Editor’s note: Our friend Danna Young is a scholar of, among other things, the intersection of entertainment and information — particularly humor’s use within the political landscape and the ways in which its messages reach and affect audiences.
She has a terrific new book out this week from Oxford University Press: Irony and Outrage: The Polarized Landscape of Rage, Fear, and Laughter in the United States. In this piece, she describes how conservative and liberal media differ not only in content, but also in form — in ways that exacerbate polarization.
1996 was a banner year for America’s polarized media ecosystem.
In October, a new 24-hour news channel was introduced to American audiences. “I figure there are 18 shows for freaks,” the former Republican strategist and Rush Limbaugh producer Roger Ailes told the Associated Press in 1995. “If there’s one network for normal people it’ll balance out.” As CEO of the new Fox News Channel, working alongside founder Rupert Murdoch, Ailes would have his chance to create that “network for normal people,” packed with analysis and opinion programming, with a dash of news for good measure. Among those “analysis and opinion shows” was The O’Reilly Report (later rebranded as The O’Reilly Factor), a conservative opinion talk show hosted by former Inside Edition entertainment talk show host Bill O’Reilly.
But what some people may have missed is that just three months earlier, in July 1996, another non-traditional form of news-ish programming launched — also as a response to mainstream media. It was a news parody and satire program called The Daily Show, on Comedy Central. Created by Lizz Winstead and Madeleine Smithberg, The Daily Show featured headlines from the day’s pop culture news and introduced fictional news correspondents in pretend “field segments.”
Winstead and Smithberg set out to create a parody program that commented, not just on the politics of the day, but also on the emerging cable news landscape that “produced” politics as entertainment. In an interview with The Cut, Winstead recalled sitting in a bar, watching Gulf War coverage on CNN: “We were all watching the Gulf War unfold and it felt like we were watching a made-for-TV show about the war. It changed my comedy — I started writing about how we are served by the media.” Their framing from the start: “to do a news satire where the genre itself was a character in the show.”
The twin births of The Daily Show and The O’Reilly Factor in 1996 were not a coincidence. Both programs were the result of changes in the economic and regulatory underpinnings of the media industry and the development of new cable and digital technologies. Both presented politically relevant information that offered an alternative (in form and function) to mainstream news. Both were reactions to a news environment being transformed by pressures stemming from media deregulation throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Both were positioned as reactions to problematic aspects of mainstream journalism. Both tapped into an increasingly polarized political electorate. And both reflected the economics of media fragmentation that replaced large, heterogeneous, mass audiences with small, homogenous, niche audiences — homogeneous in demographic, psychographic, and even political characteristics.
When scholars and journalists discuss conservative outlets like Fox News, they typically position the cable network MSNBC as its closest functional equivalent on the left. While it’s fair to say that the MSNBC of 2019 is a liberal-leaning cable news outlet that features liberal political analysis programming, this iteration of the network is relatively recent. When MSNBC was introduced in 1996, the network featured talk shows and news analysis shows from across the political spectrum. In fact, several conservative political talk personalities (including Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, and Ann Coulter) started their cable news careers at MSNBC. It wasn’t until the mid-2000s that the network, failing in the ratings war, pivoted to the left and positioned itself as a liberal alternative to Fox.
But from the moment The Daily Show launched during that fateful summer of 1996, it did reflect an overwhelming liberal ideology. I’m not referring to its targets or political point of view — I’m referring to the ideological leaning of the packaging and aesthetics of satire: packaging and aesthetics that run counter to those of conservative opinion talk.
That’s right: What if satire actually has a liberal bias, not due to its targets and arguments, but due to its playful aesthetic, layered and ironic rhetorical structures, and rampant self-deprecation? And what if political talk actually has a conservative bias, not due to its targets and arguments, but due to its constant threat-monitoring, didactic rhetorical structures, and moral seriousness?
Yes, the content, effects, and aesthetics of liberal satire and conservative opinion talk are completely different. So it can seem counterintuitive to conceptualize satire as any kind of liberal equivalent to conservative opinion talk. But we know that the two genres serve parallel functions for their audiences: highlighting important issues and events, setting their audiences’ agendas, framing the terms of debate, informing them on ideologically resonant issues, and even mobilizing them. And we know that the audiences of both liberal satire and conservative outrage show low trust in news, low trust in institutions, and enormous political efficacy (meaning confidence that they are equipped to participate politically). And both showed up in America’s living rooms within three months of each other in 1996 — each framed as a response to problematic aspects of television news.
In my book Irony and Outrage, I argue that the modern birth of these genres can be traced to the same set of political and technological changes in the political and news ecosystem in the 1980s and 1990s. I also argue that the distinct look and feel of these genres can be traced to underlying differences in the psychological profiles of people on the left and the right — differences that shape how we orient to the worlds around us and the kinds of content we are most likely to create and consume.
Decades of research from political psychology points to important psychological and physiological differences between liberals and conservatives that hinge on how we monitor our environments for — and engage with — threat. Conservatives, who are more prone to threat monitoring, have a lower tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity — a trait that correlates with various lifestyle, occupational, and even artistic preferences. Liberals, who are less cognizant of threats in their environments, are less likely than conservatives to rely on emotional shortcuts or heuristics, instead thinking more carefully and evaluating information as it comes in.
Conservatives (especially social and cultural conservatives) tend to value efficiency and clarity. They prefer order, boundaries, and instinct. I find that that these inclinations shape their political information preferences — preferences for didactic, morally serious, threat-oriented content that leaves very little doubt about what viewers should be worried about and who is to blame. Content like we find on Hannity or The Ingraham Angle.
Liberals, on the other hand, are more comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. With a lower threat salience, they are more open to play and experimentation. These inclinations shape their political information preferences — for layered, ironic, complex arguments that often never really say exactly what they mean. Content like we find on The Daily Show or Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.
While these genres have shared roots and may even serve parallel purposes for their viewers, the symbiotic relationship between each side’s preferred aesthetic and the psychology of their viewers renders their impact quite asymmetrical.
The underlying logic and aesthetic of conservative outrage make it an ideal mechanism for tactical, goal-driven political mobilization. With its use of emotional language and focus on threats, it constitutes what philosopher Jacques Ellul refers to as “agitation propaganda.” Writing in 1962, Ellul described “hate” as the most profitable resource of agitation propaganda:
It is extremely easy to launch a revolutionary movement based on hatred of a particular enemy. Hatred is probably the most spontaneous and common sentiment; it consists of attributing one’s misfortunes and sins to “another”…
Importantly, it is not only the content of conservative outrage that renders it powerful. Rather, it’s the symbiosis between the threat-oriented content and the unique psychology of the conservative audience that facilitates its political impact. These conservative audience members, psychologically oriented towards protection and the maintenance of a stable society, are poised to respond to the people, groups, and institutions that have been identified as threats. The fact that these are the very characteristics of outrage content that have been harnessed by the conservative wing of the Republican Party should not come as a surprise.
In contrast, satire is a genre that remains in a state of play, downplays its own moral certainty and issues judgments through implication rather than proclamation. As a result, liberal political elites’ ability to harness satire and use it to their own ends is compromised. While the symbiosis between outrage and conservatism lends itself to strategic persuasion and mobilization, the symbiosis between the aesthetic of irony and the underlying psychology of liberalism render satire fruitful as a forum for exploration and rumination, but not for mobilization.
Consider one of the most critically acclaimed and influential pieces of satire of the past decade: Colbert’s 2011 creation of an actual super PAC, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow.
Colbert’s coverage of super PACs and Citizens United influenced public opinion and knowledge of the topic. But, according to Colbert, he didn’t create his super PAC with political or persuasive intentions at all. He didn’t push the limits of campaign finance in an effort to fuel activism on the issue of campaign finance reform. Rather, the whole thing came about by accident.
After having mentioned a fictional super PAC at the end of a political parody on The Colbert Report, Comedy Central expressed resistance to the idea of an actual Colbert super PAC. “Are you really going to get a PAC?” a network representative asked Colbert. “Because if you actually get a PAC, that could be trouble.” To which Colbert replied: “Well, then, I’m definitely doing to do it.”
And so began the largely organic and experimental process of launching and raising funds for an actual super PAC and learning about the (nearly nonexistent) limits of campaign financing. As Colbert explained: “[At] every stage of it, I didn’t know what was going to happen next. It was just an act of discovery. It was purely improvisational. And, you know, people would say, ‘What is your plan?’ My plan is to see what I can and cannot do with it.”
When The Daily Show and Fox News both appeared in 1996, it would have seemed ridiculous to suggest they had much in common. But I say that they do, especially in terms of the technological, political, journalistic, and regulatory changes that gave rise to both. Ironic satire and political outrage programming look and feel different because of the unique values, needs, and aesthetic preferences of the kinds of people who create and consume each one. But the potential for these two genres to be used strategically towards partisan mobilization is absolutely not the same.
If outrage is a well-trained attack dog that operates on command, satire is a raccoon — hard to domesticate and capable of turning on anyone at any time.
Does satire have a liberal bias? Sure. Satire has a liberal psychological bias. But the only person who can successfully harness the power of satire is the satirist. Not political strategists. Not a political party. Not a presidential candidate. Outrage is the tool of conservative elites. But ironic satire is the tool of the liberal satirist alone.
Dannagal Goldthwaite Young is an associate professor of communication at the University of Delaware and author of Irony and Outrage: The Polarized Landscape of Rage, Fear, and Laughter in the United States.