In Echo Chamber: Rush Limbaugh and the Conservative Media Establishment
, Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Joseph Cappella study the triumvirate of conservative media sources that in many ways constitutes a reinforcing echo chamber. This three-pronged establishment consists of Rush Limbaugh’s talk radio program
, the Wall Street Journal
’s (WSJ) editorial page
, and the late-emerging Fox News Channel
(FNC). Although the audiences for each of these entities do not overlap perfectly, there is a great deal of reinforcement within this circle. For instance, Limbaugh occasionally pens pieces for the WSJ and often cites their articles on his show. Most recently, Rupert Murdoch, owner of FNC, also purchased the WSJ. What follows is a review of this work, then a critique of its methodology and assumptions.
The book’s basic premise is that “…conservative media create a self-protective enclave hospitable to conservative beliefs.” One of the overarching narratives perpetuated by the channels is that the mainstream media is biased against conservatives and liberal in orientation, and thus not trustworthy. The authors cite research that suggests such a bias does not exist, but that consumers are sensitive to reporting that conflicts with their basic ideology, the so-called “hostile media phenomenon."
This media triumvirate also reinforces the basic tenets of Reagan conservatism. While Limbaugh and the FNC cater to the middle-class, church-going, and southern base of the Republican Party, the WSJ reaches its business elites. The authors suggest that the conservative media establishment play a role formerly assumed by party leaders. They also serve to make ideas and policies perpetuated by the Democratic Party “alien and impalpable.” In the end, consumers of conservative media still access mainstream sources, but are shielded from information incompatible with their conservative worldview.
In focusing on Fox News, the authors suggest that it differs from network news in the way it frames strategy and conflict in the context of politics. FNC, along with the WSJ and Limbaugh, also argue that the “liberal” media invoke a double-standard when reporting about conservative issues and Republican candidates. The authors lay out the 2002 controversy surrounding former Senator Trent Lott’s racially-tinged comments at a reception honoring former Senator Strom Thurmond as an example, simultaneously providing examples of racism exercised by Democrats while distancing themselves from Lott. This the authors label a “conservative knowledge enclave."
Jamieson and Cappella then dive into descriptions of the primary conservative media players. The aptly describe political talk radio as “a newspaper filled with editorials." On Fox News, conservative assumptions are less likely to be challenged than liberal ones, and the authors admit the opposite is true on CNN. They write, “An audience that gravitates primarily to conservative sources whose message is consistent and repetitive is more susceptible to reinforcement and persuasion than an audience exposed to alternative points of view in approximately equal amounts."
The authors turn next to the Reagan narrative, namely, “The conservative opinion media are custodians of Reagan conservatism and of a specific account of the Reagan legacy that vindicates that philosophy. Their archived memory of the Reagan years provides conservatives with a standard to which aspire, a touchstone against which to assess Republican leaders, and a way to cast conservatism as a philosophy vindicated in practice." By defending a conservative legacy and critiquing that of their liberal opponents, the conservative media establishment helps hold together a coalition of voters who have elected Republican candidates at the national level.
The conservative media’s players and message identified, Jamieson and Cappella next define what they mean by an echo chamber. Specifically, an echo chamber is s “…bounded, enclosed media space that has the potential to both magnify the messages delivered within it and insulate them from rebuttal.” This may manifest itself via “direct citation” or through media sources legitimizing one another (an article written by Limbaugh article in the WSJ, for example).
The three prongs of the conservative media establishment were selected on the basis of their wide availability, different means of dissemination, and the fact that Limbaugh, FNC, and the WSJ are all “consequential” outlets. While direct media effects are difficult to quantify, the authors posit, “…when an audience self-selects its media content to be like-minded, the typical media effects---changing attitudes, opinions, beliefs, and behaviors---will not be readily detected. Instead, effects may manifest themselves in more subtle processes."
This leads to questions about why a given media source is selected to begin with. It also works with an assumption that people come to conservative media outlets predisposed to agree with the content disseminated. Together, these two variables produce “spirals of effects.” A fourth variable considers whether consumers are open to alternative sources outside of conservative outlets. A fifth and related variable predicts one with prior ideological commitments will select media sources that reinforce them. The sixth point relates to the reinforcement that occurs via this process, a cycle often neglected in media studies.
The Republican Party base is more likely to be male, white, upper-class, church-going, and southern than Democrats. Translating this to conservative media outlets, the WSJ’s audience is more of the “country club” variety and tends to be more socially liberal than that of FNC or Limbaugh, while the latter’s audience is more economically conservative than the other two. Limbaugh’s audience is predominantly Republican and increasingly so in recent years, and collectively the conservative media establishment caters to a base critical to the electoral prospects of the Republican Party.
Limbaugh is the overwhelming focus of the authors’ efforts throughout the book. It is almost as if FNC and the WSJ were added to complete their argument. Aside from rough descriptions of their audiences and references to a few related studies, their argument turns on Limbaugh listeners. They argue that he plays a prominent role in vetting Republican candidates during the party’s nominating processes. His favorites are associated with Reagan, and those he opposes are branded “liberals." On this front, the authors find evidence that “Limbaugh’s message matters." Indeed, his opposition to Senator John McCain in the 2000 presidential nominating process resulted in lower favorability and likelihood to vote for the Arizona senator among his listeners.
Limbaugh is more likely to exert himself in this fashion during the primary stages of a campaign when multiple candidates remain than later on when only one Republican is left standing and he tends to rally the troops around that candidate. In effect, he, along with FNC, prevents audience members from defecting.
One might expect that Limbaugh and his conservative media cohorts breed cynicism in their audience, thus reducing their proclivities to participate in the process, but he instead reinforces their natural tendencies to engage in the duties of citizenship. The mistrust he breeds is ideological, not systemic. Indeed, Limbaugh listeners have higher levels of efficacy than non-listeners. Trust in government, on the other hand, tends to sway depending upon who holds the reigns of power. For example, conservatives are more trustful of government when it is in Republican hands.
The authors believe that “…the conservative opinion media use emotion to heighten attention to politics and spur political engagement." If one is more emotionally tied to the candidates or feels hostility toward an opponent, he or she has a greater stake in the outcome and a stronger feeling of importance in terms of influencing government.
Jamieson and Cappella admit that the relationship between conservative media and the mainstream media is complex. It relates to framing, and when FNC co-hosts Sean Hannity and Alan Colmes present conservative and liberal perspectives, respectively, on their FNC show, viewers tend to default to the frame consistent with their ideology, that of Hannity’s. Conservative outlets also highlight some issues and candidates to the disadvantage of others and make positive associations with those they favor, and negative ones with those they detest. In this sense, the authors consider Limbaugh and his minions “opinion leaders."
Limbaugh’s daily diatribes against the mainstream media reinforce his audience’s distrust of these sources. At the same time, this distrust did not limit their consumption of mainstream news sources throughout the 1990’s, though it did turn them on to alternative sources. More recently, the advent of FNC has increasingly won the favor of Limbaugh listeners. FNC viewership coincides with reduced ratings for network news on ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS. Limbaugh and his conservative cohorts also employ a standard vocabulary that enhances Republican positions and detracts from those offered by Democrats. The “death tax” and “partial birth abortion” stand as notable examples.
The authors cite a series of works that share concerns about the fragmentation of media and the creation of so-called echo chambers. In this vein, they argue that consumers of conservative media “…come to hold specific knowledge largely unshared by those unexposed to these or similar outlets,” a process they label “balkanization." This relates specifically to one’s knowledge of politics and social affairs and the means by which they are interpreted. Indeed, in the authors’ analysis that found distortion in Limbaugh’s listeners’ understanding of political issues and candidates, while mainstream media had the effect of reducing these distortions.
Jamieson and Cappella then make an effort to distinguish distortion and polarization. Distortion is defined as “inaccuracy,” while polarization relates to difference, accuracy aside. The driving force behind polarization is the desire to seek out one-sided sources that reinforce one’s existing beliefs. Both are based on bias. “Contrast effects” further expand the difference between an audience member’s view of a candidate and his or her actual positions, while “assimilation” has the opposite effect. Looking specifically at the 2000 and 2004 elections, Limbaugh listeners show more evidence of “contrast effects” than other groups of strong Republicans. Moreover, the conservative media audience as a whole tends to contest “facts” that would benefit a Democratic candidate or their party, summarily dismissing them.
In the concluding chapter, the authors repeat their contention that this is not about a walled-off conservative media establishment, but instead that it acts as a buffer to conflicting information they encounter in external channels. They also add the caveat that Limbaugh, FNC, and the WSJ do occasionally present alternative viewpoints, even though they privilege the conservative one above all others. They also add that the conservative media establishment has brought an air of accountability to the mainstream media previously absent.
Most problematic about the rise of the conservative media establishment, in the authors’ eyes, is the weakening of democratic engagement when alternative views are disparaged without defense. In so doing, they argue, it may “undermine individual and national deliberation."
Altogether, I feel as if the authors make an outstanding contribution to the field of media studies by delving into this increasingly fragmented, and politically polarized, media market. I am hopeful that this constitutes a starting point and not an end game, however, for I feel that there remain several holes in this body of research. My most overarching concern is the sole focus on the conservative media establishment. There is certainly a flip side to this coin in the trio of the New York Times
opinion page, Air America
, and MSNBC
. Moreover, by some accounts beyond that of Limbaugh and company, the mainstream media in general has a left-of-center and Democratic bias. I would suggest that this phenomenon is every bit as dangerous for democracy as Limbaugh’s “ditto heads.”
On a micro level, I am troubled that the authors based almost all of their statistical analysis on Limbaugh listeners, representing his 14 million or so listeners as emblematic of all consumers of conservative media. They implicate FNC and the WSJ, but provide scant examples of media effects on these two audiences. Indeed, they admit that the WSJ caters to an entirely different audience than Limbaugh and FNC. I also wonder why they selected Sean Hannity as their test case for FNC. Because he pairs with the liberal Alan Colmes
, this already clouds the sample. Why not focus on Bill O’Reilly, who flies solo in his wildly popular O’Reilly Factor
I must clarify, however, that I don’t disagree with the author’s central conclusions. I have myself witnessed a great deal of cross-pollination within the conservative media establishment and agree that they arm their audiences to take what the mainstream media offers with a grain of salt. They are a contributor to the polarization that infects this country on a larger level, too. However, returning to my primary beef with this work, there are guilty parties on the other side of the ideological divide, and I would like to see more in-depth analysis of the liberal echo chamber.