The media's toxic obsession with political stupidity

Sometimes what's good for a media company or a political party can be bad for the United States of America

The truth is often less sensational.
(Image credit: iStock)

The U.S. is a sprawling, continent-spanning country of 320 million people. In any population that large, there will always be lots of people who say and do foolish, ridiculous things. A hundred years ago, when citizens got information mainly from local newspapers and person-to-person gossip, expressions of political stupidity or extremism tended to remain … local. By the mid-20th century, media had become more nationalized, with regional radio, national TV news, syndicated newspaper stories, and weekly magazines with a readership spanning the country allowing inflammatory statements or actions to briefly reach a wider audience. Since Americans tend to enjoy sensational stories, they were often popular. But the popularity was spotty and selective, and kept from reaching saturation levels of coverage by the relative slow pace of the news cycle.

But in today's era of 24/7 cable news, talk radio, hundreds of newspapers and magazines with constantly updated websites, and Twitter as a meeting place, amplification source, and echo chamber for those who work for all of these outlets, we have a very different dynamic. Catering to the desire for outrageous stories is one way to generate the audience that's required to make money online. So news outlets have an incentive to highlight the silliest, stupidest, most ridiculous and extreme statement they can find and give it attention — just as authors, writers, journalists, activists, and people who just crave attention have an incentive to say such things to get attention for themselves.

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Damon Linker

Damon Linker is a senior correspondent at He is also a former contributing editor at The New Republic and the author of The Theocons and The Religious Test.