These days you can’t pick up a paper or tune into the news without hearing someone expressing their outrage about something or other and usually it is about as newsworthy as the sun rising in the East. The reason it gets reported is the outrage itself, not the topic. Trump is a master at faux outrage – witness his oft repeated claim that the Mueller investigation was “disgraceful,” “outrageous” or a “witch hunt.” Trying to determine whether the Russians interfered with our election and whether our President participated – given the various meetings and emails between them – was anything but outrageous. In fact, it was and is simply a prudent and necessary inquiry.
As for hyperbole, take Congressman Bob Bishop’s (R Utah) comment that “… the ideas behind the Green New Deal are tantamount to genocide.”
Genocide? Really? So taking steps to ward off massive draughts, heat waves, wildfires, extreme storms, social unrest and an explosion in the number of migrants and terrorists and the hundreds of millions of deaths they would collectively cause and the trillions it would cost the economy is genocide? How is it that Bishop is not laughed out of Congress? Instead, his comment got a fair amount of press.
And by the way, this is a bipartisan affront to sanity. Go to any campus and you’ll see so-called liberals in high dudgeon about some egregious comment someone made, or demanding “safe rooms” because some comedian is coming who might somehow injure them with a bit of humor at the expense of some sacred cow or other – like maybe needing a safe room. Look, enduring truths and values don’t need protection from humor – indeed, they are often strengthened by it.
Or take “micro-aggressions.” The key word here is “micro” as in "extremely small; minute in scope or capability." Now, isn’t it axiomatic that extremely small or minute things aren’t newsworthy, or important for that matter? And yes, when they accumulate over a lifetime they can assume a weight and heft that is significant. But celebrating – indeed embracing -- each individual microaggression doesn’t dampen their effect, it amplifies them. Then there’s “trigger warnings” – the idea that a joke, statement or passage that might challenge someone’s equanimity should be preceded by a warning that they might – gasp – be exposed to something that distresses them a bit.
Trump’s Fox-inspired, morning bowel-movement tweets are a variation on the theme. He is often outraged, but more often, he makes outrageous, counter factual statements, knowing they will be covered, precisely because they are outrageous. They should be ignored by the press and media. Any rhetorician will tell you that repeating the absurd makes it less absurd to those hearing it over and over again.
Conservatives who employ outrage are attempting to substitute emotional intensity for realty, to give weight to the weightless. But because the press responds as if it were important that someone was outraged, or that someone reacted hysterically to a minor provocation, their attempts are all too often successful.
Liberals who exhibit outrage might be trying to inject an element of social justice into the national debate – to substitute outrage for the kind of collective action that’s been missing from the progressive movement until recently. More often, they are attempts to make other liberals hew their line and accept their orthodoxy.
All of these things share a fundamentally anti-democratic goal—to stifle speech that is not consistent with the perspective of the outraged complainer. Their ultimate purpose is to shut down debate and encourage an information monoculture, the very antithesis of a democratic dialogue. It’s an attempt to establish the dictatorship of the supremely sensitive.
A resilient and sustainable society demands a robust discussion. The terms of debate must, of course, be constrained to the rational and the real, but we’ve had the blueprint for that kind of discussion since the Enlightenment. For example, simple assertions – no matter how intensely stated -- are, by themselves, useless; balance is useless. But statements based on facts and backed up by data demand attention. These are the kind of ideas that should be tested in the public forum, examined and accepted or discarded based on how well they comport with data, context, reality and plausible conclusions based on facts. That’s the function journalism should perform, at its highest level. It was the driver behind Edward R. Murrow’s challenge of Joe McCarthy’s bullying; it was the source of Walter Cronkite’s challenge to continuing the Viet Nam War; it was the driver behind Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate investigation.
But focusing on outrage or reporting someone’s hyperbolic rants is nonsense, it reduces journalism to its lowest form, and it is destructive to a civil society.
If you want to know how Trump can get away with obviously and overtly violating the Emoluments Clause in the Constitution; how he can consort with Russian Oligarchs; withhold his tax returns; subvert the constitutional separation of powers with fake emergencies; overtly support extreme right wing terrorists, and commit other high crimes and misdemeanors, his use of outrage and hyperbole in the service of distraction, and the press’s abject surrender to it can go a long way toward explaining it.
It’s worth remembering that not too long ago – through the 70’s, in fact -- the press and media were barred from holding monopoly positions in news markets; they had to present a variety of perspectives; and they had to provide an opportunity for opposing viewpoints. We still had our share of yellow journalism, but those standards kept it at a minimum, and assured that counter-arguments were presented on outlets like Fox (which didn’t exist until the Fairness Doctrine was abandoned). Faux outrage stood little chance of gaining traction in such an environment.
Today, if you want to get a headline – or get one kicked off the front page – you just need to shout out something outrageous, or feign outrage. Once upon a time, it took a President with a Wag the Dog strategy to dominate the headlines and the news at 7. Today, anyone can do it. Just scream or tweet – the more idiotic and intensely stated the utterance, the more likely it is to succeed.