Are Conservatives Rethinking The Fox News Outrage Model?

by ERIC BOEHLERT, 2013-01-25

Responding to President Barack Obama's inauguration address this week, Joel Pollak, an editor at Breitbart.com, wrote about the president's allegedly dastardly attack on the Supreme Court that unfolded during his address to the nation on Monday.

Pollak excitedly claimed that by mentioning his support for gay marriage in his inauguration speech, Obama was trying to bully Supreme Court Justices who were in attendance that day. By stating publically his belief, Obama was attempting to intimidate (to "attack") the judicial branch of the government because the Supreme Court has before it a pending case about gay marriage and the president's comment meant he was instructing the Court on how it "ought to rule."

Alongside Pollak at the Breitbart site, Ben Shapiro, typing excitedly, wrote that Obama, via his address, had "attempted nothing less than an assault on the timeless notion of liberty itself." (That sounds bad.) Shapiro separately attacked Obama for the "brutal name calling" he used in his inauguration speech, even though Shapiro couldn't locate any insults hurled by the president in his address.

Shapiro and Pollak were just two predictable voices within the right-wing media, marshaled as always by Fox News, who freaked out over Obama's inauguration addresses. Going into Monday, readers, viewers and listeners weren't sure exactly what conservative voices were going to be outraged about, but it was foregone conclusion, since the day featured Obama, that they'd find something trivial to Get Very Upset About. (Answer: He was too partisan!)

Being outraged, and especially being outraged about made-up claims, like Obama's imaginary "name-calling" on Monday, has become a signature of the far right movement over the last four years. It's also blossomed into Fox News' entire business model. Fox News makes a pile of profits each year overreacting to imagined Obama slights.

The question is, has the Fox model of the phony Outrage Machine damaged the conservative movement? Is it standing in the way of Republican progress and electoral success?

Writing at his site RedState this week, conservative CNN commentator Erick Erickson beseeched fellow partisans to drop the outrage shtick and to move into more substantial areas of debate. "Conservatives, frankly, have become purveyors of outrage instead of preachers for a cause," he wrote. "Who the hell wants to listen to conservatives whining and moaning all the time about the outrage du jour?"

Erickson's point is dead on. The amount of time and energy conservatives devote to utterly trivial bouts of phony outrage now seem to consume the movement, or at least the media portion of it. But it's unlikely Fox News and its legion of copycat whiners in the press will heed Erickson's wise advice. They're too busy super-serving a radical niche and making money off the faux Outrage Machine.

It's impossible to catalog every phony freakout that's been staged during Obama's time in office. It's hard to even keep track of the ones that have been hatched over the last week or so. The laundry list is annoyingly long.

Remember how Fox contributor Michelle Malkin led the hysterical cries of exploitation when Obama invited children who had written him about gun violence to attend a public White House event about gun violence? In Malkin's eyes, only monsters incorporate kids in politics. (By the way, here's Malkin's column this week where she incorporates kids into politics.)

And then there's been the obsessive whining about how supposedly mean and nasty Obama is, a hollow cry that's proven to be a right-wing evergreen. The Wall Street Journal editorial page complained how "Obama demonizes anyone who disagrees with him," while columnist Peggy Noonan whined that Obama pushes "partisan rancor." (That is, when Noonan wasn't mocking Obama as the "Irritating Older Brother Who Got 750 On His SATs And Thinks He's Einstein.") On CBS This Morning, Newt Gingrich bellyached about how the president's "bullying" House Republicans, Karl Rove warned darkly about the "unremitting war" Obama will soon launch on his foes, and Sean Hannity warned states might start seceding from the union.

As for Obama's hopeful inauguration address, Media Research Center's Brent Bozell went on Fox and compared it to the Civil War, claiming it was designed to rip the nation apart. Online, the address was angrily denounced as Orwellian "dreck."

Most of the overwrought claims stem from the fact that Obama disagrees with Republicans and has said so publicly. The hysterical cry of partisan bullying just represents phony outrage being ginned up for feel-good attention among Obama critics.

Of course, it was Rush Limbaugh who built a radio empire by mastering the we're-all-under-siege-by-liberals shtick that conservatives love to wallow in. But whereas Limbaugh's plaintive, defenseless wail of the oppressed once represented one note in the right-wing media chorus, in recent years as it's been adopted ad nauseaum online, on the AM dial and on Fox News, it's to the point where that whiny, abrasive howl has become the only note in the conservative chorus.

The utter sameness of the fake outrage programming (i.e. We can't believe Obama did/said that) now defines most of the conservative media message in America. Concocting things to be outraged about and oppressed by (Hitler!) is no longer a by-product of the conservative press, it's become the entire purpose of the conservative press.

But it's exhausting. And it doesn't work. (Note the Republican Party's 26 percent approval rating.) That, plus the fact that the perpetual outrage approach is now entering its second four-year cycle with Obama. If politically, the tactic didn't work the first time, why is it being adopted again and reprised for the second term?

The bad news for Erickson is not only is the conservative movement purposefully trapped inside the phony Outrage Machine, but the machine's stuck on a replay loop.

This piece first appeared in mediamatters.org