This is the modern face of cable television news: angry, emotional, mouth agape in the midst of some hateful monologue. Oh, and in case you hadn't noticed, the worst purveyors of cable news rage are all white men over 40. The era of the angry white man is officially here.
There’s Bill O'Reilly, commanding "bad Americans" to "shut up" or shoving his index finger into people's faces and yelling, "Bull!" There was Sean Hannity, accusing guests of saying they would "stand by" while women around the world were raped. And over there was Glenn Beck, dousing a staffer in pretend gasoline before hovering a match over the pleading young man's head—conveniently, Beck's horror show was passed off as a metaphor for the way Barack Obama was going to incinerate America, instead of what it actually was: a gruesome theater spectacle that belonged not on a news network, but in an old-timey street revival.
Fox News gets credit for perfecting this particular brand of madness, but they certainly didn't monopolize it. Eventually, the spittle-flicking caterwauling entered and corroded each of the top cable news networks.
On CNN, the station's local anti-immigration zealot, Lou Dobbs, was caught saying that economists who support immigration are "jackasses," while curmudgeon Jack Cafferty designated all Chinese goods "junk." Over at CNBC, in a now-famous screed from the Chicago Stock Exchange's trading floor, business reporter Rick Santelli proclaimed that people who can't pay their mortgages are "losers." His “populist rant” caused an eruption of cheers from the brokers on the floor. Then there's Keith Olbermann, the most infamously angry newsman not on Fox, and also FNC’s mortal enemy. Every night, the MSNBC host blasts someone as the "Worst Person in the World" and once advised President George W. Bush to "shut the hell up!" If nothing else, at least anger is bipartisan.
But now, try to think of a single African-American newsman who's exhibited—and gotten away with—the type of antics their white counterparts do each and every day on America’s top news channels. Don’t feel ignorant if you can’t. There aren’t any. But why?
Can you imagine the outcry if a black news anchor performed a mock-burning? Imagine a black news anchor flippantly saying of an abducted boy who hadn't escaped fast enough that he must have been having "a lot more fun [with his child molester than] he had under his old parents." Imagine a black news anchor telling an anti-war protester whose father died in 9/11 to "shut up" before cutting off the young man's microphone.
American society wouldn't stand for some raging, ranting black maniac shouting people down night after night. For proof of this, simply look to the first family.
All it took for Michelle Obama to be branded as "angry" was one remark at a campaign stop in Milwaukee: "For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback." Fox News commentator Cal Thomas immediately dubbed Michelle a stereotypical angry black woman. He then went on to list her sisters in rage: Maxine Waters, Cynthia McKinney and all the black mothers who have "had a son who has been shot in a drive-by shooting."
President Obama’s scolding came after he suggested John McCain’s remarkable wealth might put him out of touch with the average voter. The Obamas didn’t even have to raise their voices.
And had it remained relegated to The Maury Povich Show, which routinely highlights sexual partners arguing about paternity tests, this rage might not have been so bad. It became downright frightening when, like lead into the water supply, it leached into the news programming.
And like lead, anger can be poisonous in the sufficient quantities. It’s difficult to not see a correlation between the recent murder of abortion doctor George Tiller and Fox News’ history of condemning the physician as a “baby killer” who would be struck down come “Judgment Day.” And it’s easy to see a correlation between Fox News and the distress of Holocaust Museum killer James von Brunn, who had targeted FNC for attack in his personal writings.
Of course, correlation does not equal causation. But how long can these shows trend toward blubbering insanity before we turn to another important axiom: Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Will it take another shooting death or similar disaster before we throttle back to facts and rational information instead of inflammatory opinion on our news stations?
Cable news networks, once upon a time, attempted to be informative and substantive, and for a while they employed reporters who usually sought to be little more than stoic vessels of information. But with the rise of rage came the screaming heads.
In 1996, five years before he died of lung cancer, Morton Downey Jr. appeared on CNN’s Larry King Live and admitted that he was deeply ashamed of some of his more outrageous moments. A visibly sick Downey then added: "It just isn't worth it to entertain someone on the back, on the heart, on the stomach, on the bowels of another human being. Not worth it."
So why are so many of us watching?
Cord Jefferson is a writer living in Brooklyn. Some of his other work has appeared in National Geographic, The Daily Beast and on MTV. You can contact him here.