Theory of Change #016: Michele Mitchell on the "anger industrial complex"
Former CNN reporter discusses how commercialized media and scheming politicians profit from making us upset and uninformed
American politics is broken in a lot of ways. There are many reasons for this. A big one is what podcaster and former CNN host Michele Mitchell calls the “anger industrial complex,” the way that media companies are constantly working to keep their audiences angry all the time.
It’s no grand conspiracy, rather it’s managers pursuing the natural incentives of for-profit media to keep ratings up, no matter the cost to society.
This process basically on a grand scale with the arrival of Newt Gingrich and Fox News in the mid-1990s, both of which used outrage and anger to accumulate money and power. But it’s also the case that there are plenty of left-of-center media actors whose goal seems to be to create nihilism, to tell their audiences that political change is impossible and that it’s better to keep watching while you wait for the revolution.
In each episode of her podcast, The Cocktail Conversations, Mitchell assembles a panel of experts to talk about how the anger industrial conversation works, how polarization works, and ways that Americans can start having the difficult conversations that we need.
A video version of the interview is below. A lightly edited transcript of the audio follows.
MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: This is Theory of Change. I’m Matthew Sheffield. American politics is broken in a lot of ways. There are many reasons for this, but one of them is what my guest today calls the anger industrial complex. It’s a combination of political and media entities that work to keep us angry at each other–all the time.
But this isn’t some sort of grand conspiracy. It’s more like the so-called invisible hand from economics, if you remember that. Market incentives combine to produce the same outcomes, in this case, not good ones, rage, confusion, and for some apathy. And after years and years of this, a lot of people have lost the ability to discuss our differences without getting upset. And we also have lost track of actual policy and how to govern.
The person talking about it today with me is Michele Mitchell, and she’s a former CNN host and documentary filmmaker. And she’s just launched a new podcast called the cocktail conversations. It’s a show where she brings a group of experts to talk in-depth about a topic using the original social lubricant, a nice cocktail or glass of wine. So thanks for being here. Michele.
MICHELE MITCHELL: Thank you for having me, Matthew. And I’m drinking coffee, just so you know, because it’s a little early even for me.
SHEFFIELD: (laughs) So you actually are living in Napa Valley, California, which is of course, for those who may not know, it is the biggest wine making region in the [United States]. And you have gotten to know quite a few people in the course of living there and doing your show there. Tell us about the program and what you’re doing with that.
MITCHELL: Sure. So first of all, I ended up in Napa during COVID. It was just totally circumstantial, that I kind of got stuck here. But if you’re going to get stuck anywhere, during the shutdown, Wine Country is great.
I have kind of an interesting relationship with this area because my documentary “The Uncondemned,” which dealt with the first time that rape was prosecuted as an international crime of war–I crowdfunded that film. And one of the first things we did in order to raise money was I came to Napa and met with all these different winemakers and 34 women donated sign magnums, and we auction them off in New York City. And that’s how we began the financing. And so then four women actually ended up making a wine for the film, which gave me one of our great lines, which is “the only film about sexual violence with its own alcohol.” And then I worked off the filming here in St. Helena at the cameo theatre, which is a historic movie theater. So it went back a few a few years.
But when I came out here, just kind of on a lark, and then ended up getting stuck here. I decided, well, what if I go ahead and pilot the podcast? And I thought, you know, I know so many winemakers and everybody, it was a real tough year, last year for everyone in this country. But here in Napa, we had fires, and we had to shut down. There are a lot of small businesses that were really hurting. So I thought, well, what if I highlight the smaller winemakers, the ones who really, really, really need some of the attention and it ended up kind of working, our guests were excited because they got wine. And they were usually trying something that they don’t have access to. And the winemakers liked it because there’s a lot of concern about social issues and political issues here in the valley. And so it all it all kind of worked. And kind of the whole premise of the show was I wanted to be able to talk about really difficult issues. And I’m the girl at the cocktail party, who will be talking to you about mass war crimes. I remember being at a cocktail party in New York City where I lived for the last 24 years. And someone saying, ‘you know, I never thought I would be at this particular cocktail party talking about genocide, but it’s been really interesting.’ So I start with the premise that we have to have some difficult conversations. But it’s always a little bit easier if you’re drinking something really fun too.
And your your podcast is kind of premised on the idea that you’re trying to do something different for the medium. And as I said in the introduction, to come back and to make people aware that there is an an anger industrial complex. Why don’t you talk about what that is and how you see that.
Well, this is something that academics have placed it as it’s taken 30 years to build it. And I feel like my entire career has been surfing that wave. So I started out on Capitol Hill as a staffer from 1993 to 1996. And when I was there, I worked for a conservative Democrat from Texas, something that does not exist, it’s not possible to elect those people now. And I was there when the change happened when when Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House.
And at that moment, there was a lot of pressure to stop talking to people of the opposite party. Even among the staffers, you have to understand there is a tremendous amount of cooperation that used to happen for things like the balanced budget amendment or other big pieces of legislation, you often would have a staff of a particular member of Congress that was really, really, really informative and a well of information for other staffers in other offices.
So the example that I just gave you of the Balanced Budget Amendment, the two congressmen who were pivotal for that, Charlie Stenholm for the Democrats, and you had John Kasich for the Republicans, and their staffers were amazing. They were so up to date on all of the stuff, all the information that we all needed, etc, etc. And then, of course, there was a lot of–there became a lot of pressure not to talk to those folks, you weren’t supposed to go to John Kasich’s office if you were a Democratic staffer and get information. Which does a serious disservice, by the way to the idea of the public good and governing for the public good, if you’re just supposed to stay on your side, in essence.
But I left Capitol Hill to–I had a book published called A New Kind of Party Animal. It was about young people in politics. And that led to my job at CNN, and I was at Headline News. I started as a political analyst for the 2000 election. And then I got hired as political anchor. And it was a fabulous job. My mentor at the network was a man in Garrick Utley, who had been a longtime correspondent for NBC have been all around the world and covered politics, great guy. But at that time, you had the AOL-Time Warner merger, but the goals became very different. It went from being about journalism, too, all of a sudden, people like me were called in and I was asked to stop reporting as much and to start giving more of my opinion. So this would have been 2001-2002.
And that’s when all of a sudden the emphasis became less on information, and imparting that information and more on infotainment in a lot of ways. So I left that job in 2003 thinking, because I was, I had my novels are getting published. And that’s what I was wanting to do is to be a novelist. But I got really interested–once you’re, if you want to give information or deliver information to people, you want to report that, you know, it’s kind of in your blood. And I really wanted to hop back into the industry. And I got a terrific opportunity with Bill Moyers at PBS. And it was his final year doing investigative journalism. And that’s how I really learned the fundamentals of long form journalism. So stories are about 20 minutes long. And that’s a totally different skill set. It was such a great opportunity, and I absolutely adored it.
And then I was going to go work for a network and they weren’t interested in doing any investigative journalism, they said, very flat-out, we want to do big entertainment-style interviews of people. And I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I’m going to be feeding into an industry that I just absolutely do not believe in the goals anymore.’ And that’s when I went off to do documentary filmmaking. And I look back on all that stuff now thinking, wow, ‘I was there from the very beginning of why we are here, which is the only way for our ratings to stay up is to keep people in a state of fight or flight’ like oh, my God, doom scrolling.
We hear that for Twitter, you know, but like, ‘oh, my God, what’s, what is this show saying’ or ‘what is that show saying?’ And then these shows panic you and make you mad. And it works. It works for the networks it earns them a lot of money. It works for the advertisers, it works for some of the big donors and some of the politicians to stay in power. I mean, this outrage economy works for everybody except for all of us. Because now we’re in a place where government is broken. Our trust in every institution is fundamentally fractured. And we have enormous challenges ahead.
I don’t think any of us are kidding ourselves. I you know, everyone in New York City woke up to every, you know, their houses being flooded, or not everyone but a substantial number are dealing with the flooding from Hurricane Ida. And this is just the beginning of some of these really huge things coming upon us. And so my my theory is that that stuff doesn’t work. And we need to get on with the business of working together if we’re actually going to make it. And I don’t know, I’m not saying this is a Kumbaya way. I mean, I don’t kid myself about how difficult this is going to be. But until we start digging in and pushing back, the PTSD industry is going to have a lot of money coming their way.
SHEFFIELD: I’m guessing that not just the AOL takeover of CNN, it was also the formation of Fox News Channel in 1996, when that launched, and that really did change CNN quite a bit, even more subsequently, as it came on. So I used to produce TV as well. I produced two different new shows. And, you know, it was an experience I had often as a producer that every so often a guest would tell me ‘I don’t know what to say about this topic.’ Even though we had booked them and told them what it was–
SHEFFIELD: –ahead of time, but on the presumption that they knew what they were talking about. And so I literally–I had this probably like 20 different times where I had to tell the guest, what their opinion was from their side of the political spectrum.
MITCHELL: Well, bookers will tell you now that they don’t, they can’t book anybody unless they have a strong opinion about something, which is why all of a sudden, I was fascinated by the almost spontaneous expertise on Afghanistan last week, there are people talking about it, and talking as if they really knew and understood the topic who I’ve never seen before my life. And I’ve been to Afghanistan, I reported from there. There are plenty of people who I think are really informed, and definitely experts in that area. There are lots of those people at our fingertips. And I wasn’t seeing any of them on TV, but maybe they didn’t have a strong enough opinion. Because of course, since you did produce, what a TV segment producer is looking for is a sizzling segment, what is good TV and strong opinions–
SHEFFIELD: This is debate, everything is a debate. I mean, was that something that you saw?
MITCHELL: I saw it happen. I mean, I remember in–this is this was Walter Isaacson was the president of CNN. And I remember one of the bookers saying–because it went from having people talk and deliver information, or even in some cases, opinions. And then it became like a lot of different faces all yelling at each other. And this was one of the heads of booking at the time, who said to me, Walter likes debates. So that would have been just as he took when he became president of the network.
And here’s a guy coming from the print world deciding that what we really needed on TV was a lot of debating, I don’t find that particularly useful. I did not enjoy working for Walter Isaacson. I mean, I didn’t work directly under him. So I was at Headline News. But certainly I didn’t like it when I got his memo saying we needed to be more patriotic in our reporting. And that’s one of those things where we go, that’s not our job. Our job wasn’t to be patriotic, our job is to ask questions. And that’s a very famous memo that we all got from top to bottom. And that’s the sort of thing that breaks trust, right? I understand why we see those polls now where people say that they don’t trust media, they don’t believe what media says, and why should they?
SHEFFIELD: Do you think that there has been any sort of inconsistency or hypocrisy in that obviously there are people who were harmed by the end of the US occupation of Afghanistan, but I don’t feel like in a lot of the coverage in recent weeks that we’ve seen the stories of the people who were harmed by it, and or the people who were not really helped. There was a lot of discussion about the women in Afghanistan are going to be harmed by this, that rights are going to be taken away. But the reality is that for most of the women in Afghanistan, the occupation didn’t really affect them at all, it didn’t really help them much.
MITCHELL: Yeah, that coverage is out there. But it’s not front and center. I think one of a great resources has been Guernica magazine, which now the new editor is Jina Moore, a journalist who I greatly admire. I’ve worked with her before I’ve had her on my show. And that magazine has been doing a terrific job in terms of who’s been covering different issues that are nuanced, and are not what we are seeing on the networks. But how many people even know, know about Guernica magazine, right?
I think we’re in an era now where it’s not fact versus fact. It’s source versus source. This is a topic that we talk a lot about, on on on The Cocktail Conversations. And that’s a very different way to start examining what truth is, because if you look at the world through source versus source that is on whose judgment do you rest? Whose information, on whose opinion are you resting your judgment? And that’s why you have arguments like ‘well I just heard on Fox News,’ ‘well, I read in the New York Times.’ That’s where we’ve got these institutions that have been built that are meant to deliver from on high, but not built to respond to people talking back and saying, Well, how do you know that’s true? And that’s the world that we’re in right now.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah, well, and I think kind of what happened with the Iraq War and the lead up to that where you had a lot of journalists who were–who got the story wrong, and they were misled by people who, who were lying to them, and were lying to the public, or they themselves had been misled. And so there was, as you said, a lot of pressure on journalists not to question that lead-up and not to question things like the Patriot Act. And subsequently, years after the fact people, a lot of people started saying, wow, so this was in the Patriot Act. How come we didn’t know this at the time? Okay, well, we need to get rid of it. You were you were there for that too, right?
MITCHELL: I covered the Patriot Act because part of my job on Capitol Hill at the time, all staffers were sent to sort of a civics boot camp that was run by the Library of Congress and you learn how to read and write legislation as part of that. So when the Patriot Act was passed, I read it. Unlike a lot of members of Congress, I read that document. And I was like, ‘Wait, what? We’ve suspended habeas corpus, really?’
So I was doing story after story after story about the Patriot Act. And I got–that’s why I was handed that memo, you’re not being patriotic in your reporting. I think it was really patriotic of me to read that and to see what this see what was going on. So you know, that information was out there, there’s just a lot of pressure not to talk about it openly.
But I mean, I would also say, part and parcel of that–my first documentary, ‘Haiti: Where Did the Money Go?” that was an investigation into what happened to the money that Americans donated to major American charities. And I ended up busting the American Red Cross for fiscal malfeasance, the pressure, Matthew, to not do that story was intense. And if it had been anything other than an independent production, and broadcast on public television, it wouldn’t have happened. Because nobody wanted to touch that story. And in fact, the American Red Cross contacted every public television station and urged them not to run it, which of course, made public television just want to run it more. And they did 1,100 times. So it was seen by a lot of people. Thank you American Red Cross. But those are the types of stories that were routinely killed because it made certain folks up and down the corridors of power uncomfortable. And that’s, of course, been the church-state struggle for journalism, as we know it between advertisers and and the newsroom.
SHEFFIELD: Well, I think there’s also the incentive to do more opinion and debate shows because they’re cheaper.
MITCHELL: They are cheaper.
SHEFFIELD: It’s a lot cheaper to get two people to be in a studio and talk about Afghanistan than to fly somebody, or a whole crew ,of people out to Afghanistan, and actually find out what’s happening.
MITCHELL: Yeah, and investigation, investigative journalism is expensive, right? And it doesn’t always go somewhere. That’s one of the most frustrating parts about being an investigative journalist is that you can spend months and months and months, even years, on something that then doesn’t pan out. And it’s really hard to justify that to the proverbial bean counters.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah, exactly. Well, so let’s talk a little bit more about The Cocktail Conversations and what you’re doing with that, tell us about the format and who you’ve had on, and what you’ve got, and how you guys are doing it.
MITCHELL: So it’s a chat genre show. And basically, we we do edit the show, and the reason why we edit it is because people do get drunk (laughs). And drunk conversations all the way are never that interesting. So we tape for about an hour. And then it’s edited to about 15-20 minutes, about as long as you would spend talking to somebody at a cocktail party and usually have a topic. So for example, the last one was “The Authority Crisis.” And for that, I have Martin Gurri, formerly of the CIA whose big topic is the fact that 21st century institutions are not built for the information tsunami that is now upon us, and also for people to question those institutions. And that this has led to a whole a whole host of other breakdowns and challenges.
And so in addition to him, I had on Lauren Anderson, who’s a former FBI executive I had on Jina Moore. And I had on Robert George, who is a pun-master on Twitter, longtime friend of mine, and he’s also on the editorial side at Bloomberg News these days.
And what usually happens is I take a giant step back during most of that, (because I mean, I’ll facilitate the conversation) but when I have people on, they’re not only on there, because they’ve walked the walk and they have something interesting to impart, but I know that putting those particular people together, it’s going to be an interesting discussion. And that’s really kind of the art of it. It’s like–I don’t just have just anybody on there. Sometimes we’ll do a one-on-one. And that can be really fun. And we did done a couple of those.
And I’ll break in every once in a while to say, ‘Okay, now here’s what’s really interesting,’ because the idea was like, imagine me standing next to you going ‘okay, Matthew, get ready for this, I know exactly what he’s about to say, and you’re going to really want to pay attention to this one.’ And that seems to be kind of helpful to guide people. So yeah, so we take on some stuff that basically trying to explain to you about how there are reasons for you not talking to your dad right now. Or reasons why you guys are so mad at each other. And some of this is manufactured and some of this is the trends that are happening as a result of some things that are not under your control. And so hopefully, by explaining this and pulling the threads out, we can start to diffuse some of the results.
SHEFFIELD: One of the things that you’ve talked about on your show are the two types of polarization.
MITCHELL: Yeah, this is this is fascinating. There are two types of polarization according to academics. And those are effective polarization and ideological polarization. So effective polarization is how much you hate somebody or dislike somebody of the opposite viewpoint and ideological polarization is how much you actually disagree with the ideas behind those opinions.
And so these these have been studied for the last 60 years, and probably not surprisingly to you, effective polarization has gotten progressively bigger or increased. But interestingly, ideological polarization hasn’t, it’s remained the same. So basically, we hate each other more, but disagree with each other at the same amount.
So of course, the question is, why and how did this happen? And part of it is the rise of the cable news networks, the 24 Hour news source, and the game that has to get played in order to keep an audience for that. And I would say also, part of it is we’ve been rewarding bad behavior.
If you look at reality television, which has been it’s like 21, and 22 years old at this point. The entire structure of reality TV is to reward bad behavior, whether it’s through giving them more attention, or more fame, disliking each other hating each other is it’s an easy thing to reach for, and it does make good TV. Look, I’ll be honest with you, it’s a lot more interesting to watch people disagreeing with each other than it is to watch them going ‘hey, yeah, this was really, I really think what you have to say is interesting.’
SHEFFIELD: Well, and then of course, we had a former reality television star become the president.
MITCHELL: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, that’s, I think something that people are discussing, and will continue to discuss is would he have become president without reality TV? The answer is probably no.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah, well, he certainly wouldn’t have had very much money if it hadn’t been for “The Apprentice,” because he was basically bankrupt at that point. And that show saved his his fortune and started making money again.
MITCHELL: Yeah, and built a new product, right, which was–
SHEFFIELD: Yeah, exactly. So I think in this context of polarization, I think some people might be thinking, well, Michele, it sounds like you’re trying to do a ‘both-sides’ argument here, that you’re trying to say that each side is is just as polarized or messed up as the other one. And that’s not what you’re saying though, is it?
MITCHELL: No, I mean, first of all, I think we got a whole scale here in terms of how messed up everything is, right? But I also would say, if we take it from the both-sides argument, then both sides are equally profiting from it. There are reasons to keep this machine going.
But in terms of the danger posed, and that’s always what I’m most interested in like where is this going? And as a student now of mass violence, over the last decade, there’s a whole body of work out there, by academics about where these things can go. And we know how they start, and we know where they can end up. And the starting-point is always with language and the language of othering. And from that moment, to the actual incidence of mass violence is approximately six years. So we are in a world where got some folks who actively other the opposite side. And that’s very, very, very dangerous to me. And I don’t think that we can say that there’s an equal effort going on.
So that’s why I think that this both-sides thing, it’s it, that’s not the prism that we should be looking at this through, we should look at this in a holistic way of ‘Oh, my God, this is really, really bad.’ Where this can go before we begin the blame game, where this can go is enormously alarming. And you don’t want to go there. And then I would direct you to examples of the Balkans, Rwanda, places where people, all of a sudden, were ripping apart economically, physically, in every possible way, their friends and neighbors, and it can get extremely bad and we don’t want that to happen here.
SHEFFIELD: Hmm. Well, and then I guess, also, that you note that a lot of this did begin with with Newt Gingrich and his style of politics and how it was different. Do you want to talk about him as a figure? Because I think to some degree, it was such a long time ago in our in our 20-minute news cycle, that people, a lot of people forgot about or how he was and what he did, or in many cases are too young to have even been there to pay attention to that. Tell us about that.
MITCHELL: He marketed divisiveness and it worked. I mean, and that was his whole thing. And Frank Luntz to help to create the language around that. It’s something that Frank Luntz has repeatedly, and over the years, talked about and has regretted Newt Gingrich became Newt Gingrich because he brought down the Speaker of the House. I mean, that’s first and foremost,
SHEFFIELD: Well tell that story.
MITCHELL: So the Speaker of the House was was Bob Wright, and he got in trouble because he didn’t report book royalties. That’s what brought him down. And they’re–in fact, when he was a congressman from Fort Worth, and when he was brought down, the man who became my boss, Pete Geren, won a special election.
So this is what brought Newt Gingrich to prominence, shall we say. And that effort to, to bring down Speaker Wright, it worked. He ended up resigning the minority leader was Bob Michael, a congressman from Illinois, I believe. And he was a, I don’t want to say a gentle soul. But you know, here’s a guy who worked with with Tom Foley and other, you know, his other counterparts on the Democratic side.
And Gingrich was like, ‘No, that’s actually not going to get us the speakership, that’s not going to get us the majority. And here’s how we’re going to do it, the Contract for America. And he came up with this really great product. It was a great product, right. And this is what was tested by Frank Luntz.
And there was a whole machine that kind of got behind pushing this Contract for America, and how–the Republicans in 1994 ran on that as a group, and it worked. And gamers became the first Republican speaker, and many, many, many decades. And at that point, you were actually given a loyalty test, like you had to fill out the questionnaire just to make sure that your views lined up with the Republican Party’s views.
And then the Democrats started doing these things. There were plenty of times when–in fact, we talked about this on the very first episode of The Cocktail Conversations where if you worked for a conservative member of the Democratic side, you were yelled at at parties. You know, Lynn Marquis who is on the episode talked about that happening to her.
I can tell you right now that Barney Frank walked up to me in the hallway and was like, “You need to tell Pete to start voting with his party.’ And I’m like ‘Whoa, why is Congressman Frank talking to me, a lowly staffer? What, am I going to tell my boss how to vote now?’ This strange tribalism, if you will, started to percolate on Capitol Hill at the time.
And in fact, this comes up in an episode that we did called “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” where I interviewed a professor from Northwestern who specializes in polarization. And she likens what’s happening now a lot more to traditional religious divides, than to tribalism, or both sides or teams or anything like that. And so I was like: ‘So what do you mean, like Sunni versus Shia, Protestant versus Catholic?’ She’s like, ‘Yeah, I think a hundred year war.’ But I don’t want to think about 100 year war. That’s a terrible thing to direct us to!
So but if we do look at it through that prism, it starts to make a little bit more sense in terms of some of the tactics that are being deployed right now.
MITCHELL: I’m not making you feel any better am I? (laughs)
SHEFFIELD: No, but it’s important to understand a lot of the dynamics here because to some degree, I think it’s tempting in our consumerist, if I want to, if I have a problem, I can go out and buy something to fix type culture to understand that this is these are things that took a while to put in place. And so you can’t get rid of them overnight. And you have to understand the totality of how it happened.
MITCHELL: And also look, they make money, right? I mean, Fox makes a lot of money. MSNBC makes a lot of money. So at the end of the day, they want to report to their shareholders. So the the workaround for this is okay, so how does that become unprofitable? And how do we make it more profitable to dismantle this thing? And what what do we want to get it back to? There was the Fairness Doctrine that existed for modern journalism. So what we grew up with, right? And it’s interesting, because it’s always blamed on Reagan for dismantling it, but the dismantling of the Fairness Doctrine really began under Jimmy Carter. And as far as–
SHEFFIELD: Actually a lot of the policies that people associate with Reagan actually began under Carter. Yeah, I mean, it’s not known.
MITCHELL: No, no, exactly. And the idea of the Fairness Doctrine, of course, is that in exchange for the government developing the airwaves, and ABC, NBC and CBS being able to use them for free, they had to do a public service and the public service was news. There was actually a position where you had to, if you have a license for the station, that you had to have community liaison, and all of that evaporated in the early 80s and became different. And of course, I can wax nostalgic about the Fairness Doctrine, but the fact is, we’re not going to have it. And I hear this cited a lot. ‘Okay, well, the workaround then is we have a new Fairness Doctrine and we have that for the internet.’ Every expert will tell you that that is just going to be really impossible to pull off.
SHEFFIELD: There definitely is room for some public policy solutions here and one of them has kind of really emerged on its own and it’s been something that I was saying for months beforehand to do it. And that is lawsuits against people who were who were lying and spreading falsehoods. So like Mike Mike Lindell, the My Pillow guy in his his election conspiracy stuff about the voting machines. Dominion voting systems and–they’ve launched these lawsuits against him and the outlets that have enabled him. And as a result, he’s not getting as much coverage for his conspiracy.
And unfortunately, that may be the only real way that some of these lies can really be effectively countered, I think,
MITCHELL: Yeah, I think I think you are completely right. I agree.
SHEFFIELD: And he’s, he’s upset about this. I mean–
MITCHELL: Yeah, it’s all plain.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah, he did, he had to sell one of his private jets. And so he just recently had his cyber symposium, as he called it. And almost every time it was his turn to talk from the stage, he was ranting about how nobody was covering him, and how even Fox News was not covering his event. And they didn’t, they didn’t broadcast it.
SHEFFIELD: And so that sort of financial, profit-driven mentality can actually be turned in a good way, is what, seemingly, we’re seeing here.
MITCHELL: Yeah, and I also want to point out something, what we’re losing when we silo ourselves in terms of information when we buy the industrial complex, what we are losing is the ability to learn from each other. And the fact is, when I when I keep talking about the really big challenges ahead of us, no one group no one side, no one ideology, has all the answers. It’s impossible. It’s absolutely, fundamentally impossible for that to be the case.
And we–the issue of of the climate crisis that is upon us, we’re going to have to have some pretty interesting solutions happening. And it’s going to take all of us working together. I mean, South Tahoe is basically on fire. New York City is flooding right now, you’ve got, you had terrible floods throughout Tennessee and you’ve got flooding in Louisiana, and a drought that is basically drying up the Colorado River. So no one root has the answers for these things. And all of us are going to have to sit down and try to figure out ways forward. And part of the concern, of course, is that if we’re not listening to each other, how are we going to come up with those solutions?
SHEFFIELD: And one serious obstacle to that certainly is the the anger industrial complex or market profit incentive in media. But it’s also true that you’ve got this entire ecosystem that exists in right wing media that they basically have surrounded their audience. They’ve got everything from church televangelism, to radio stuff to listen to you while you’re out doing yard work, or things like that. And then you can come home and sit there and watch TV for 10 hours, if you want to, what are the solutions to kind of break through to some of that, would you say?
MITCHELL: Well, I mean, that’s where, in my own little way I’m trying to reintroduce the idea of how to talk to one another. And some of the things that–we also have some generations now we’re like a couple generations into the advent of social media, where kids don’t necessarily know how to talk to each other in person, right?
And one of the first things I always have to do with my interns, and I have had to do over the last few years is teach them how to pick up the phone and call somebody. Which is something that is Journalism 101. If you want to get a hold of somebody, you call people. But this idea of knowing how to talk to somebody is sort of a lost art.
And so the main plank of how to talk to somebody is to actively listen, and this comes up over and over and over again on our show: active listening and what is that? And when I dig in with some folks like ‘okay, well, if we’re going to teach people how to actively listen, what is that?’ the first thing that comes up is something called intellectual humility, which means you’re not there to prove you’re right. If you’re going to talk to somebody and actively listen, you want to hear what they have to say.
And, just like anything, like if you want to go run a marathon, you have to train for it, apparently, we have to train to have conversation. And if that’s what we have to do in order to break through then that’s, that’s what we have to do. Now, whether people want to do that is another question. And what I am positing is, it doesn’t matter if you want to or not, you’re going to have to if you want to survive.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah, that’s right. And I think people who do have community platforms or or online platforms, to have some responsibility to try to encourage people to talk out things more and understand perspectives, because going back to what you were saying earlier about, these are kind of religious differences. In some cases, they literally are that.
And that’s why I feel like some of the most important voices right now at this time are people who are religious and are not super far right wing, they need to be highlighted more in the mainstream press and they need to be consulted more and to show people that there are alternate perspectives to these things and that you don’t have to say that, you know, if someone comes along and says this is the Christian perspective, or this is the Jewish perspective, you don’t have to believe that. Right? And so I hope that we can see more of that. But it’s it’s difficult, though.
So let’s maybe, to that point, though, go back to so you had mentioned earlier, your first book, I did want to talk about that a little bit. So it was called A New Kind of Party Animal and you came out with that in 1998. So tell us, how old were you at the time when you did that? And how do you feel about the book now, long after it was published? Were you right, Michele? (laughs)
MITCHELL: (laughs) I was so right!
I mean, everything I wrote about that book happened. When I get asked about this book, I actually get called about it now from kids who are reading it. I was actually a little surprised when people are like ‘I’m reading your book,’ I’m like, ‘really?’ You can go you can find it on Amazon. And in fact, I think what I’m actually going to do is release it now as as an e-book, because why not?
But I got lacerated for that book. If you look back on the reviews, they were mean, it was absolutely panned. People were saying, no, this she’s wrong. This isn’t correct. I mean, one of the meanest reviews was that in Salon actually. And Salon magazine was obviously like more of a left wing thing. And they call it they even like parodied it saying it was like a Monty Python skit: ‘This is an unparrot, this is an unbook.’ And I thought, Oh, my God, I remember just crying in my apartment going, and why did I write this?
But part of what–one of the main points of this was Gen X, because I was talking about Generation X was not Republican or Democrat, but they were mostly independent. And that actually every study of our generation shows that that is exactly where we are politically, but people hated that idea.
I remember being told by John Fund and I have no problem naming names here. I was in the green room like we’re going on a show. I think it was “Hardball with Chris Matthews” that I was going on and I was in the green room. And John Fund was there, he was on the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal at the time. And he said, ‘You know Michelle, if you want to make it in TV, you’re going to have to develop a persona.’ And I was like: ‘Develop a persona?’
But that is what worked. He was not wrong. I mean, that was the beginning of people developing these personas, right? The Ann Coulters, the Laura Ingrahams, the Tucker Carlsons, Kellyanne Conway, although she was Kelly Fitzpatrick, then. So yeah, so the book got –and I was booked a lot to do these shows, because I was the only one who was positioning herself in the center.
And I remember Jake Tapper saying to me on one show, ‘You know, what bothers me about you Michelle? It’s that you’re not left or right.’ And I’m like ‘bothers you?’ And I was a little crushed at that. So I took the criticism of it pretty seriously and personally, obviously, I didn’t write another political book again. But it did give me my career. And also one of the things I talked about was how important it was to go block by block. That community was really where politics began, and policy that worked began. And that we would change things block by block. And I think that that also is something that’s been proven true as well.
SHEFFIELD: Hmm. Then you also talked about the importance of authenticity.
MITCHELL: I did (laughs). I did, didn’t I?
SHEFFIELD: Well, and it’s an interesting thing to think about, because that is when–if you ask, if you talk to Trump supporters, or you read what they have to say to each other, and I think that’s actually the best way to understand people in political communities is to read what they say to each other. If you’re just some person, they don’t know shoving a microphone in their face, they’re not going to tell you what they really think.
SHEFFIELD: And even if they’re, even if they want to, just the fact that you’re there means that you’re not that it’s not their community, it’s not their friends. So but if you go and look at what they have to say, they are constantly telling each other that Donald Trump is authentic, he’s real. He says what he thinks, he means when he says, and that’s really in a lot of ways underscores what you were saying. Now whether that’s true about him or not, that’s another matter.
MITCHELL: Yeah, but I understand why people think that, because we’re so used to doublespeak and trying to see what’s real. And what feels–I mean, there are reasons why Trump got that nomination, and I totally understand. I remember the moment where I thought he was going to get it. He was at a debate, I think, right before the Iowa caucus and he stood on the stage and was like, ‘I donated money to you and you and you and I was at your wedding’ and he just really, it was like he pulled the curtain back. It was like the scene from The Wizard of Oz, where they’re like, ‘Oh, don’t pay attention that man behind the curtain.’
And I think that it was that moment where people were felt like, ‘Oh my god, I’m not crazy, they are all in bed together. They all, they may fight on TV, but then they go play golf and they enrich each other and and why am I getting left behind? And this guy understands me.’ I mean, I felt in that moment that that was very authentic. So I can see why he ended up getting that nomination. And it makes sense why people view him to this day as authentic, even though he is by and large a creation of reality TV, which we know is not real.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And at the same time, one of the other things about Trump is that a lot of people have this idea that he sort of commands and controls his supporters, but that’s really not true. And we can see that with his recent–so he had a rally in Alabama recently. And he urged the audience to get vaccinated. And they booed him.
MITCHELL: Yeah, yeah.
SHEFFIELD: What’s your thought on that?
MITCHELL: I think everyone should start refreshing themselves with how the French Revolution went, and where it went, and the fact that it led to a Reign of Terror. You know, I’m not saying we’re gonna have a Reign of Terror here. But like, Martin Gurri actually talked about this in our–in “The Authority Crisis,” where he said, ‘Look, as long as the person, the figure is saying that things that people want to hear, they’ll support him. But the minute that, that he or she stops, they’re going to turn on him. And I’d say is that Exhibit A is that rally in Alabama. And I think that this idea of one person being able to control, that’s just not how these types of movements work, ultimately.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah, well, and it’s really more of an expression of their discontent and anger at at society at large. And that sentiment is also very widespread among people who were not conservative or not–
SHEFFIELD: –or who are people who were on the, on the Democratic side of the aisle, I mean, now we’ve got this whole rise of nihilistic leftism, this idea that you shouldn’t work for change within the system, because unless you get it instantaneously, then it was a waste of your time.
MITCHELL: And nihilism is the one thing that wiser heads than me keep are concerned about. That’s way more dangerous than anything you and I are even talking about, is if we devolve into nihilism, that really does blow up democracy as we know it.
We’re in a world where there’s never been a greater gap economically than we have right now. And when people hear something like Jeff Bezos can fly himself to the moon, but he doesn’t pay any taxes and even took a child tax credit, that pisses people off.
And I get it, that’s something that’s broken, I can list up any other number broken things that anger people, and then this the anger that erupted because of the COVID shutdown and being told to stay at home, the closest approximation I could give you would be what I’ve seen in refugee camps.
You don’t want to be there. You know, no one in refugee camp wants to be in a refugee camp. And you have–your movement is limited. And you don’t you–you’re not in contact with people who have limited your movement, you don’t know when you’re going to get out. Your job as a you know it, doesn’t really exist anymore. Your kids are probably not in school, and you have nothing to do but sit and wait for something.
And it drives people bonkers. And so there’s also a lot of studies now about how do success stories emerge out of refugee camps, who gets out and is able to have a productive life afterwards. And that’s actually something I’m super interested in continuing to explore. But that would explain why we’re now seeing some eruptions of anger that don’t seem to make any sense. Like the increasing numbers of incidents on airplanes, for example, you probably saw the video that was making the rounds on Twitter two days ago, where this guy is going absolutely bananas at the Miami airport and getting them people’s faces and throwing things around. I mean, these are, this is behavior we would not normally display and it’s just been unleashed in every possible way. The frustration is real.
SHEFFIELD: It’s like there are two different messages that need to be taken, I think. The message for people who are, who have political power or policy power, media power is that they need to understand that people are dissatisfied with them, and that they have good reason for being that way. But then at the same time, the people who are dissatisfied need to understand that things are not magically going to fix themselves and no one’s going to save you. You have to save yourself there is no magical–I don’t know, to some degree, I feel like superhero movies have also been negative influence, the profusion of them on society because people have have been surrounded by the stories all the time or the dystopia, the teenager destroys the entire dystopia by themselves.
SHEFFIELD: That’s just not how things are. And so things take time to build and to and to fix things. And so you need both. Some, some of us need patience, and some of us need compassion. That’s what I would say.
MITCHELL: Yeah, I would completely agree with that. And I also think that the thing about–and I’m going to make you feel better now–the thing about the anger industrial complex, and the reason why it’s actually unsustainable is that you cannot keep the body in its permanent state of fight or flight, it’s just impossible, you will become exhausted. And I think a lot of people are exhausted, they don’t–it’s not fun to feel this way.
And at some point, what you do is you walk away. So the the reason why it’s unsustainable for any of these networks to keep the outrage machine going, ultimately, is that people can’t, cannot, cannot physically continue to watch and function. I mean, your body does shut down. If anybody listening to us today has had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, then they know that this is the case, I know that when I had it, the big signal that I needed to seek help for it was when I I opened my mouth to say one thing, but what came out was completely different. I mean, the wiring just wasn’t functioning. And I thought, ‘Wait, what is this, my brain is broken.’ But meanwhile, my body had been telling me in every possible way that I couldn’t continue this way. I couldn’t breathe, right? I couldn’t sleep, right, I was having panic attacks, I mean, any, any number of things, but it is it is physically and emotionally and mentally exhausting to stay angry all the time. So at some point, it will become fiscally unsustainable for the product to be made.
SHEFFIELD: Well, and there are some policy things that can be done, that people can can push for, I think that can also help hasten the end or hasten the decline of the anger industrial complex. And one of those would be to have federal law be such that you don’t have cable bundles anymore.
SHEFFIELD: That you don’t have to subsidize these networks with your cable money. Because anybody who’s right now, anybody who subscribes to cable television, you’re paying for whatever channel that you don’t want. You’re paying for, you know, Fox News, you’re paying for MSNBC or CNN, even if you never watch it, because they’re in the basic cable, and you have no choice. But the way things work in some other countries is you pay for what you want to watch. And that’s a huge, huge subsidy for especially for Fox News, Fox News makes most of their money off of subscriber fees. And in many cases, probably the majority of the people don’t actually watch it. But they pay for it.
MITCHELL: And cable is expensive. So what you’re seeing people do is switch to streaming anyway, right? And then you don’t have to worry about it. We also by the way, for the first time you look at millennials and Zoomers, they are getting more of their information from independent sources than any other generation. So the model as it exists that you and I grew up with, isn’t going to work anyway in the future. In order to survive, they have to change as well.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. The nationalization of media has kind of led to the destruction of local news.
SHEFFIELD: And that’s an area where I–people actually can have some ability to come together because number one, a lot of things that are problems in our communities are not particularly the ideological divisions. You know, like everybody agrees, well, we have to have better roads, or everybody agrees that parks are nice. But when we don’t have local media, it’s harder to come together in that regard. And so it would be it would be great. It would help a lot of things. If we had more public spending for local media.
MITCHELL: I think that that’s the direction that things are going anyway. I mean, if there’s one thing that we did learn from the last two election cycles, just how valuable local media is, and you’re right, you’ve got these conglomerates buying up local media and then breaking them apart. And that may be great for an immediate return, but at what loss overall. And also, we’ve now learned a really big lesson that a community works better if there is a local news element.
MITCHELL: And so the inherent value in that, there are there are some very, very exciting things that are happening that are happening right now as a result of people becoming more and more aware. I would point you towards Local Plus, which is a startup out of Atlanta, that is all about getting local content and curating it, which I think is a fantastic model. And I think that there are going to be some more exciting things emerging out there. And I would concur with you saying that would be great if there was a public policy initiative that emphasizes the value of local news and possibly also helps generate it.
SHEFFIELD: And then also I have been encouraged to see the the Biden administration began trying to revive the original interpretation of antitrust law against companies like Facebook that are just consolidating and destroying all of the competition and in the process they’re, they are destroying local media. And they’re spreading disinformation, and it used to be in the technology world and the early days of the internet, that you had all this competition, but now Facebook is bought up almost all their competitors. It’s not good. That’s not good. There’s a lot that we need to see more in that–it’s something you know, I just wanted to talk about some of these things so the audience can think about them, and be sure to tell us that any ideas you may have, feel free to drop either of us in line?
MITCHELL: Yes, yes, yes. This is it. I fully buy into this idea of we’re not just supposed to be talking at an audience that we want to hear back and say, ‘Okay, well, what are the questions we should be asking? And who should we be driving into this?’ I think it’s much more interesting that way.
SHEFFIELD: All right. Well, this has been a great chat, Michele, and I’m just going to put up on the screen your website, it’s TheCocktailConversations.com is your website. And then you also are on various social media websites. So on Instagram, you are mlmitchell70 on Instagram. And then you are also on Twitter, and I’ll give you your show name first. So it’s cocktail_convos. And then you are on Twitter. And I’ll put that one up on the screen so people can see that and then I’ll read it off for our audio listeners. So on Twitter, you are Michelle, that’s with one L, michelefilmat11.
MITCHELL: And that’s how we met was on Twitter.
SHEFFIELD: It was indeed, yes. So yeah, this has been great. And I hope if our audience has any other ideas about guests for either one of our shows, or anything like that, feel free to reach out to both of us. So thanks for being here, Michele.
MITCHELL: Thank you so much for having me on Matthew, and I look forward to sending you a bottle of wine and having you on my show.
SHEFFIELD: All right. Sounds good to me.
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I’m Matthew Sheffield. Let’s do this again.