An Urban's Rural View

The Unholy Symbiosis of Legislators and Cable Channels

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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Americans hold Congress in disdain for a variety of reasons. Manufactured outrage ought to be near the top of the list. (DTN file photo by Nick Scalise)

Congress is taking August off, as it does every August, and you have to wonder if that's a bad thing or a good thing.

On the bad side of the ledger, the August break can slow progress on legislation you might want passed -- like, say, the farm bill. On the good side, it can slow legislation you might NOT want passed -- fill in the blank yourself.

Americans are deeply cynical about Congress. According to Gallup, only 19% of those polled in July approved of how Congress is doing its job. (…)

Some of the 77% who disapprove probably perceive legislators as lazy. Other disapprovers might actually want Congressmen to spend more time on the beach.

Back in the 1970s I knew someone like that, someone who was happy to see Congress recessed. He was a Wall Street Journal reporter who had covered Congress for years, so his view was based on personal observation. "Every day the Congress is not in session," he liked to say, "the republic is safer."

Americans have various reasons for holding Congress in disdain. "There's too much partisanship." "They don't get anything done." "They listen to big donors rather than people like me." And, of course, "They don't work very much; it seems like they're always in recess."

Actually, many Congressmen work harder than the public perceives. Congress' recesses aren't all vacation time. The House Agriculture Committee, for example, held farm-bill listening sessions in Maine and Minnesota during the first week of August.

A better-founded reason for disdain is the lack of seriousness so many of our Congressmen display. They care more about posturing for the cameras than the nuts and bolts of legislating.

Rather than debate the merits of big economic or foreign-policy issues, they seethe at supposed cultural affronts. Manufactured outrage is their coin of the realm.

A freshman Congressman from North Carolina, Jeff Jackson, has become a social-media star by calling out this Congressional tendency on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Tik Tok and other platforms.

"It's really clear from working there for just a few months that most of the really angry voices in Congress are totally faking it," Jackson says in a two-minute video. "These people who have built their brands around being perpetually outraged? It's an act." (…)

Jackson says he's seen legislators who behave "like maniacs" during meetings that are open to the press, then become "suddenly calm and rational" when the press is barred. "Why? Because there aren't any cameras in the closed meetings."

Jackson points to an unholy symbiosis between politicians and media outlets. Both have learned that if they can keep viewers angry, they prosper, he says.

The media outlets give air time to politicians who stoke anger; anger boosts their ratings. For the politicians, being able to communicate with a mass audience is the air they breathe.

"Angertainment," as Florida Republican Congresswoman Kat Cammack calls it, helps legislators raise campaign money and win elections. The politicians "are in competition with each other to see how fake angry they can be," Congressman Jackson says.

He doesn't mention anyone from either party by name. He's a Democrat but you wouldn't know it from his social media posts, including the one about the perpetually outraged. They come across as nonpartisan.

That's just as well. Opinions will differ on whether Republicans or Democrats are the bigger culprits, but neither party has a monopoly on cynical outrage. There are perpetually outraged Congressmen on both sides of the aisle.

If you want examples, just tune in to Fox News or MSNBC. You won't have to wait long for an interview with a politician decrying the perfidy of the other side, often on some matter that's not even before the Congress.

The rise of cable television channels that pander to the political prejudices of their viewers is part of the problem. Media outlets with audiences that span the political spectrum are much less inclined to give air time to the "maniacs" Jackson describes.

Jackson says communicating directly with voters on social media allows him to speak "with respect, and with real information and in a normal tone of voice." On social media, he says, "I don't have to yell." (Many of the perpetually outraged, however, supplement their yelling in mass media with yelling on social media.)

Considering all this, maybe we should modify the old WSJ reporter's axiom. Rather than worry about the damage Congress can do in session, maybe we should say, "Every day Congressmen are not on cable television, the republic is safer."

Urban Lehner can be reached at


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