Banana Republicans: The Echo Chamber

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"The Echo Chamber" is the title of chapter two of the 2004 book by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, Banana Republicans: How the Right Wing Is Turning America Into a One-Party State (ISBN 1585423424).

Summary

Policy proposals minted by think tanks and conservative academics alone are not enough to sway policy decisions. To effectively build and mobilize support, the conservative movement needs to be able to project its ideas and policy proposals to a broad audience.

The Republican Party has developed the ability to dominate the news cycle through a three-part strategy:

  1. It has popularised the notion of a "liberal bias" in the mainstream media to "work the refs" by pressuring the mainstream media into giving more sympathetic coverage to conservative politicians and causes.
  2. It has effectively built its own, unabashedly ideological media as an alternative to the mainstream.
  3. Finally, it has developed strategies to effectively promote conservatives within the mainstream media - helping them find jobs and advance their careers and visibility.

Early on, the conservative movement seemed to grasp that the term "media" is plural rather than singular. To begin with, there are different types of media. The forms that come most readily to mind are the mass media: radio, television and print. However, telephones, letters and the human voice are also media through which people communicate.

Changes in the regulations for television issued in 1960 by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) allowing TV stations to fulfil their public-interest obligation by selling the airtime to religious programmers who paid for it, led to the rise of Christian evangelists. This favored a specific type of religious broadcaster - like Jerry Falwell, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Pat Robertson and Jimmy Swaggart - who blended religious fervour with marketing savvy.

Direct mail was another form of alternative media which was pioneered by "funding father" Richard Viguerie in the 1960s. While direct mail was tagged as fundraising, conservative groups used it as a means to the deliver an impassioned political message.

Talk radio took off in the 1980s with the demise of AM music and the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine that required stations to grant equal airtime to opposing views. The number of talk-radio stations in the United States jumped from 200 in 1986 to more than 1,000 eight years later, mostly featuring conservative hosts and heavily Republican audiences. Conservatives have also used the Internet effectively as part of an integrated communications strategy, which, like direct mail, blurs the boundaries between news, commentary, advertising and partisan advocacy.

Conservative foundations have also financed media watch organizations that work to pressure media organizations into airing conservative viewpoints or that attack programs for perceived "liberal bias," including Reed Irvine's Accuracy in Media; David Horowitz's Committee for Media Integrity (COMINT); the Center for Media and Public Affairs; and L. Brent Bozell III's Media Research Center. In addition, they have financed their own media outlets, ranging from highbrow to tabloid.

The success of conservative talk radio paved the way for conservative cable news. Launched in 1996, Fox News was launched with the advantage of Rupert Murdoch's deep pockets and his already substantial media holdings through News Corporation. Whereas the efforts of conventional television news programs to appear objective come across as bland and evasive, Fox is gleefully opinionated, which appeals to many people as refreshingly candid. Fox claims to be "fair and balanced," but by "balanced" what it really means is that its conservative tone offsets the alleged liberal bias of other networks.

As with many aspects of conservative success, the growing influence of conservatives within the mainstream media is no accident. Liberals do not have an organized system for recruiting, nurturing and promoting the careers of left-leaning journalists, but conservatives do. It begins on college campuses, where the Collegiate Network, which began as a project of the Institute for Educational Affairs, serves as a networking resource and spends more than $300,000 per year, funding 80 conservative student newspapers. Its alumni have gone on to work for both right-wing and mainstream media. Another group, the National Journalism Center (NJC), helps bridge the gap from college to actual careers. Founded in 1977, it has been described by current director Ken Grubbs, Jr., as "a juggernaut for creating journalists."

The growing influence of conservative media gives it the capacity when necessary, to defend its champions and attack opponents. When John Stossel of ABC's 20/20 program was criticised for making demonstrably false claims against organic foods, the conservative movement rallied to his defense and protected his career. On the other hand, when Al Gore ran as Democrat presidential hopeful in 2000 the conservative echo chamber effectively crippled his standing by ensuring inaccurate claims - such as that he 'invented' the Internet - quickly crossed over from conservative to mainstream media.

Discussion questions

  • How have Republicans effectively marketed their policies through the media?
  • How many kinds of "media" are there? What types can you name? How do they differ from one another?
  • How have the forms of media changed over time? What has triggered these changes?
  • What are the dominant mediums for conservative news coverage now? Why?
  • What role do media watchdog organisations play in shaping media coverage?
  • Why do conservative foundations fund projects to train journalism students?

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