Monday, October 4, 2010

Echo chambers and glass houses

A phrase that gets a fair workout these days (and has since before the 2008 presidential election) is “echo chamber,” describing the insular, structurally reflective phenomenon of media figures, journalists, analysts and other professional observers of our politics talking among themselves, reinforcing their respective positions in a space so limited, their ideas echo (for what feels like forever).

The media’s infatuation with itself was proven again on Friday when, in an amen chorus that reflects exactly what an echo chamber is, news outlets reported that House Minority Leader and tanning enthusiast John Boehner may have been concealing an affair. Or may not have been.

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Nick Wing of the Huffington Post wrote on Sept. 24 about how the day before, Mike Stark, an activist and blogger ( ambushed Boehner at an impromptu news conference to ask the man who would be Speaker of the House to comment about speculation that he was reportedly about to be the centerpiece of a coming story on an affair in The New York Times.

"Speaker Boehner, have you been sleeping with Lisbeth Lyons, the lobbyist for the American Printing Association?" Stark asks. Boehner, as you might expect, had no comment.

Running with the ball down the field before the coin toss even happened, the New York Post — a tentacle of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation — decided that a vast liberal conspiracy was underfoot.

“Sources say the Times is looking for the right time to drop the story in October to sway the election, similar to how the Times reported during the 2008 presidential campaign on an alleged John McCain affair that supposedly had taken place many years before and that was flatly denied by the woman in question,” the paper reported on its Page Six.

Lyons later told the Post that the rumors were nothing more. "As you can imagine, I was stunned by such a question," Lyons told the Post. "I found it to be highly insulting, particularly as a female political professional, as well as unfounded.”

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First of all, it’s hard to imagine The New York Times being so hamfisted about deliberately timing a potentially ruinous story to an election. As The Post mentioned, the Times got blowback for doing something similar to this in the runup to the 2008 election, when The Times published a long piece on McCain, juxtaposing the Arizona senator with lobbyist Vicki Iseman in ways that breathlessly suggested (but never proved) an illicit relationship was in the works.

Thinking4 at HuffPost: “If said story is run in the NYT, it will be a hoot. The family values party seems to have a problem with their family values. The umbrage they have voiced about Dems, while Newt, Ensign, Vitter and others have been less than faithful is too rich. It would be best if the GOP avoided talking about others while their own houses are made of glass.”

But SlackMartian at HuffPost immediately grasps the incestuous nature of all this in terms of the media: “I love when a reporter reports on a reporter who's writing about what another reporter might write about.”

The coziness of the intra-media conversation makes this kind of embarrassment possible: Even though nothing’s been confirmed about what The Times plans to publish, the New York Post, on the strength of one blogger’s inquiry, ran with the nonstory of a reporter asking a politician a question — deciding (apparently on the basis of the question alone) this was evidence of an election-eve left-wing conspiracy.

It’s not even the rumors driving the story in this case, it’s the question about the rumor. That’s a shaky platform to build anything resembling journalism, even the unreasonable facsimile thereof that the New York Post has trafficked in for years.

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This is part of the price we willingly pay for our democracy; this is the real but necessary danger of life in a time when information and misinformation are as ubiquitous and immediate as the air we need to breathe. A reporter reports on a reporter who's writing about what another reporter might write about, and a newspaper decides it’s all a conspiracy of reporters. The results of this circular illogic (Joseph Heller, where are you now we need you?) come to occupy the same level of media saturation, demand the same media oxygen as a policy statement from the White House.

That’s the working reality of the new media environment, and in the most informationally democratic age in human history, let a thousand thousand thousand voices bloom. But that wide-open reality yields a wide-open risk: a media ecosystem that’s apparently less discriminating in its standards by virtue of being bigger in its size.

The plurality of voices in the 21st-century public square at every level, from traditional media to social media, is growing so fast; the baseline of discourse is often composed of the utterly banal; the everyday took-the-dog-for-a-walk tweet forms so much of what we consume informationally that, placed in a journalistic context, reporters have come to think everything is fair game, from solid sources willing to go on the record with quotes and docs to the entirely unsubstantiated, rumors of rumors spoken from behind the hand.

Combine the natural competitive spirit of working journalists with something else — the hyper-competitive atmosphere of a news hierarchy that’s reconfiguring at online speed — and you get reporters starting to reach for stories, for angles, for something, for anything to obey what’s frankly long been the prime directive for online news: Stoke the furnace. Feed the Beast.

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That’s why you get nonstory stories like the Boehner goof-up. That’s why you get quasi-events like part of the just-released Gallup Poll that discovered — hope you’re sitting down — President Obama continues to enjoy overwhelmingly strong support among African Americans, relative to the rest of the country.

This survey deserved to be covered as news, especially considering it was part of a wider sampling of opinions of the president. But it was the titillating racial angle, one part of a broader demographic study, that got newspeople salivating. Cable journalists jumped on it, not giving it the play it really deserved: down on the home page, with less of the fanfare and chin-pulling and drumroll it got on the cable shows — less slicing and dicing of what was, at the end of the day, another expression of the same identity-driven behavior that is our collective national birthright.

What it really was was a chance for some of the cable-show hosts to piss from a great height about something that’s not so much news as it is truism, to weigh in with perspectives that (once you heard them) indicated just how little there was to the survey in the first place. The coverage of this part of one day's Gallup polling felt obligatory; it didn’t break any new ground; it didn’t even show us anything on the old ground that we didn’t already know was there.

But the collective mindset kicked in; by some unspoken but obvious acclimation, the cable nets reported the same thing, knitting their brows about this weighty matter that wasn’t nearly as weighty as advertised.

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This reflects how the echo chamber of 2010 has become more echo and less chamber. The space has been downsized; there’s less room for the echo to reverberate in, with less time between the sound and its reflection — between the news and its analysis by a small number of the same familiar analysts with the same political perspectives.

With less time between the news itself and attempts to make sense of it, in a ravenous 24/7 news cycle, second thoughts are a luxury of the analog age. So nonstories become stories. And polls that tell us what we already know are released and analyzed, and given more play than they merit.

The 2010 echo chamber vis-à-vis politics is more incestuous and self-centered than it’s ever been before. Its tenders need to take Thinking4’s advice, but in a completely different way: there are no glass houses more fragile (and in the Internet age more illusory) than the media’s own. Too much echo in too small a space for too long will bring a glass house down.

Image credits: Times T: The New York Times Company. New York Post logo: The New York Post. 1873 wood engraving: Jules Tavernier and Paul Frenzeny. Obama opinion poll snapshot: Gallup.

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