The New Media Politics of Emotion and Attitude

Dec 01, 2009 | Updated May 25, 2011

By Caryl Rivers

More and more American are moving to "hot," emotion-laden methods of getting news, and away from cool, more objective forms of information, and this fact has already begun to affect our politics.

Unlike newspapers, magazines and network newscasts, 24-hour cable, talk radio, the internet and millions of bloggers bring no hierarchical structure to the news. There is no "page one" staff meeting to determine what's important and what's trivial. The critical issue is what's available now, and what's sexy or sensational. The long term impact of a story matters not in a universe in which everything is forgotten by the next two or three news cycles.

With cable, as with talk radio, the medium really is the message, as Marshall McLuhan once famously declaimed. Who remembers what Rush Limbaugh, Keith Olberman, Glenn Beck or Sean Hannity actually said? What lingers is the emotion and the attitude, and at whom these are directed. There is little sense of proportion in the disapproval that results. Did Obama create death squads to kill grannies? Did he bow too low to the president of Japan and thus dishonor America? A bow and a death sentence are approached with a comparable degree of outrage.

Both stories leach into the coverage by the mainstream media. The sheer sound and fury generated by the emotional media forces the "objective" media to desert their usual judgments and plunge into the fray, at least to some degree. The pot is continually being stirred, in our living rooms, on our car radios and when we surf the net. Attitudes are being constructed, not from facts, but from feelings.

This isn't entirely new. The late Lee Atwater, the Republican consultant who masterminded the media strategy of George HW Bush against Michael Dukakis, understood the power of emotion versus that of rationality. Dukakis, the respected governor of Massachusetts, was a hands-on guy who understood systems and the way they worked. The state was often looked to as a model of the way government programs should be run.

But Atwater found one flaw in what was otherwise regarded as an excellent--and fairly tough--criminal justice system. He found Willie Horton, a murderer who had been furloughed, and while out of jail had committed a rape. Atwater said "by the time this election is over, Willie Horton will be a household name." Another consultant, Roger Ailes (now head of Fox news,) added, "the only question is whether we depict Willie Horton with a knife in his hand or without it."

Dukakis may have been the first victim of the emotionalizing of the media. The Willie Horton ad--which brought a scowling, bearded black felon into white living rooms--was widely credited with dissolving an early Dukakis lead in the race.

Today, with all the instant news media, we could have a Willie Horton every other day--and sometimes it seems that we do. Scandal and scorn have crowded out the news that has real impact on people's lives.

This makes Washington an increasingly toxic place. When I first started out covering national politics, DC was in many ways an amiable place. The political parties had enormous power and old bulls ran the congress with an iron hand. "To get along, you go along," as Sam Rayburn said. Senators and congressmen brought their families to DC with them, and there was a great deal of across-the-aisle fraternizing. The press, on the whole, focused on policy and politics and mainly ignored scandal. Everyone in Kennedy's press corps knew about the president's affairs, but would not think of writing about them. The idea that reporters could bring down a president--as Woodward and Bernstein would do with Nixon--was unimaginable.

The affable Washington had its major drawbacks--one being that with segregationist Southern senators holding so much power, civil rights legislation couldn't get passed.

But our system is designed to work by consensus. We do not have a parliamentary system like the Brits have, where the Ins get to do most of what they want until they are the Outs again. We seem to do best with two "big tent" parties where enough legislators can be cobbled together to actually get something done. Missing that, there's gridlock.

The new emotional media are the friends of the ideological purists, not the go-along-and-get-along types. If you can keep the base frothing at the mouth, you can also keep legislators who are inclined to compromise from straying too far from the fringes. As I write, senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina is being attacked by right-wingers for working on a bill with (gasp!) John Kerry.

Politics and media based on emotion just make people crazier and more vulnerable to manipulation. My daughter-in-law was asked by a neighbor in Houston to sign a petition directing Texas to secede from the union. She told the neighbor that the state could not do that. There was this thing called the Civil War.

"Glen Beck says we can," the neighbor replied.

The celebrities of TV news used to be the opposite of Beck, calm and rational types. There was avuncular Walter Cronkite, the most trusted man in America, Huntley and Brinkley, never losing their heads in a storm, and others of that ilk. David Halberstam once called the nightly TV news shows "Our national evening séance." But the audiences for the network news shows are dropping, just as newspapers rapidly lose circulation. More and more, audiences are fracturing into smaller pieces where emotion is the stock in trade.

A media and politics of emotion leave the national agenda in a prolonged stall. Constant invective drives down the approval rating of presidents, making it harder for them to use the bully pulpit. If this trend continues, we may see a series of one-term presidents, and a series of failed initiatives on the national agenda. This will come at a time when the nation faces urgent issues such as climate change, the loss of jobs from globalization and a major recession, and the growth of terrorism.

Once, we prided ourselves on being a "can do" country, able to come together to win World War II, to build a national highway system, to go to the moon. As the media and politics of emotion turn us into squabbling camps, paralysis will soon be our most salient national characteristic.

Boston University journalism professor Caryl Rivers is the author of "Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women (University Press of New England)