In December, MSNBC’s Martin Bashir made headlines for calling Sarah Palin a “world-class idiot” and suggesting that someone defecate in her mouth. Rush Limbaugh stirred the pot a few weeks earlier when he decided to take on the pope, calling the Holy Father a Marxist and then, some days later, claiming, “the left’s sacrament is abortion.” Just this past Sunday, a panel of comedians on Melissa Harris-Perry’s MSNBC drew criticism for mocking a photo of Mitt Romney’s family, including his adopted African-American grandchild, with one of Harris-Perry’s guests singing, “one of these things is not like the other.” Incendiary comments by both provocative pundits and charismatic hosts are now commonplace. On cable news networks, talk radio and in the political blogosphere there is a constant stream of name-calling, belittling, character assassination and falsehoods.
Americans tell pollsters they dislike this kind of talk and believe it degrades our political system. But the audience data tell a different story: In fact, Americans find this type of political commentary quite compelling. By our calculation, part of an analysis we did for our new book, The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility, the aggregate daily audience for such content is roughly 47 million people.