I’ve been known to gripe on occasion about news organizations – or more correctly what they aren’t doing. It’s not that I mind competing analysis of events or exchange of opinions at times, but I also expect it to be one of the smaller aspects of the entire package. As I said earlier, I miss the days when I could turn on a news channel and get … news. You know, information about what was happening around the country and the world. These days, it’s hard to find. I can get all sorts of opinions, and outrage about (fill in the blank) from some “host” thundering into the microphone. Just what they’re particularly upset about usually is something that probably waved to the facts at some point in passing.
But it’s not just the news channels that have this problem. It’s become a “feature” on many Internet sites as well. Visit Free Republic, and you’ll find a haven of far right-wing people feeding each other the newest thing that the right wing is upset about. Go over to FireDogLake, and you’ll find the far left-wing people doing the same thing. What they do have in common is that they’re very angry.
Controversy, real or manufactured, sells. It generates viewership, it generates page views, it generates ratings – in other words, it generates money. Presentation of facts, and thoughtful analysis often gets lost in the storm of “outrage.” Controversy doesn’t necessarily do much to advance the national conversation, or lead to debate over solutions, but my goodness, it does get attention!
Why am I talking about this? I’ve been doing this blog for almost a year now. There are some posts here I put a lot of work into, looking up documentation, dredging through reams of government reports, tracking down figures, and so on. Then I tried to put it all into context, and make suggestions. I’m rather proud of them. But you know what post has drawn the most hits of any post I’ve ever done on this site? It’s not one of the ones I worked hard on. It’s one where I got ticked off and went on a rant. I’m serious. That one post, out of the over 120 I’ve done here, has drawn almost 10% of the hits on this site. It took me less than an hour to knock out, just to get something off my chest. It set off a major conniption fit elsewhere, and the traffic here exploded. While gratifying to know that I’d succeeded in hitting a nerve with the people whose nerves I’d wanted to hit, it also serves as reminder that “controversy sells.” Yes, I was being rude, and saying things that made certain people uncomfortable, just as I meant to, and my site traffic went up. It’s happened to me before. When I was on Daily Kos, the two diaries with the most comments came when I figuratively “blew a gasket” and called out certain groups. It drew attention, all right. When I used to write for a magazine, the article that drew the most letters – good and bad – was the one where I called some battling groups on the carpet for their behavior.
I don’t do that very often. I don’t regret it when I do it, and I don’t really worry about the “hit count” or the “page views” here. I’m not making money off this site or any of my other blogging efforts, so it’s not a concern. Even if I were, I still wouldn’t do it just to draw the traffic. But the object lesson is that controversy works as a mechanism to draw viewership, and if you’re in the “eyeballs = money” business, it’s an easy choice. The problem is that it’s become the sole reason for being for many former “news” and “discussion” media and sites. It may make money, but it’s not always a good thing. It’s one thing to actually have a controversy, it’s another to create them to keep the outrage flowing. It cripples the information flow, prevents us from making informed decisions, and widens the political divide. As Jon Stewart’s “Rally for Sanity” showed, there’s a great many people who are getting tired of it. They want factual information, reasoned debate, and yes, that great “evil” – compromise. Will that stop the media and web from their addiction to outrage? Not until it stops being profitable.