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Last week on vacation in Mexico I reread Howard Stern’s 1993 book “Private Parts.” The book sold millions of copies and was turned into a successful movie in 1997. I read it as a 14 year old back in 1993 before I knew who Howard Stern was and I loved all the parts about lesbians and sex. (I still loved the parts about lesbians and sex as a 35 year old, proving that a generation later I still pretty much have the same sense of humor). Last year Stern celebrated his sixtieth birthday with a gala celebration attended by many of the leading lights in the entertainment industry. He is the most successful radio host in the history of the medium and widely regarded as a superlative interviewer and a creative and comic genius. But that wasn’t always the case. A ton of people hated Howard Stern during his rise to prominence.
I wanted to reread the book because I admire Stern’s ability as an entertainer and a businessman. I’ve asked the question on here several times of late because I think it’s an integral one as the radio industry undergoes seismic change: if Stern were thirty and still building his radio career, what would he be doing right now? Would he do terrestrial radio at all, would he have gone the podcast route, what would the smartest and most creative man in our industry be doing? It’s something I’m thinking about as I try to decide my future in radio, what would someone more talented and successful than me have done facing the same decision?
As I read the book, I also focused on the controversies Stern created during his rise and the anger he provoked in many listeners My favorite quote from the entire book was when Stern said he never considered himself a shock jock, he said he was always shocked by the reactions of others to what he said. (I feel the exact same way with everything I say and write. It astounds me that people are still so shocked by someone giving his honest opinion.) This will come as no surprise to y’all, but I also loved the hate mail. Stern sprinkled his hate mail throughout the book, but it looked positively quaint to me.
Because it was all actual mail. Stern’s hate mail required the postal service. In those days if you wanted to send hate mail you had to actually make an effort. You had to type or hand write the letter, search out an address, be able to afford proper postage, it took work to hate someone and let them know how much you hated them. You had to spend an hour or more to publish your hate and you still didn’t have any idea whether someone would see it. I get tons of hate now, but I’ve never received actual hate mail that arrived in letter form. All my hate mail is electronic. There’s more hate today than there’s ever been before because the barrier to electronic hate is negligible.
As I read “Private Parts,” I kept trying to imagine what Stern’s career would have been like in a social media era, when hate is so much more common and everything goes viral in an instant. Sure, by now Stern is effectively immune from censure — he’s literally said and done something to offend everyone at some point, an honor I’m close to achieving as well on a much smaller scale — but would Stern’s terrestrial radio career have been possible if he’d come up in the 2010’s instead of the 1980’s? Or would he have been derailed by an outraged Internet mob when he was still a fledgling performer in Hartford, Connecticut or Detroit, Michigan, just honing his radio talents when one of his bits was taken out of context, the mob demanded blood, and he was fired because he didn’t make enough money for his station yet and it was easier to fire him than stand up to the mob? And if Stern’s rise would be made more difficult in the modern era, which I think it would have, what does that tell us about the evolving medium of outrage in a social media era? If perhaps the greatest talent that radio has ever known would have more difficulty today than he did in the 1980’s, are we really moving in the right direction creatively? And are we, the media, consumers, and companies, responding to social media outrage correctly?
Anyway, I want to take you through my thoughts. (This is what happens, by the way, when I spend a week without writing very much and have time to actually think. So buckle up.)
Reading Stern’s actual hate mail took me back to the days when I used to sit in a Washington, D.C. congressman’s office and open all the mail arriving each day. Actual mail, with actual opinions being sent to us with stamps and everything by actual people who walked to the mailbox. I spent four years working in a D.C. congressional office, the longest internship in the history of Nashville congressman Bob Clement’s tenure in Washington. During this time I saw pretty much everything that could happen in politics.
We had a desk drawer back then for all the crazy people letters we received, I mean legitimately crazy, like cut out the letters from the newspaper and paste it on paper — ransom note style — crazy. That was the first time I realized how many truly crazy people there were in the world. The wildest time for mail we ever saw came when Bill Clinton was being impeached. Bushels of mail arrived every day in large sacks and stacked up in the office, it was everywhere. We got so much mail about Bill Clinton’s impeachment that all of us, from the Congressman to a lowly intern like me, had to pitch in and sort the mail. The deluge of opinion was unlike anything any of us had ever seen. You can imagine what going through that mail was like, you’ve never seen so much outrage. You can also imagine what that was like for me — a budding dick joke impresario — to be reading all these opinions about sex and fielding phone calls from old people about blow jobs. Everything was a double entendre. It was dick joke heaven.
We had a pro-impeachment pile of letters and an anti-impeachment pile of letters. We opened the letters, read the opinions, hopefully placed them in the right stack and responded to everyone with a form letter. Here I am, a 19 year old kid who came to Washington figure out how democracy worked, stacking letters in the Congressman’s office about blow jobs. I loved the absurdity of all of it.
Infinitely more people were writing in saying they wanted Clinton impeached, but the Congressman’s official stance was that the opinion was roughly 50/50. Why did he say that? Because in those days when you wanted to manufacture outrage you sent out someone to get names on forms and then sent in mass mailers with a constituent’s name or signature attached to a form letter. All the opinions were the exact same, they lacked depth, they demanded an action, but didn’t really make a unique case for why they demanded the action. Someone would go to a conservative church and get everyone at church that day to lend their name to the impeachment demands. So why did we take mass mailers less seriously? Because these were the people with opinions who weren’t even willing to send their own mail. All they did was attach their names to a cause and then rely on someone else to convey their opinion.
We were familiar with mass mailings at that point — we knew they produced a tidal wave of opinion — but that most of the people with those opinions weren’t really committed to the opinion. They were just trying to fit in with a cause; they took a stand because everyone else around them was also taking a stand. They might take the opposite stand the next day. It was viral opinion making in a pre-social media era. The less work you undertook to share your opinion the less committed you were to it. And that’s when it hit me, social media outrage is the mass mailing of our modern society. Only at least mass mailers used their actual names, most people on social media are anonymous.
We were smart enough in 1999 not to care about mass mail opinions on Bill Clinton’s impeachment. If we’d relied on these mass mailers to justify the congressman’s vote, he would have voted to impeach Bill Clinton. That’s because the mail was running at least 4 to 1 in favor of impeachment. That would have been an incredibly dumb move though because the great majority of Nashville’s congressional district actually didn’t believe that Clinton should be impeached. Back in 1999 the conservative wing of the Republican party — thanks primarily to talk radio and churches — knew how to mobilize its audience and make that audience look more substantial than it actually was. The goal was to scare you from standing in front of a tidal wave of public opinion, to make your opinion seem like the outlier. Oppose the masses at your own risk. It was an important lesson for me — you have to be careful how much stock you place in mass public opinion. Especially if it’s mass public opinion that requires almost no effort to produce.
Fast forward to today, how much effort does it take to click the like button on Facebook or retweet a fauxrage online with a word or two of support added along? Nearly zero. There’s much more hate mail now than ever before. Not because it’s necessarily more prevalent, just because it’s easier to produce. It took a committed hater to send hate mail back in the day, now it requires almost no effort. One reason I’ve always been comfortable with hate mail probably traces back to my time in D.C., reading all the hate rolling into Washington. I’ve always found it amusing, still do. Hate mail shouldn’t really be taken seriously by anyone with a brain. Except social media hate mail is taken incredibly seriously by media, readers, and corporations.
And interestingly enough where does most social media outrage come from today? The liberal side of the political equation. (Neither side of the political spectrum has a monopoly on outrage, it’s cyclical. Right now liberal outrage is ascendant, at some point in the future conservative outrage will reign once more.) Yet unlike in 1999 when we were smart enough to ignore mass-produced conservative outrage now companies, media, and individuals give credence to the opinions of liberal social media mobs. Everyone falls all over themselves to avoid offending the mob, lest the mob turn on them. (Social media mobs are almost entirely operating from a “liberal” perspective these days).
Go back and read the mobs reaction to my DeMarcus Cousins Tweet if you want great entertainment. Look how quickly the mob demanded that I kill myself for a five year old Tweet. It was uncanny. The negativity and lack of accountability fed on itself, turning a relatively banal five year old opinion into an offense worthy of death. The social media mob today reminds of the smoke monster on “Lost” it devours everything with its negative energy. Just as in “Lost” when everyone is scared of the smoke monster, when the mob comes tearing through the Internet everyone tries to get out of the way. Then, wham, it attacks someone, fulminating a great excess of rage, and then vanishes.
What’s the default position of mobs on social media today? If it offends me it shouldn’t exist. What does a mob always want? Somebody to be fired, for the voice that offends them to be silenced. Leaving aside the fact that this is the least offensive era in American history — there has literally never been less to be offended about in the history of our country — how scary is it that the liberal wing of our country’s default position has become — if it offends me it shouldn’t exist? I mean, that’s fucking terrifying. It’s modern day McCarthyism, only from the opposite side of the political spectrum.
You don’t have an inalienable right not to be offended in this country. Whatever happened to if you don’t like it don’t watch it, read it, or listen to it? Why should your outrage and offense dictate what other people can read, listen to or watch? Just about every major content controversy in America today arises when people actively seek out things that upset them, things that they otherwise wouldn’t or didn’t read, listen to or watch when it actually aired — and then they complain about it after they watched, listened to or read it. Of course in taking offense the modern day pearl clutchers totally miss all context because, guess what, they don’t actually read to, listen, or watch the content. How ridiculous is that? You can’t be offended by something you sought out specifically be offended by, that’s like voluntarily stepping into a boxing ring and getting upset when you get punched.. And then you want to stop other people from seeing, reading, or listening to that content? It’s not enough that these modern day pearl clutchers have the choice to consume content or not, they have to stop others from seeing it too. That’s the height of arrogance; moreover, when combined with today’s knee jerk inoffensive corporate liberalism it’s something even more sinister — de facto mob censorship. Social media mobs are modern day thought police, welcome to liberal totalitarianism where we tolerate everything except a difference of opinion. Newsflash, it’s easy to be in favor of the first amendment when you like what someone says. It’s much more challenging when you disagree with everything they say.
Stern’s critics back in 1993 were conservative and liberal. It takes a special kind of talent to provoke anger on both sides of the political spectrum at the same time. Outkick does that every day. It’s why I’m not liberal or conservative anymore, I’m a member of a new political party — the radical moderates. As the leader of the radical moderates, I believe that both the Republican and Democratic right and left wings are fucking insane. If you ally yourself entirely with one party or the other, I think you’re an idiot. So I’d ask all of you with working brains to join a gay Muslim conservative, racist, liberal, sexist homophobe on my noble quest to tell the rest of the country to chill the fuck out and stop being so outraged. Isn’t it tiresome to always be angry about things that aren’t that serious?
Since when did being offended become a position of prominence, something to be proud of in this country? We need to end the idea that being curled up in the fetal position whining is something to be proud of. In the 1990’s we put our crazy, offended loser mail in a drawer and made fun of it, today we treat the same crazy, offended losers complaining on social media as the voice of reason. We’ve regressed. Join me in responding every time someone says they’re offended by saying, “I’m offended that you’re offended.” The offended person’s head will spin, they think being offended is only a one way street. Being offended is also counterproductive to liberal thought because what’s offensive in one generation often becomes the mainstream in the next. Remember, being offended is cyclical, no political party monopolizes offense. Just about every mainstream liberal advancement in the country’s history — the right to vote for blacks, women’s suffrage, equal rights, the end of slavery — all of them were fringe opinions at one point or another considered offensive by the majority. That’s why our country’s advancement demands expansive creative freedom.
Stern survived the FCC’s conservative war on his show and the liberal assault on him for not being politically correct. He’s gone on to become the greatest radio talent in the history of our country. But he survived the actual hate mail era, a time when the only way his radio bits could be transmitted was via actual tape. Would he survive today’s social media era if he were a small-time DJ in Hartford, Connecticut or Detroit, Michigan? Or would one of his clips go viral, touching the angry third rail of social media ire and, taken totally out of context to a national audience, have derailed his career before his show became lucrative enough to survive the controversy? I think Howard Stern’s ascent would be impossible in the same social media era. If I’m right, doesn’t that tell us that we’re doing something wrong? The greatest and most creative radio voice in our country’s history couldn’t survive and ascend in today’s climate as a young talent without being torn asunder by a social media mob.
It’s high time to treat social media mobs in 2015 like we did faux impeachment mail in 1999. It’s all just manufactured outrage, ignore it long enough and like all mobs it just slinks away.
And as Outkick approaches our fifth year as an independent site Outkick represents the free speech wing of the free speech party. Our motto is this: If we haven’t offended you yet, tell us how.