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Interview: Jeffrey Berry | Berry and Sobieraj examine conservative, liberal ‘outrage’ in new book

Published: Thursday, January 30, 2014

Updated: Thursday, January 30, 2014 08:01

Professor of Political Science Jeff Berry and Associate Professor of Sociology Sarah Sobieraj released a new book called “The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility” in November 2013. The book, which explores how partisan cable and radio shows grab audience attention with emotional appeals, combines Tufts’ professors academic interests in politics and media. Berry spoke with the Daily to share some of his thoughts about their project.


The Tufts Daily:  What is your new book “The Outrage Industry” about?


Jeffrey Berry: The book is about a particular genre of political commentary that Professor Sobieraj and I have labeled “outrage.” It is political rhetoric designed to make you angry. It plays with your emotions and evokes a variety of sentiments. Not only anger, but engagement. Reflection, but more than anything else, anger. You respond to the visceral rhetoric of the TV host or radio host in a very direct and emotional way.


TD:: How did this idea for the book come along?


JB: It was a bit of an accident. I hadn’t ever studied the media before and I was a guest on “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox News in 2004. They wanted someone to stand in for Senator [John] Kerry because he wouldn’t go on the show during the presidential campaign of that year. It was a bizarre experience ... 

Flash forward about four years and Professor Sobieraj had gotten an invitation to apply for a grant with a grant program that was given by the Bernstein Family for interdisciplinary research ... But one of the requirements of the grant — the university didn’t make this up, it was the family that gave the money — [was] that she had to work with a senior faculty member from another discipline. Professor Sobieraj had worked in the field of advocacy, which is my field — interest groups and social movements — so she suggested we get together. We decided that we would work on something together as opposed to me just being a mentor ... We talked more seriously about doing something book length ... [So] we decided to plunge ahead and write a book.


TD: How did your similar backgrounds in advocacy aid your partnership?


JB: It was more that our dissimilar backgrounds complemented each other. We didn’t think alike. We saw things from different points of view and we had different strengths. There are parts of the book that she wrote that I couldn’t have written, and there are a couple of chapters that I think she probably wouldn’t have put in the book if she had written it by herself, that I wrote. So, I actually think that we complemented each other in [each] having expertise that the other didn’t. And it made for a book that is expansive and that really cuts across three academic fields: political science, sociology and media studies. 


TD: What was the process of research like? 


JB The process of writing and research took about five years and it’s a nice tough story in that along the way a number of students were involved in the research. They either got credit or were paid. But there were four in particular that were instrumental in producing content that we used in the book. 

They did a lot of the grunt work and I think that it was work that required some thought on their part, [they weren’t] just some mindless cogs on a wheel. One student worked on the Tea Party — the 2010 primaries where the Tea Party really broke through. She developed a database that became the basis of Chapter Six in the book. Another student ... watched and listened to TV and radio programs that use [outrage] and took notes about the ways in which the hosts engender loyalty and, in a sense, interact with the audience — things they do to make the audience loyal. She was very good at that, and she actually got her name on one of the papers. 

Then two other students worked with us ... to do a content analysis where we actually recorded what people said and analyzed it along 13 different variables that were different forms of outrage. And those students were terrific at it.


TD:What were you hoping to accomplish with this project?


JB:We wanted to shed light on this [outrage industry] in a way that makes people appreciate how it fits into the larger political system — that it wasn’t just Rush Limbaugh saying stupid things on the radio; that there was, in fact, a business. One of the themes of the book is that this [industry] is a business; that people and companies make money off of this, and so there is an incentive to be outrageous and to push the envelope of what you say to attract greater ratings and keep yourself controversial; to get yourself actually in the mainstream press where people are writing about you and what you say. There’s this incentive to be outrageous to attract ratings, which attracts sponsors, which allows you to change more for advertising rates 

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