Outrage fatigue is dragging down the news media
If MAGA misconduct overwhelms journalists, it will overwhelm democracy too.
As an editor at a daily newspaper, I used to supervise investigative reporters. When we assessed whether a story was worth our time, we always considered the potential impact. If we found wrongdoing, would it inspire public outrage? That was important to determine, because if there’s no public outrage, there’s no pressure for reform.
Having a good sense of what outrages people is an important talent in the news business. But it’s been sorely tested in the Trump era, as Republicans have overwhelmed both the public and the press with an unrelenting avalanche of outrageous conduct.
It’s not healthy to be outraged all the time. Human beings can’t keep it up. They get exhausted. So they pick and choose what to be outraged about. A political development that would have angered them a decade ago doesn’t matter as much today, because there’s something even worse now. An incident that would’ve been a week-long story in a slow news period is a two-hour story today because it’s bumped by another two-hour story and then another two-hour story and then another two-hour story.
No scandal seems to stick because MAGA Republicans almost never apologize. They just keep repeating the same lies. And inventing new ones. This strategy is working well for MAGA Republicans because of the media’s inability to effectively call out their outrageous behavior.
There were good examples last week.
Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley declared, “We’ve never been a racist country,” and then doubled down on it afterward. Obviously, when your country allows the enslavement of Black people, it’s a racist country. Not to mention all the Jim Crow laws, lynchings, the Tulsa Race Massacre being omitted from history books and thousands and thousands of other examples.
Haley’s ridiculous assertion drew some media attention, though not enough. The Washington Post wrote about it, but instead of saying explicitly that Haley was wrong, the Post turned it into a story about the “debate” over whether America had ever been a racist country. It was a lame approach in which the Post stated what Haley said, then recounted historical facts, and then left it to the readers to figure out whether Haley was right or wrong. A key value of journalism is that professionals can reach logical conclusions based on established facts. It’s cowardly to pretend that everything is a matter of opinion.
Also last week, when Ron DeSantis was still a Republican presidential candidate, he made his own mind-blowingly false statement: “Every booster you take, you’re more likely to get COVID as a result of it.” That was a lie that will surely induce people to skip boosters and end up dead.
The public and the news media have been worn down by medical misinformation. They’re used to it. After all, the guy dominating the GOP race once suggested putting light inside people’s bodies and injecting them with disinfectant to kill Covid.
As of Monday morning, neither the New York Times nor Washington Post had even reported that DeSantis made the false comment about Covid boosters. Maybe they thought DeSantis’ position wasn’t all that new. After all, DeSantis has expressed vaccine skepticism in the past. But this specific claim — likely based on a twisted interpretation of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report — was news. Or should have been. PBS was one of the few outlets that wrote about DeSantis’ dishonesty, and the Miami Herald produced an excellent editorial condemning it. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker called it “a dangerous lie.” But in general, DeSantis got away with it.
Misbehavior like Haley’s and DeSantis’ has sunk politicians in the past. A celebratory scream by Howard Dean in Iowa was considered a major embarrassment that helped wreck his presidential bid in 2004. But today even major misconduct is ignored. Because the media have outrage fatigue.
The biggest beneficiary of it is Trump, of course.
When the “Access Hollywood” tape came out in 2016, documenting that Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women he’d just met, some people thought the outrage meter would go through the roof. It didn’t. By that time, Trump had already mocked John McCain for being a prisoner of war and urged a ban on Muslims entering the country. He had lowered the bar sufficiently for him to slither over it.
No matter how low the bar, I figured the public and the press would eventually find a point of common outrage. It should have been in December 2022 when Trump called for “termination” of the U.S. Constitution. But the New York Times put the story on Page 13.
As Trump has made other statements declaring his desire to become a dictator, most news coverage has been routine and sleepy, rather than a sustained campaign warning the public about the threat to democracy. The media have to do better. When fascist demagogues like Trump say or do something particularly outrageous, journalists must treat it that way over multiple days. They must make the coverage loud enough to penetrate the right-wing propaganda silos. They must get the truth out.
We need more headlines like this one from the Washington Post:
The media need to show enough respect for pro-democracy Americans to share in their outrage, to be megaphones for it. That’s the only way we’ll fight off MAGA’s fascist assault. Because if we lose our outrage, we’ll lose our country.