Beyond the Echo Chamber: How a Networked Progressive Media Can Reshape American Politics

Beyond the Echo Chamber: How a Networked Progressive Media Can Reshape American Politics

by Jessica Clark, Tracy Van Slyke


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Strategies and success stories: “A must read for media practitioners, consumers, and progressives of all stripes.” —Chris Hayes
In the twenty-first century, a new breed of networked progressive media—from Brave New Films to Talking Points Memo to Feministing and beyond—have informed and engaged millions, influencing political campaigns, public debates, and policymaking at unprecedented levels.
In Beyond the Echo Chamber, media experts Jessica Clark and Tracy Van Slyke tell the story of the rise of progressive media and lay out a clear, hard-hitting theory of ongoing impact. A vital strategic guide based on years of research and extensive interviews with key media players and new media experts, Beyond the Echo Chamber will change the national conversation about progressive media and the future of journalism itself. For progressive journalists, bloggers, producers, activists, citizens, and policymakers committed to change, here is a roadmap to victory.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781595584717
Publisher: New Press, The
Publication date: 01/12/2010
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Jessica Clark is the research director at American University’s Center for Social Media and the former executive editor at In These Times. Her twitter is: @samizdata. Tracy Van Slyke is the director of The Media Consortium and is the former publisher of In These Times. Her twitter is @tracyvs. Follow them online at

Read an Excerpt



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The start of Bush's first term in 2000 marked significant shifts in the political and technological landscapes, laying the foundation for an explosion of progressive media outlets in the 2004–8 cycle. What made the first four years of the century so critical to the evolution of progressive media?

The 2000 election was a pivotal turning point for both the American left and the larger public, demonstrating how central journalism could be to democracy. Mainstream cable outlets played a major role in exacerbating the confusion around the election. Early estimates from the Voter News Service — an exit-polling consortium set up by the television networks and the Associated Press — called Florida for Democratic candidate Al Gore. But it was the Fox News desk, led by Bush's first cousin John Ellis, who called the state for the Republican candidate. As other networks followed suit, Gore conceded, making it difficult to rebound when serious questions about the tally surfaced. Progressive outlets such as Mother Jones, AlterNet, and leapt in to investigate, and an initial wave of political bloggers — capitalizing on newly forged online publishing tools — jumped into the critical fray. While they weren't able to avert Bush's eventual victory, these media makers focused attention and pressure on the broken electoral system.

As much as they failed in Florida in 2000, the domestic establishment media reached its nadir in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

"Between the War on Terror and the war with Iraq, the Bush White House all but guaranteed itself a timid press corps that emphasized its megaphone function," wrote media critic Eric Boehlert in his 2006 book, Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush. "The MSM [mainstream media] coverage of the War on Terror and their reporting during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq were inexorably linked. By the time the invasion was launched in March of 2003, the press was so comfortable having spent the previous year lying down for the White House and its foreboding War on Terror, that it could not muster enough energy to get up off the floor."

But what the mainstream media were afraid to do, the progressive, independent media were not. Audiences turned to alternative sources of news and critical analysis, helping to catalyze the next phase of growth for the progressive media sector.

By the end of 2003, faced with the failed invasion of Afghanistan and the Bush administration's spurious claims of "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq, a new generation of citizen media makers sprang into action. Just as the online organizing group MoveOn had seized on e-mail and the Web in the late 1990s to organize responses to the Clinton impeachment, bloggers such as Markos Moulitsas, founder of the now enormously popular left-wing blog Daily Kos, took advantage of new online tools to openly critique both the Bush administration's flawed war and the Democrats' failures to block it.

"Perhaps nothing is fueling the rise of the a new progressive movement more than the lack of urgency from the Democratic political establishment in D. C. Twelve years after Newt Gingrich and his Contract with America helped sweep Democrats into a political Siberia, the Democratic Party and its coalition of single-issue groups and its consultant class continue to act as if the party still holds a majority.... If progressives want to win now, it is up to the new people- powered movement to get active," wrote Moulitsas and co-author Jerome Armstrong, one of the founding members of the progressive political blogosphere with the blog, in their 2006 book Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots and the Rise of People-Powered Politics.

This period also marked a moment of experimentation for print progressive outlets. Many were still trying to adjust their business and publishing models to account for the shift from paper to pixels, and participatory media tools added another layer of complication. As the administration racked up more gaffes and atrocities that the mainstream media failed to challenge, popular interest kept escalating, raising the circulation and visibility of existing legacy outlets such as Mother Jones, the American Prospect, The Nation, In These Times, Washington Monthly, the Utne Reader, and The Progressive, and racking up new audiences for that cadre of progressive bloggers that became known as the "netroots."

"Progressives were angry not just with the media but also with Democratic Party leaders for their unwillingness to challenge the Bush administration's case for war," wrote Lakshmi Chaudhry in a 2006 analysis of the bloggers' rise published in In These Times. "That much-touted liberal rage found its expression on blogs like Eschaton, Daily Kos and Talking Points Memo, and continues to fuel the phenomenal growth of the progressive blogosphere. Like the rise of right-wing talk radio, this growth is directly linked to an institutional failure of representation. Finding no mirror for their views in the media, a large segment of the American public turned to the Internet to speak for themselves — often with brutal, uncensored candor."

Documentaries also experienced a renaissance as a result of the mainstream narrowing of news. Just before the 2004 election, the outspoken, award- winning progressive filmmaker Michael Moore released Fahrenheit 9/11 — a barnstorming indictment of the administration's ties to Saudi Arabia and the bin Laden family, designed to shed doubt on Bush's response to 9/11. The film won the top prize at Cannes, and despite a concentrated conservative campaign pressuring theater owners not to screen it, the opening weekend broke a record set by Rocky III for a film opening in fewer than a thousand theaters. MoveOn members helped Moore reach this benchmark; more than a hundred thousand pledged to see the film when it first opened.

Mainstream critics lambasted Moore for his polemic style, but audiences didn't mind. While Moore failed in his ultimate goal of cementing Bush's defeat in the election, the film's success revealed to politicos and the commercial media world that there was a large audience of progressives and angry independents hungry for aggressively partisan media to counter what former conservative David Brock dubbed the "Republican Noise Machine" in his influential 2004 book of the same name.

Strategically constructed over the last three decades, that machine was in full swing during this time. For years, the left forlornly admired the structure and dominance of the right-wing media, well financed by conservative foundations, and even in some cases profitable. Conservatives had taken advantage of emerging markets — cable and satellite television, talk radio — to establish popular, high-profile stations, programs, and personalities. The right-wing media infrastructure was designed in a top-down manner, allowing the individual outlets and allies to cumulatively swarm the news cycle and dominate establishment punditry. While the right publicly accused the mainstream media of being "liberal," it was the right that in fact had come to dominate the analysis.

Though the "noise machine" moniker caught on, Brock wasn't the first to notice it — media monitors at organizations such as Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) had been tracking its growth since the mid- 1980s, and right-wing bias in mainstream media was a mainstay topic for left- wing journals of opinion. As the American Prospect's Robert Borosage wrote in 2002:

With all that ideological money, institutional heft, coordination, and credentialing, the right has perfected what the CIA used to call a "mighty Wurlitzer" — a propaganda machine that can hone a fact or a lie, broadcast it, and have it echoed and recycled in Fox News commentary, in Washington Times news stories, in Wall Street Journal editorials, by myriad right-wing pundits, by Heritage seminars and briefing papers, and in congressional hearings and speeches.... There is nothing on the progressive side of town remotely competitive with this. There is no progressive TV network and few progressive pundits. Several good journals of opinion exist, but nothing with the reach of Rush Limbaugh, the Journal editorial page, Rupert Murdoch's Fox News network, or even the Washington Times.

From 2000 to 2004, the power and influence of conservative media outlets, think tanks, and pundits was examined and laid bare, especially within the context of their dominance of television networks, radio airwaves, and newspaper opinion pages.

In 2004, Robert Greenwald, riding the newly empowered wave of political documentary, tackled one of the loudest members of the conservatives' noise machine. His documentary Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism was a no-holds-barred feature-length critique of Fox News. The film revealed the hypocrisy of the cable channel unabashedly touting itself as "Fair and Balanced" despite cornering the market on right-wing propaganda. While left-leaning media critics had been slagging Fox for years, Greenwald and his team at Brave New Films effectively combined investigation with organizing and guerilla marketing, creating an innovative online and offline distribution strategy that hooked in dozens of organizational allies and progressive journalism outlets and harnessed MoveOn's engaged online membership. (We cover this in more detail in Chapter 5, "Fight the Right.")

The film created a resounding feedback loop. Traditional mainstream media outlets were fascinated by the director's strategy and the audience response. The resulting coverage forced Fox to respond and attack, generating yet more media attention.

The new online and offline distribution routines pioneered by Greenwald also informed strategies for a stream of high-profile political documentaries, including Al Gore's 2006 An Inconvenient Truth, which sparked a global reassessment of the gravity of the climate crisis. The successful campaign around Outfoxed also reinforced the fact that certain segments of the progressive media could go aggressively on the offensive — contradicting cultural narratives about ineffective and wimpy liberals.

For many progressive observers at the time, the question was: How would the left continue to parry the conservative media drumbeat?

Different factions of the resurging progressive media sector had different solutions. Brock's book inspired fund-raiser Rob Stein to create a PowerPoint presentation documenting the rise and coordination of the right-wing political and media infrastructure. Stein's talks to large groups of liberal donors led to the formation of the Democracy Alliance — a group of the largest liberal donors in the country, with a shared goal of creating a progressive infrastructure to rival that of the right. A new consensus was emerging: progressives needed their own echo chamber, fast.


But while the right had decades to successfully craft a powerful and well-oiled infrastructure that spread and built upon its ideology, progressives were scrambling to construct a counterpoint within a few years. And the plan to mirror "the mighty Wurlitzer" was met with resistance from traditional journalists and editors associated with progressive outlets, who protested the rush to speak in one voice. Their proposed solution to the "noise machine" problem was to fund more investigation and reporting, filling in for mainstream journalism outlets weakened by consolidation, sinking ad revenues, and conservative bullying.

In contrast, members of the political blogosphere, using online tools to build their own networks and funding streams, found little common cause with legacy progressive outlets during this period. Instead, they focused their critique on mainstream outlets and their efforts on building their own intersecting infrastructure, bolstered by the use of online outreach and fund- raising in Howard Dean's 2004 presidential run.

None of these strategies was necessarily better or the right answer; instead, they reflected the strengths of each of the sectors proposing them. As it turned out, a more connected progressive media network emerged that did not quite mirror the right but instead played up the strengths of the left. (We dive into that in Chapter 4, "Build Network-Powered Media.") But competition still reigned, and it would take some experiments, failures, and, before long, successes for these different parts to start working in concert.

In the broadcast world, the March 2004 launch of Air America Radio represented one high-profile and controversial antidote to the right-wing dominance of talk radio by polemic hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage. Eschewing both the measured reporting of National Public Radio and the often sober and sometimes scholastic tone of progressive magazines such as the American Prospect or The Nation, the fledgling network adopted a barnstorming and sometimes comedic tone in many of its programs. Since its inception, Air America has seen its fair share of ups and downs, including multiple owners, bankruptcy filings, internal spats, and external criticisms.

But Air America has provided a home and platform for many of today's progressive political superstars, allowing them to break through into mainstream outlets: from Cenk Uygar (who has hosted a number of commercially viable online and on-air progressive programs) and Rachel Maddow (who was named as the host of her own highly successful nighttime show on MSNBC in summer 2008) to Al Franken, now a Minnesota senator. Air America is one of a cluster of national outlets that have helped to define and nurture high-impact progressive personalities.

Air America represented just one in a series of infrastructure-building efforts within the progressive media sector. While conservative donors and foundations had invested heavily in a coordinated ideological and media infrastructure, traditional left media outlets were working in isolation, often without high-level support from leading liberal donors and foundations. In 2005, we tracked the differences between the right and left media infrastructures in a map published in In These Times (see pp. 18–19). The map revealed scarce foundation support for progressive media outlets, gaps in communication between the Beltway and the grassroots, and a lack of coherent talking points.

Much to our surprise, the map itself became a tool for organizing the progressive media network. We heard through the grapevine that it was taped to organizations' walls, brought to funders to make the case for more support, and requested by the campaign of 2004 presidential candidate Wesley Clark. We found that we weren't alone in our frustrations.


The rise of the new network accompanied that of a new political identity: the "progressive." While this term has since become muddied, at the time it represented both a generational break and an ideological one. Many of this younger set of media producers felt little or no connection to the movements of the sixties and seventies that were still feeding the perspective and operations of the traditional left press. They also saw the limitations of the identity-based politics of the eighties and nineties. The political tactics of previous generations — such as the large street-level protests that had failed to garner significant coverage or reaction in the first years of the Iraq invasion — were no longer working. A certain pragmatism marked this new wave of political activists, coupled with a focus on opportunity over the much-maligned "liberal" preference for entitlements. The online space opened up new possibilities for changing the tone and pace of media and analysis and for pioneering new forms of political organizing and movement building. Suddenly, the generation that had been dismissed as slackers found themselves on the leading edge of political change.

New roles began to emerge within the sector, with progressive think tanks providing policy fodder, progressive reporters steadily investigating scandals, and bloggers watchdogging the mainstream outlets and amplifying talking points. While ostensibly nonpartisan, humorists such as Jon Stewart of The Daily Show had broken through the post-9/11 timidity to critique both the war and the Bush administration. Documentary films were serving as vehicles for moving controversial issues into the national debate, and tough progressive voices had begun to drown out the so-called milquetoast liberal views so skewered by right-wing mouthpieces such as Ann Coulter. Howard Dean was whipping up unprecedented enthusiasm and donations via the Web. Political 527 campaigns were countering Republican "swiftboating" and attack ads in key media markets. And online tools were offering individuals and already-in-the mix media organizations new chances to act as political power brokers, message machines, mobilizers, fundraisers, instant fact checkers, and high-impact muckrakers.


Excerpted from "Beyond The Echo Chamber"
by .
Copyright © 2010 Jessica Clark and Tracy Van Slyke.
Excerpted by permission of The New Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Section I: Laying the Groundwork,
1. Setting the Stage for Change,
2. Networking Your Way to Impact,
3. Why — and How — Progressive Media Matter,
Section II: Six Strategies for High-Impact Progressive Media,
4. Build Network-Powered Media,
5. Fight the Right,
6. Embrace Twenty-First-Century Muckraking,
7. Take It to the Hill,
8. Assemble the Progressive Choir,
9. Move Beyond Pale, Male, and Stale,
Section III: Moving Forward,
What Next?,

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