What political journalism failed to learn from the example of pornography is that it sells — to a limited but significant extent — a version of the same product: titillation. The titillation is not (usually) sexual in political journalism, but people get an emotional charge out of seeing the people they consider their enemies and rivals criticized or insulted — “owned!” or “destroyed!” in the Internet language of five minutes ago. And, as with pornography, a non-trivial share of journalism consumers will seek out more extreme, more outrageous, and more exotic material in pursuit of the thrill that comes from the same source as it does in pornography: transgression.
We have seen this play out on the right during the Trump years. Fox News cannot afford to be as outrageous or irresponsible as Newsmax or ONAN (I know, I know, but that’s how I’m going to write it), but Newsmax and ONAN cannot as a practical business matter (or, in some cases, as a legal matter) offer up the kind of content transgression-seeking partisans can get online from QAnon cultists, anonymous social-media accounts, message boards, and the like. A figure such as Sean Hannity can’t do a show like Firing Line, because he doesn’t have that kind of talent or wit, but he also can’t compete with whatever has replaced Alex Jones in his feverish media ecosystem.
And so the squeeze is on.