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Echo chamber

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This article is part of the Tobacco portal on Sourcewatch funded from 2006 - 2009 by the American Legacy Foundation.

Echo chamber is a colloquial term used to describe a group of media outlets that tend to parrot each other's uncritical reports on the views of a single source, or that otherwise relies on unquestioning repetition of official sources.

In the United States, the Republican Party uses a network of conservative foundations, coordinated by the Philanthropy Roundtable, and described in an extensive report (March 2004) by Jerry M. Landay for Mediatransparency.org, supporting conservative think tanks, industry-friendly experts and subsidized conservative media that systematically spread their messages throughout the political and media establishment. Typically, the message starts when conservative voices begin making an allegation (e.g., Democratic candidates are engaged in "hate-mongering" with regard to Bush). Columns are written on this theme, first in conservative media (including blogs), but eventually appearing in mainstream media like the New York Times. This process can be used to turn an unsupported allegation or a partisan talking point into an "accepted fact."

Maureen Dowd, in a New York Times column run on 15 February 2004, described the deceptive condition as one where "the bogus stories ... ricocheted through an echo chamber of government and media, making it sound as if multiple, reliable sources were corroborating the same story."

To influence the media, conservatives have also set up several organizations that serve as recruiting, training and career advancement programs for budding journalists. On university campuses, conservative foundations support several networks of conservative professors, including the National Association of Scholars and the Collegiate Network of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which links and provides funds to more than 70 conservative student papers. The student papers in turn serve as conduits to the mainstream media, through organizations such as the National Journalism Center that provides training, ideological indoctrination and a job bank that helps conservative student journalists begin their careers with internships and permanent job placements at publications including the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, ABC, CBS, Fox News, Time, Newsweek, and the Associated Press.

Opinion pollsters and image makers such as Frank Luntz, Michael Deaver, Ed Rollins, Wirthlin Worldwide and Zogby International help develop the messages that echo in the echo chamber, by identifying hot-button "cultural" issues such as guns, abortion, family values and the flag that have enabled the party of privilege to position itself as the party with which lower-middle and middle-class voters identify.

Part of the "echo chamber" effect relies not only on repeating a given stance through as many separate channels as possible, but on casting alternative sources of information and opinion as doing the same thing in the opposite direction. Long-standing accusations of the "liberal-dominated media", suggesting that the bulk of mass media today forms some sort of liberal echo chamber, denies the idea that the reverse may in fact be the case.

Although conservatives pioneered the "echo chamber" technique, they are not the only people to use it. The Hill newspaper reported that Kerry campaign officials Joe Lockhart and Laura Nichols asked House and Senate press secretaries "to schedule their bosses on television and radio so that Democrats could create an 'echo chamber' where the sounding of pro-Kerry spin would create its own reality," following the first 2004 presidential debate on September 30.[1]

Examples

  • In September 2004, The Hill reported that the Kerry campaign and other Democratic Party leaders viewed members of Congress as part of their "echo chamber": "[Last week's] meeting between Kerry officials and congressional press secretaries is the sixth of the year, and it tracks with a larger effort by the House Democratic leadership to look at each individual lawmaker as a potential megaphone for the national message." David Castagnetti, the House liaison for the Kerry campaign, remarked, "We want them [members of Congress] to amplify our message. We're encouraging members to host debate parties in their districts."[2]
  • David Brock, a conservative journalist for the American Spectator, received $11,000 in funding from the John M. Olin Foundation and the Bradley Foundation to support attacks on University of Oregon law professor Anita Hill, after Hill testified before Congress that she had been sexually harassed by Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Brock wrote an article attacking Hill and later a book, titled The Real Anita Hill. He later regretted writing the book and wrote a mea culpa titled Blinded by the Right, in which he admitted that his writers were "a witches' brew of fact, allegation, hearsay, speculation, opinion, and invective. ... I didn't know what good reporting is. Like a kid playing with a loaded gun, I didn't appreciate the difference between a substantiated charge and an unsubstantiated one. In fact, Brock stated, "Every source I relied on either thought Thomas walked on water or had a virulent animus toward Hill. I had no access to Hill's supporters, and therefore no understanding of their motivations, no responses to any of their charges, and no knowledge of whatever incriminating evidence they might have gathered against Thomas that was not introduced in the hearing. ... The conspiracy theory I invented about the Thomas-Hill case could not possibly have been true, because I had absolutely no access to any of the supposed liberal conspirators. ... All of my impressions of the characters I was writing about were filtered through their conservative antagonists, all of whom I believed without question."
  • Brock also says that the "Troopergate" allegations against Bill Clinton were instigated by Peter Smith, a conservative financier and top contributor to Newt Gingrich's political action committee, GOPAC. Brock says he received $5,000 initially from Smith to investigate allegations (later proven baseless) that Clinton had fathered a child with an African-American prostitute in Arkansas. "I was programmed to spring to action like a trained seal," Brock recalls in his book. "Peter offered me $5,000 for my trouble, not through the Spectator but paid directly to me by check; getting by on my Anita Hill book advance, I was a whore for the cash. Although accepting a payment like this was most unusual and unethical for a journalist, in my mind it was no different from taking money from politically interested parties like the Olin and Bradley foundations."
  • During the 2000 elections, the media echo chamber claimed falsely that Democratic Party presidential candidate Al Gore had pretended he invented the Internet, claimed he and his wife were the role model for characters in Love Story, and repeated a number of other false stories about Gore that painted him as someone with a bad habit of telling lies.
  • In the buildup to war in Iraq, the echo chamber repeated and the Bush administration's claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, was tied to Al Qaeda, and that the people of Iraq would welcome a U.S. invasion as "liberation."
  • "News outlets ideologically allied with Bush have been happy to assist in confusing the public" "That half or more Americans think Iraq was involved in the 9/11 attack -- perhaps the most media-covered event in our history -- stands as a horrific indictment of U.S. media today. Such levels of ignorance can't be found in other countries." [3]
  • Newsweek Magazine and NBC television partnered for a week of unbalanced promotion of corporate interests. [4]
  • Major New Study on Media Coverage of Weapons of Mass Destruction concludes[5], [6]:
    • Many stories stenographically reported the incumbent administration's perspectives on WMD, giving too little critical examination of the way officials framed the events, issues, threats and policy options.
    • Too few stories offered alternative perspectives to the "official line" on WMD surrounding the Iraq conflict
    • most journalists accepted the Bush administration linking the "war on terror" inextricably to the issue of WMD
    • most media outlets represented WMD as a "monolithic menace" without distinguishing between types of weapons and between possible weapons programs and the existence of actual weapons
  • Knight Ridder (March 15, 2004) reported that "A June 26, 2002, letter from the Iraqi National Congress to the Senate Appropriations Committee listed 108 articles [in major English-language news outlets worldwide] based on information provided by the INC's Information Collection Program, a U.S.-funded effort to collect intelligence in Iraq. The assertions in the articles reinforced President Bush's claims that Saddam Hussein should be ousted because he was in league with Osama bin Laden, was developing nuclear weapons and was hiding biological and chemical weapons. Feeding the information to the news media, as well as to selected administration officials and members of Congress, helped foster an impression that there were multiple sources of intelligence on Iraq's illicit weapons programs and links to bin Laden." [Italics added.]

Philip Morris & the Echo Chamber Technique

In 1998 John Scruggs, a Washington D.C. lobbyist for Philip Morris described the "echo chamber" approach to advocacy as constituting the repetition of a selected message by the most credible sources that surround a decision maker. "The more a particular view or piece of information 'echoes' or resonates through this group, the greater its impact. Grassroots efforts are so effective in modern day advocacy programs because they cause many constituents to repeat the same message to the target Member. Grasstops or "Influentials" campaigns work because those highest on the hierarchy scale, with the greatest degree of credibility, repeat the same or similar messages. You will note that the echo chamber effect can work in two different ways. First, the same message can reverberate among multiple sources toward the target Members. For example, the same information from polling data captured in a single poll can be repeated by the media, congressional colleagues, lobbyists and advertising. Second, similar but complementary messages can be repeated by a single source...Either the repetition or "piling on" approach provide the same result: enhanced credibility and influence of the essential message," he explained. [7]

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