Beyond the Echo Chamber

If you're going to be in the Boston area next Wednesday, join Drinking Liberally and Women Action Media! for a book event with Tracy Van Slyke and Jessica Clark! RSVP here.

Beyond the Echo Chamber, by Tracy Van Slyke and Jessica Clark, is a groundbreaking new book for anyone who is concerned with the state of political media, journalism, or civic activism. It's also a useful handbook for progressives who want to be heard and make change, as well as a fascinating perspective on the changes in the world of professional media and journalism.

The book chronicles the rise of the new world of progressive media, circa 2004 - 2008. Having worked together at In These Times, the authors were deeply involved in the story they are telling. The Bush years were a boon to traditional progressive publications like In These Times, which saw their circulation numbers jump. They were also a time of energetic creativity and growth among progressive activists of all stripes, forming all sorts of new organizations that challenged traditional conventions in the media world. Van Slyke and Clark describe some of these organizations and the characters behind the screens, as well as the lessons learned along the way. They conclude with several important strategies that progressive media organizations should consider for their future work.

It may be difficult to remember now, but the 2004 election was a moment of deep introspection for the progressive movement. Probably as a result of the dramatic propaganda campaign that gave us the Iraq War, many progressives finally understood just how seriously inadequate the progressive media infrastructure was, compared to the conservative media machine. A whole host of bloggers, big-shot Democrats, traditional media organizations, and front-line activists got in the act of analyzing the problem and prescribing solutions. The immediate result of all that talk was a bunch of some seriously sweet charts - many of which are reproduced in Beyond the Echo Chamber. The other, probably more important, result was an outpouring of progressive media activism and experimentation.

There are probably too many important experiments in progressive media and activism to count, but a few stand out. Perhaps the most well-known (and most financially troubled) was Air America Radio. The network was an early attempt to duplicate the success of conservatives in broadcasting their message across the radio airwaves. Lacking sufficient funds and without a deep stable of radio talent, it was never able to get sufficient distribution, and it ultimately failed in January of this year. Nevertheless, it was, arguably, the incubator for Al Franken's successful bid for the Senate, and it certainly propelled Rachel Maddow to MSNBC, and Cenk Uygur and The Young Turks to prominence on YouTube and on Sirius Satellite Radio.

A happier, and in many ways more interesting, story, is the evolution of Talking Points Memo, which grew from a one-person blog into a well-staffed community blog. TPM has seen many successes in its day, but perhaps the most interesting was with the US Attorneys firing scandal, in which TPM rigorously pursued a fishy story from the start. In order to dig deeper into the story, TPM asked its members to do research on potentially politically-inspired firings that would only show up in local papers. A combination of good footwork and journalistic intuition on the part of Josh Marshall, the stunning example of high-impact crowdsourced journalism ultimately led to the resignation of Attorney General Gonzales, who was at one time a rising star in Republican ranks.

One final example, which is either exciting or troubling depending on your point of view, emerged from the Off the Bus project. Established by Arianna Huffington and Jay Rosen, the project was an attempt to turn ordinary citizen-activists into small-time reporters. Volunteers throughout the country attended events on the presidential campaign trail and wrote up reports on what the candidates said; the results were aggregated and curated on the Off the Bus website. The goal was to produce an on-the-ground summary of the presidential campaign, unfiltered through the usual cast of traditional media reporters who traveled with the candidate (i.e., on the candidate's bus). Off the Bus's biggest scoop was a quote caught by Obama supporter Mayhill Fowler, who attended a campaign fundraiser where Obama spoke about people living in economically depressed rural towns who "cling to guns or religion". The quote was a major blow to the Obama campaign, and it also caused quite a stir in the world of journalism, where (according to Michael Tomasky, editor at large of the Guardian American), professional ethics would normally prevent a journalist from quoting a candidate during an off-the-record donor event.

These are only a few of the many fascinating experiments described in Beyond the Echo Chamber. Others include the masterful grassroots work done to defend the Jena Six, and the emergence of Color of Change; the savvy documentary work of Brave New Films; and the multi-platform campaign that was Get Fisa Right. Together they paint a picture of a progressive movement that is creative, energetic, and rapidly evolving to use emerging media technologies.

Making sense of this hodge-podge of stories, Van Slyke and Clark list "six strategies for high-impact progressive media", which are:

  1. Build network-powered media, which both facilitates person-to-person organizing and brings institutions together to complement one another's core strengths;
  2. Fight the right with bold messaging and by picking on high-profile targets, like Bill O'Reilly;
  3. Embrace twenty-first century muckraking, as Josh Marshall has done;
  4. Take an active role in legislative fights (or, in their words, "Take it to the hill"), blending activism and journalism;
  5. Assemble the progressive choir, creating communities where progressive activists can gather and inciting them to action on key issues, as FireDogLake has done;
  6. Move beyond "pale, male, and stale" by actively integrating the non-white, female, and less-than-dead-serious voices into the media landscape, as Cenk Uygur has done.

Having spent a great deal of time reading and thinking about the role of progressive organizational capacity in electoral and legislative campaigns, I've been waiting for a book like this for a long, long time. It's a big-picture look at what we as a movement have done right, and what we've done wrong, over the past few years, and what more we need to do to go stronger in the future. We can learn a lot of good lessons by taking a step back from the daily back-and-forth of political action, and I think that's too rare a practice by far. To be sure, this is only the tip of the iceberg, as we've not yet really harnessed the potential power of mobile technology, we are still struggling with the identity crisis created by the Obama campaign and administration. We need more creativity and more experimentation, and this book is a valuable guide to doing just that.

Disclosure: Van Slyke's organization, The Media Consortium, contracted with my company for a project in 2008. I also received a complimentary copy of the book from The New Press.

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