Echo Chamber

Echo Chamber: Rush Limbaugh and the Conservative Media Establishment
by Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Joseph N. Cappella [Oxford]

In this valuable study, public policy and communications experts Jamieson and Cappella look at how right-wing media have produced an ideologically-focused media establishment, with mutually reinforcing outlets in print (The Wall Street Journal, for example), television (Fox News) and radio (Limbaugh). Moving slowly through case studies and analysis, they seek to understand how this "echo chamber" functions, and how it has come to wield such power in American politics--arguably taking over some Republican party political functions, such as vetting candidates for office.

The book offers much in the way of helpful analysis, but falters in its brief conclusion, where the authors refuse to say much about whether they think the conservative echo chamber is good or bad for America. Pointing out that partisan media has enjoyed a long history as part of the American media landscape, they reasonably note that ideological media consumers are in some ways more likely to become civically engaged. More puzzlingly, they count as a positive the fact that conservative media "help their audiences make sense of complex social issues" (surely this is not always a net positive). On the negative side, of course, are the echo chamber's ideological selection of facts, its appeal to emotional outrage rather than argument, and its encouragement of audience balkanization and antagonism towards nonideological media.

After spending so many pages detailing how right wing media produce these effects, it is troubling, then, that the authors find it necessary to insert, in passing, a facile equivalency between Fox and Limbaugh and what they call, without evidence, "the pro-Democratic distortion" on NPR and CNN. (More fairly, though also without detail, they also note Air America and MSNBC's Keith Olbermann as liberal counterparts to the right wing media). Apart from these arguably unfair parallelisms, what's also largely missing is an account for the relative market power and ubiquity of the right wing media establishment, which cannot be explained simply in terms of audience demand. -jl

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey