizona for Biden. Fox changed gradually over the years and was certainly more toxic in 2020 than it was in 2010, much less 2000. But Hannity and O’Reilly were playing this game from the beginning.

I’ve long maintained that Fox News was two different entities: a fairly mainstream news side fronted by the likes of Brit Hume, Tony Snow, and Brett Baier and the prime time talking head shows, which were much more vitriolic. Over time, though, the tension between the two sides increased and the latter ultimately ate the former. Ultimately, a news outlet and a fearmongering racket are mutually incompatible and, well, the latter is a hell of a lot more profitable.

FILED UNDER: Open Forum, , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Jon says:

    Reporters increasingly disdain the old virtues of fairness and balance as “bothsidesism,” reimagining the ancient vice of bias as something honorable.

    That’s not what the ‘both sides’ complaint is about. The issue is the reflexive need to come up with a ‘both sides’ angle *even when* there is no actual valid comparison to use. Thus “sure Republicans want to criminalize abortion and put women and doctors in jail for the act of providing healthcare, but pro-choice activists protested outside a restaurant and at Brett Kavanaugh’s home!”

    21
  2. Chris says:

    The downward slide of the news media began when the WWII generation of news hounds started retiring and the marketing folks, bean counters, and political hacks wormed their way into the editorial rooms.

    10
  3. MarkedMan says:

    You’ve also got to create a safe space for consumers to plop down and contentedly contemplate ads for beet-based nutrient powders, reverse mortgages and copper underpants.

    This is exactly what I mean when I say Fox has developed an audience of especially gullible and frightened consumers. It benefits their demographic model not one whit if they were to attract twice as many people but the newcomers were more skeptical.

    5
  4. Matt Bernius says:

    This is my utterly shocked face to discover that a guy who thought he was “smart” (and therefore could navigate this system without ever suffering real consequences) is surprised when the monster he helped create came for him.

    What’s particularly frustrating is that the only reason he is interested now in addressing the monster he created is also that it came for him. If had not been fired as a scapegoat in 2020, he’d probably still be helping cultivate that monster (all the while pretending it’s kayfabe and the folks on the other side are just as culpable for the current situation).

    14
  5. James Joyner says:

    @Matt Bernius: I’ve been out of touch with Chris for quite some time but knew him pretty well once upon a time. He was a pretty hard core Republican back in the McCain-Romney era but even then he wasn’t a Tea Party guy. He’s a lot more socially conservative than me, likely because of religiosity, but pretty mainstream. Mostly, he’s just an election nerd trying to get the numbers right while hoping his team won.

    3
  6. @MarkedMan: In our faculty/staff dining hall there are two TVs on mute. One is CNN the other is Fox. I frequently note the number of utter hucksters selling Relief Factor and various investment opportunities on FNC. The number of has-been actors willing to make quick coin selling to gullible old people is, well, distressing.

    I have not paid as much attention to the CNN adverts but will keep an eye out.

    6
  7. Of course, what all of this shows is that there is more of a market for infotainment than there is for actual news.

    This is both sad and unsurprising.

    5
  8. charon says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    The top dude at Discovery+ is pretty right-wing and apparently will be slanting CNN coverage more to the right.

    Seems pretty dopey to me considering how brand loyal the FNC viewers are.

    2
  9. Raoul says:

    I have said this before, based on the closeness of the vote tally in Arizona, his election night was premature and since that call was a call for the presidency he deserved to be fired. The fact that he ultimately got it right is immaterial, he made the call when they were significant more votes to be counted than the margin and the elector was relative unpredictable.

    4
  10. gVOR08 says:

    I never watch FOX. I’ve tried a few times and it just gives me a headache. I do check the FOX website most days, sort of a know-your-enemy exercise. I checked this morning. The top story is student debt cancellation. This is old news, but they can still run this story, an anecdote driven story of resentment against Biden. They have a story on the Artemis 1 scrubbed launch, the story was pretty straight, but I looked at comments to see how it could be made partisan: the expected big gummint fails again, but also you can’t expect build quality with all this woke. The political news stories are almost never “Biden did this”, or “congress did that”. It’s always “Republican pol condemns Biden’s this” or “Rand Paul decries Pelosi’s socialist that”.

    They do not have, and never had, a straight news side. The stories are truthful enough, as far as they go. But they leave a lot out, and spin as best they can. The big thing is the selection of stories. They choose stories that elicit resentment. And warp straight stories to drive fear. It’s been interesting lately to see their lag times. IIRC it took them almost 24 hours to get a top line story out on release of the “raid” warrant. Maybe Reynolds is right, they lack imagination. They seem to need time to brainstorm and maybe even focus group their spin. I wonder if it has to go all the way up to Rupert.

    This post is interesting in context. I seem to be seeing green shoots of recognition that it ain’t bothsides, we are so terribly divided mostly because FOXGOP works very hard to make us so. If even the conservative James Joyner….

    6
  11. Matt Bernius says:

    @James Joyner:

    He was a pretty hard core Republican back in the McCain-Romney era but even then he wasn’t a Tea Party guy. He’s a lot more socially conservative than me, likely because of religiosity, but pretty mainstream. Mostly, he’s just an election nerd trying to get the numbers right while hoping his team won.

    I fully expect that was and still is the case. I also suspect that if Fox had not fired him he’d be happy to continue to work for them as their “election nerd” despite the effect they are having on the overall media ecosystem. Of course, he probably would still be uncomfortable about Hannity and other opinion hosts, but not enough to leave his position or publicly decry his employer.

    Also

    Reporters increasingly disdain the old virtues of fairness and balance as “bothsidesism,” reimagining the ancient vice of bias as something honorable.

    I’d love to hear him apply this to topics like “Did Trump win the election,” “Was there widespread voter fraud,” or “Is global warming real” to understand what he considers to be “fairness” and “balance” in the face of objective facts.

    I’m not saying that in a snarky way, it’s just its a great rallying cry until you actually talk about how one should cover “controversial” topics–especially in one case where one side of the argument is denying significant evidence that undermines their position.

    1
  12. Andy says:

    I find it annoying how much people into politics obsess over cable news. It’s a dying industry with low viewership, and it only punches above its weight because of this obsession.

    In an average month, cable news as a whole barely attracts 1 percent of the US population, and the demographics (for all the channels) skew to the Boomer demographic. Just looking at July numbers for Fox, they had an average of 2.1 million viewers in prime time, but only 292k in the 25-54 demographic. The other cable news channels have the same pattern. Who is going to watch these stupid channels and shows once the boomers die off?

    James mentions how there used to be a wall between the news and opinion divisions, but that seems to be largely fiction now. I only subject myself to cable news on rare occasions for research, and I find that the “news” shows are still very skewed along ideological lines. At this point, I think that watching cable news just makes you dumber and less informed.

    And those who choose to watch the prime-time opinion shows are feeding on propaganda and have zero moral authority to complain about “misinformation” or “fake news.”

    4
  13. EddieInCA says:

    @Raoul:

    I have said this before, based on the closeness of the vote tally in Arizona, his election night was premature and since that call was a call for the presidency he deserved to be fired. The fact that he ultimately got it right is immaterial, he made the call when they were significant more votes to be counted than the margin and the elector was relative unpredictable.

    Bullshit.

    He was correct on the call. That’s his job. He called it correctly. Doesn’t matter when he did it. His numbers told him Biden would win, and Biden did win. How the f**k can you way that “The fact that he ultimately got it right is immaterial”? Seirously. How?

    He. Got. It. Right.

    Full stop. Nothing else matter.

    8
  14. Raoul says:

    @EddieInCA: So if someone’s number analysis are factually wrong but they guess the right result on any event/election, then it must prove the number were not wrong at all. This is a classic example of false logic and lack of intellectual rigor. I hope you can realize that the two things (premature prediction/correct result) can be right at the same time without contradicting each other.

    4
  15. Andy says:

    @Raoul:

    I have said this before, based on the closeness of the vote tally in Arizona, his election night was premature and since that call was a call for the presidency he deserved to be fired. The fact that he ultimately got it right is immaterial, he made the call when they were significant more votes to be counted than the margin and the elector was relative unpredictable.

    I guess I don’t see how that is relevant. “Making the call” before all the votes are counted is always subject to probability and potential error. Firing someone for being right just seems dumb, considering that pundits and analysis are very frequently wrong. It’s certainly possible he was right for the wrong reasons, but again, that is common for pundits and analysts (and is also common in intelligence analysis, my former profession).

    If he was, in fact, fired solely because of this call, then every media personality, pundit, and analyst ought to be fired. I don’t know the details on this because I don’t care about such things, but usually, there is a “rest of the story” angle where the public excuse for firing someone is one thing, but the actual reason(s) are something else.

    4
  16. Jon says:

    @Raoul: We don’t know the specifics of how he arrived at his prediction, only that it turned out to be correct. It could have been he pulled it out of his ass but it also could be that he had good models. You’re asserting it was a lucky guess using bad analysis, but that is just an assumption.

    5
  17. Jen says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I have not paid as much attention to the CNN adverts but will keep an eye out.

    Ads for medications for just about any ailment that strikes those over 60, plus some vitamins, with an ad or two for Target/banks/Rocket Mortgage. It’s unreal. My husband and I were watching CNN some time ago and every single ad during one of the breaks was for a prescription medication.

    1
  18. Jon says:

    @Jen: MSNBC is chock-full of Medicare Part C/Medicare Advantage ads. Things are grim all over 🙂

    1
  19. MarkedMan says:

    @Andy: I haven’t bothered with television news of any kind in more than forty years. Aside from the fact that I find commercials aggravating beyond endurance and so don’t watch or listen to anything with that as their income source, national TV News just punches so far below it’s weight. They can spend 10-100 times the amount a newspaper would to cover the same story and still end up with a minute and half stand up in front of a disaster site, while the stringers and a good editor can deliver a few thousand words with the context behind what happened, followed up in a few days with background stories and three weeks later with follow up. The only TV News I watched semi-regularly in all those decades was the international version of CNN. They were on like a 20 minute repeat cycle where they covered breaking news all over the world. Tune in once a day and you got the gist of what was happening everywhere, not just the disasters. But that CNN is long gone.

    2
  20. charon says:

    @EddieInCA:

    He. Got. It. Right.

    Pure dumb luck. The eventual margin was way to close for a call made that early.

  21. charon says:

    @Jon:

    Not a lucky guess, just the result of a flawed model.

  22. EddieInCA says:

    @Raoul:

    Why are you assuming his data or models were wrong?

    Based on the data he had plugged into his models, he made a prediction. You say is was too early. Why, if the data and model gave me a definite prognostication that was correct. Where is the flaw in this data and/or model?

    2
  23. Andy says:

    @MarkedMan:

    I was very little TV at all these days and I also can’t stand commercials. When I do occasionally need to watch the news, it’s the local channels for crisis events like weather and fires.

    I do still occasionally watch foreign news in English, which are so much better than what we have here in the US, but mostly I read.

  24. gVOR08 says:

    @Andy: I find it annoying how much people into politics obsess over cable news. It’s a dying industry with low viewership

    This seems to be a subject on which we have little data and less consensus. Many claim social media now drive opinion. Kevin Drum occasionally makes the case that the effect of social media is overstated and FOX is the biggest driver of RW opinion. I’ve seen the claim most Americans still get the majority of their news from the big three networks. I don’t recall the data, if any, referenced.

    NYT claims 10 million subscribers. A bit vague, but seems to include online and print, with print a relatively small number. WAPO appears to be about half that, no idea how much their readers overlap. 10 million is a lot, but only about 3% of the population. They’re still regarded as thought leaders. FOX may only have 1% of viewers, but they’re still the top of the RW food chain. They can still be thought leaders for the RW. (Especially since after losing some share to OneAmerica or whoever FOX ran to get in front of the parade again.) They provide opinion and content to the rest of the RW ecosystem. They may be small and fading, but I suspect they’re still pretty influential on the Right.

  25. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Jon: My mailbox is chockful of Medicare, Part C/Medicare Advantage ads. And I got several cold calls for plans until I started blocking the numbers. It’s a big industry picking the bones of a pretty established market sector, but even TV is cheap on places like FNC and MSNBC. And streaming system ads are probably even lower. You guys are still just too young to be part of the scrum.

    1
  26. Andy says:

    @gVOR08:

    On social media, the importance of Twitter can’t be underestimated. It is the “commons” for the media, publishing, and the news business in general. Many news stories get written just on the basis of tweets. Instead of quoting what someone said, many articles embed a tweet.

    Fox does punch above its weight and so do the other cable news networks. That’s because they exist in the same bubble and group-think as Twitter. The cable networks have adapted to this reality which is why they tend to be highly partisan – their audience is no longer the normal American, it’s the tiny number of Americans who are obsessed with politics. Politicians give interviews on cable news because that ensures the politics-obsessed audience will see it, not because that’s how they will reach the most people.

  27. Jon says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    You guys are still just too young to be part of the scrum.

    Sadly I’m not 🙂

    These commercials just stuck out because they frequently ran the same one back-to-back-to-back, which I assumed was part of either a make-good or somebody doing the cheapest ad buy humanly possible.

  28. Jon says:

    @charon:

    Not a lucky guess, just the result of a flawed model.

    An assertion for which I assume you have proof?

  29. MarkedMan says:

    @Andy: I’m to the point that I even listen to NPR news shows through the original NPR app, which allows you to queue up all the stories you want to hear and then play them without commercials. They keep trying to kill that app off and drive everyone to the NPR One app, which doesn’t have that feature, as far as I can tell

    1
  30. Jay L Gischer says:

    I can’t speak for @charon but I also thought he used a flawed model. Specifically, he used predictions about the distribution of mail-in votes which had a problem. Nationwide, mail-ins broke strongly for Biden and Dems in general. He made the call based on mostly there were only mail-ins left, which couldn’t possibly break for Trump.

    But that is not how it works in AZ, either prior to the 2020 election or in that election. In fact, I think that in the 2020 pres election, Rs were represented pretty strongly in mail in. To an outside observer, it looks like he messed it up, maybe only a bit. Maybe wait another hour to see more mailins? I recall other predictors saying they thought the call was a bit aggressive at the time.

    As far as pressure from the Trump campaign, etc. They can take a flying leap. His prediction was after poll closing, so it had no impact there. The only impact was to mess with Trump’s mind games, and I’m completely fine with that. A prediction is a prediction, not the final count.

    But just having the right answer isn’t good enough for me. There’s a reason that guys like me, who teach mathy things, want students to show their work.

    3
  31. EddieInCA says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    Again, I ask you the question I asked above. Why do you assume is was a flawed model. He didn’t give a final margin. He said, based on is models, that Biden would win Arizona. Biden won Arizona.

    What work would he have to show to show he was correct?

    2
  32. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Jon: I’d go with option 2. Back-to-back identical ads are a feature of some shows I stream. Given that a commercial break spot has somewhere between zero and six ads on streaming services I use (Roku’s ad slot is almost always 90 seconds), I have to conclude that advertising on streaming services is still irregular.

  33. charon says:

    @EddieInCA:

    The analysis is based on one assumption, one premise, that you may choose not to agree with, namely, that the available information was so minimal, so preliminary, that the uncertaincy of the eventual vote was much greater than Biden’s eventual winning margin. This assumption is consistent with how all the other forecasters (e.g., the NYT needle, other networks etc.) saw it.

    From that, there are only two possibilities:

    A) The call was reckless

    or

    B) The call was based on a model showing Biden winning by a margin several times the size of his actual eventual margin.

    I see A) as highly unlikely, so B) it is.

  34. gVOR08 says:

    Stirewalt didn’t make the AZ call. Like everyone else, FOX had a team and a process behind a “decision desk”. Stirewalt was the on-air guy who defended the call when other on-air people expressed surprise and skepticism.

    The decision desk would have been very professional, their methodology would have included some confidence calculation, and they would have had a policy about what confidence level they needed to make a call. Maybe their method was a little different from the other networks, maybe they had decided to call at 98% confidence or whatever and the other networks were waiting for 99.9 (a legacy from FL in 2000).

    None of which would have mattered had there not been drama around thinking Trump might try something like declaring himself the winner and demanding counting stop if the election was uncalled late at night. Stirewalt got a target painted on his back, and drew Trump’s ire, because the call closed out any such possible ratfrackery. Rupert Murdoch said the call had nothing to do with the firing. Murdoch is perhaps not entirely trustworthy on the matter.

    1
  35. charon says:

    Maybe their method was a little different from the other networks, maybe they had decided to call at 98% confidence or whatever and the other networks were waiting for 99.9 (a legacy from FL in 2000).

    At 49 to 1 odds Trump would have made a fine speculative bet if you could find a bookie to take it.

    The outcome was newsworthy apart from any ratfuckery considerations. As best I can recall, I was worried about AZ well into the following day or two.

    Maybe their method was a little different from the other networks,

    Or maybe just less accurate than the other news organizations – NYT needle, other papers, TV etc.

  36. EddieinCA says:

    @charon:

    Or maybe just less accurate than the other news organizations – NYT needle, other papers, TV etc.

    The NYT needle never wavered from a Biden win in Arizona once the polls closed. It got closer, but it never, even once, moved over to the Trump side of the window.

  37. Jay L Gischer says:

    @EddieInCA: I believe he assumed that mail in ballots would break within a certain range that favored Biden, but they didn’t, and he should have known that since in AZ, large numbers of R’s routinely vote by mail, making it a quite exceptional state in that regard.

    Now, I don’t think he said this out loud, its just what it looks like to me. I’ve never seen where he’s addresssed it at all in detail.