For better or for worse, by being really good at it. As with just about everything else, popularity is profitable. And because the media industry is, ultimately, an industry, profits rule.
Perhaps a better question might be, why aren’t there more wingnuts? Media personalities like Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann, as well as more outrageous ones like Alex Jones of the Alex Jones Show, have huge followings, and followings mean higher ratings, which translates to more money. Alex Jones is worth $10 million and Keith Olbermann $25 million. In other words, chump change: Glenn Beck is worth between $250 and $300 million.
But such a profit motive for sensationalist content exists only at outlets whose mission is to stir people up, foment chaos or galvanize a base. That is, outlets that employ “wingnuts” do so because it’s what their audiences want. Other outlets, like the BBC or CBS News, are serving a different audience that’s looking for more measured, informed reporting. To obtain and maintain a platform at those outlets, an on-air personality must exhibit those qualities instead. If one of them were to lapse into wingnuttery, he or she would not likely last long.
The seminal 1976 film about TV news, Network, brilliantly parodies the devolution from straight reporting into sensationalist entertainment. A group of suits at the network is about to fire an anchor who goes berserk one night, shouting at his viewers at home to rise up and shout out their windows that they’re “mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore.” But when they see the ratings go through the roof, they give him his own show. News is all well and good, they agree, but outrage sells better.
While Network portrays one reality of the news business, particularly television news, it is still, fortunately, fiction. We may see elements of the sensationalism the film portrays in outlets from Fox News to CNN, but even on those networks, there are journalists who remain committed to reporting the facts rather than stirring up emotions. Like actors, journalists have their audiences, and different audiences expect different things.
We often refer to the news media as one industry, but it is not a monolith. There are myriad outlets, personalities and business models, some dedicated to informing their audiences and some to getting them worked up. So how does a wingnut obtain a platform? As in any entertainment field, by getting discovered. And these days, that doesn’t just mean by the suits at major news outlets. Getting discovered can mean launching a crackpot YouTube channel and gaining an audience.
Our hope, with this class, is to help make sure that you aren’t part of that audience.