“I feel like a Duck Dynasty guy living in a Miley Cyrus world,” he wrote in God Less America: Real Stories From the Front Lines of the Attack on Traditional Values. More than a few Southern evangelicals know the feeling.
But the real secret to Starnes’ success may be the way he combines his homespun conservative Christian-speak with a hefty dose of fear, outrage, and conspiracy. His commentary feeds the narrative that conservatives are under attack—from the “war on Christmas” to the “war on Christians”—and should be afraid and angry. And this is apparently an express-lane to influence.
Jeffrey M. Berry, a professor of political science at Tufts University and author of The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility, says that tapping into the emotional core of viewers, through exaggerations, mockery, mischaracterizations, and presenting only one point of view, has become a very good way to build an audience.
“When you get people’s blood boiling, they seem to come back the next night,” Berry says.
This certainly seems to be true for Starnes. He has more than 56,000 Twitter followers and nearly 200,000 Facebook fans—and people who follow Starnes online are very engaged. According to Klout, a tool that uses social media analytics to rank users according to online influence, Starnes is more influential than much of Fox’s top tier talent, including Charles Krauthammer, Gretchen Carlson, Shepard Smith, Kimberly Guilfoyle, Juan Williams, and Tucker Carlson. In addition, he has an untold number of paid subscribers to his Fox News podcast, and his short radio segment, “Fox News & Commentary,” can be heard on hundreds of radio stations nationwide.
Brian Stelter, the senior media correspondent for CNN and host of “Reliable Sources,” agrees that Starnes is someone who “feeds on outrage,” but he is quick to point out that Starnes is part of a broader trend in media. Stelter calls it “vulture culture,” which describes a moment in which “subjects in the news get picked apart by an opinionated press” like scavenging birds on a squirrel carcass.
“There are reasons right now in the media ecosystem where there are incentives toward outrage, even fake outrage,” Stelter says. “The incentives are for clickable headlines, sharable stories, dramatic quotes and headlines.”
So while Starnes is doing everything wrong, he’s also doing everything right. He’s ginning up controversy, often when it doesn’t exist, and in some cases perhaps deliberately misleading the public. But the result is a loyal base of fans and an expanding platform.
The question now is whether Fox News values Starnes’ audience above the network’s own wellbeing. There’s an old saying among journalists that a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to put its boots on. But the truth has a way of catching up. And when the lie is bad enough—say, misquoting a secretary of education on his schooling philosophy or questioning the sexual orientation of a U.S. president —it can repel viewers, scare away advertisers, and attract lawsuits.
Fox is a serious, though imperfect, news organization whose critics don’t need any more ammo. By letting an unusually mendacious figure like Starnes continue to exaggerate, distort, and mislead its audience, the network is handing its haters a box of bullets and begging them to let loose. In a moment when the network seems constantly under siege, Todd Starnes represents everything it can’t afford to be.