"Beyond the Echo Chamber"
Reshaping Politics Through Networked Progressive Media
Jessica Clark and Tracy Van Slyke
The New Press, New York, 2010
"It's not what you say, it's what people hear." We've seen it all play out ad and well past nauseam: Frank Lunzt ("the Nostradamus of pollsters") polls on the issues of the day and produces the talking points everyone from Fox "News" commentators to Rush Limbaugh to Astroturf groups to Republican members of Congress will use to frame those issues. Whether health care reform ("the Washington takeover" of your health care) or financial services regulatory reform ("bank bailout," "lobbyist loopholes"), the mainstream media (MSM) and the GOP seamlessly sensationalize, distort and spin "the news." They reecho one another, not only to frame the news to fit the dominant ideology, but also to define the boundaries of what constitutes "news," to establish what the issues of the day are.
Is the National Marine Fisheries Services promoting programs that privatize public fishery resources into tradable commodities in a way that may doom small family fisheries? You'd never know it from the scant and uniformly laudatory coverage of "catch shares" in the MSM. When the Bush administration was caught eavesdropping on the UN missions of Security Council members in March 2003 prior to what became the Iraq war, it was widely reported in Europe, but barely scratched the surface of US consciousness. Yet, "death panels" or the "Mirandization of terrorists," social security "reform," "Netbrutality" get enough traction to influence the policy of a Democratic administration and Congress.
Ernest Partridge's recent article detailing this huge imbalance in megaphone power struck a chord with readers, a majority of whom objected that what passes for "left" remains pretty tame and fails to address the fundamental structural and cultural issues that make our society dysfunctional.
As Ronald Dworkin's recent article on the disastrous Citizens United decision in the New York Review of Books observed:
Monopolies and near monopolies are just as destructive to the marketplace of ideas as they are to any other market. A public debate about climate change, for instance, would not do much to improve the understanding of its audience if speaking time were auctioned so that energy companies were able to buy vastly more time than academic scientists. The great mass of voters is already very much more aware of electoral advertising spots constantly repeated, like beer ads, in popular dramatic series or major sports telecasts than of opinions reported mainly on public broadcasting news programs. Unlimited corporate advertising will make that distortion much greater.
In "Beyond the Echo Chamber," Jessica Clark and Tracy Van Slyke offer an antidote, a "strategy guide for reshaping politics through networked progressive media," a how-to handbook, a tool box, call-to-arms and manifesto for multiplying the force and magnifying the impact of progressive media. If you are sympathetic to the goal, but uninterested in the technical details and the history, go no further than Walter Mosley's indispensable "Ten Things You Can Do to Help Progressive Journalism," however, should your interest extend to how progressive journalism - always out-funded and out-gunned as well as frequently out-maneuvered whatever P.M. Carpenter may say about equivalent paranoia - has succeeded in scoring victories, and what two decorated veterans of progressive media consider essential to building on those victories, then "Beyond the Echo Chamber" is required reading.
Clark and Van Slyke are not concerned with mere information, but with high "impact" journalism. They quote Matt Stoller, approvingly, on the heterodoxy of "netroots":
"We don't necessarily distinguish between politics and policy, or activism and journalism and we don't pretend there is an 'above the fray' and an 'in the muck,'" wrote Stoller. "Most of all, we respect ideas, because ideas, when implemented, have immense power. Ideas matter. Conservative ideas have affected us personally, whether it was growing up in a suburb or having no health care insurance. And to the extent that you create ideas ... and organize around them, you can build a new society."
After establishing this high ambition for progressive media and covering the recent history of impact amplification through networking - a selection of the "stories behind the stories" that managed to surprise and intrigue this seven-year-plus veteran of online media - the authors advocate "Six Strategies for High-Impact Progressive Media":
- Build Network-Powered Media
- Fight the Right
- Embrace 21st Century Muckraking
- Take It to the Hill
- Assemble the Progressive Choir
- Move Beyond Pale, Male and Stale"
They illustrate each of the above with vivid examples from the recent news.
They advocate "playful, creative approaches to political communication" that "often trump the stale critiques and lamentations that fill much of the legacy progressive media" and quote a passage from Stephen Duncombe's "Dream, Reimagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy" that could serve as the leitmotiv for their own book:
The truth does not reveal itself by virtue of being the truth: it must be told and we need to learn to tell the truth more effectively. It must have stories woven around it, works of art made about it; it must be communicated in new ways and marketed so that it sells. It must be embedded in an experience that connects people's dreams and desires, that resonates with the symbols and myths they find meaningful. We need a propaganda of the truth.
Progressives like to study and know. We like to be right (and then complain that others are not). But being right is not enough - we need to win.
As a person well into my sixth decade on the planet and a long-time consumer of the "legacy progressive media" the book sometimes dismisses, I have been disturbed by the idea of a "propaganda of the truth" and am concerned the manipulation of emotions implied thereby may constitute a tainted means that cannot but contaminate its however-noble end. Yet, I have never met a serious reporter who did not - sometimes secretly, but always profoundly - hope to change the world by reporting, to move society to right its wrongs, to change for the better. And my children's friends have suggested they find reading "serious news" "dispiriting" because it makes them feel helpless. Since the dominant pedagogy of our society has not educated them to the powers and responsibilities of citizens, has, in fact, taught helplessness over the matters that determine our collective destiny, I am forced to recognize that information that is not accompanied by empowerment is quite useless.
" Let us remember that Marx thought of thinking as a kind of practice. Thinking can take place in and as embodied action. It is not necessarily a quiet or passive activity. Civil disobedience can be an act of thinking, of mindfully opposing police force, for instance. I continue to believe in demonstrations, but I think they have to be sustained."
Judith Butler argued in a recent interview, however, in the Weimaresque arena of American politics in 2010, these tactics are unlikely to suffice in braking the headlong rush toward the precipice that threatens not only our polity, not only human civilization as we know it, but much of life on our beautiful and vulnerable planet.
Even those inclined to quibble over some of the strategies Clark and Van Slyke promote will, I believe, be wholesomely challenged by their advocacy for a true diversity of voices and effective democratization of news gathering and diffusion. What constitutes "news"? who decides? and how? are fundamental questions that concern us all and that they investigate with revolutionary energy.
"Beyond the Echo Chamber" consistently promotes cooperation among and between progressive media outlets. We all serve different audiences, have developed specific and particular strengths and weaknesses, organizational styles, personalities and missions, that are strengthened through cooperation. Cooperation can range in form from simple acknowledgment of sourcing to active coordination of story roll-out. Unlike the cooperation that takes place on the right, it does not involve dissemination of poll-tested talking points, lies and misstatements. Best of all, cooperation among progressive media outlets may beautifully model the kind of world we seek to promote.