Echo Chamber, Echo Chamber, Echo Chamber
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Today AlterNet launches a new blog, Echo Chamber, that will cover how progressive ideas and issues are communicated and gain traction in the overall media universe. We'll be looking closely at language and framing, and media initiatives and ads like Moveon.org's much-needed campaign against corruption in Washington, D.C. We will also spotlight progressive media figures, events, new books and films, and happenings in the blogosphere.
You may wonder: What is an "echo chamber"? It's a term that gets bandied about, usually along the lines of, "We progressives need a better echo chamber like the radical right has, what with Fox, Limbaugh, Drudge, etc."
With an effective echo chamber, a political idea or message, preferably one with clear values and goals, is repeated frequently in various media by multiple message carriers until it reaches a tipping point or helps achieve a political goal, or becomes part of the overall national political conversation.
Take the ongoing campaign against Wal-Mart that has raised public consciousness about the company's many transgressions. It is hard to ignore the fact the Wal-Mart's public image has taken a beating in the press; as a result, the company has had to change some of its policies and respond with some positive steps.
There has been solid reporting and grassroots organizing against Wal-Mart for some time. However, it was the making of Robert Greenwald's film, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, that served as a catalyst for the most recent stage of the campaign that has put Wal-Mart on the defensive. [Full disclosure: Robert Greenwald is a member of the board of the Independent Media Institute, AlterNet's parent organization.] Grassroots activism, an aggressive web presence, good visibility in the blogosphere, coverage on AlterNet, the Nation, CAP's Progress Report and other progressive media all helped create an environment in which the corporate press began to cover Wal-Mart more critically.
Greenwald also understood the importance of good corporate media coverage. He hired PR guru Ken Sunshine, who works with both unions and Hollywood celebrities. Sunshine and his team helped place key early articles in the New York Times , Business Week and other media to build the momentum. Greenwald did countless interviews, pounding away at the theme that Wal-Mart is destroying communities and shirking its responsibilities to pay a fair wage, provide health care, etc. With the development of Wal-Mart-Watch.com and WakeUpWal-Mart.com and the leaking of internal company memos, the media echo chamber became a key element of a strategic campaign.
But an echo chamber cannot succeed without the necessary ingredients: vision, ideas, values, language, organizing in the field, clear goals, effective spokespeople and the commitment of the full range of progressive media to pound away to help push the mainstream coverage.
And we aren't just trying to emulate the top-down infrastructure that the radical right has developed over the years. Our echo chamber here at AlterNet will give voice not only to policy wonks and strategists, but also to the grassroots progressive activists who too often lack a forum in which to air their ideas and innovations.
Nevertheless, the conversation about language and framing will need to take place on more than one level. On the day-to-day level we can discuss the messages of the current political moment -- right now that's political corruption, abuse of presidential power, and the ongoing travesty in Iraq. But much of the spinning and parsing of language sidesteps the painful reality that progressives are still losing badly; that Alito will be confirmed; and that Democrats and progressives have not found or used "frames" that could transform the public discourse.
Peter Teague, a program officer at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, has thought long and hard about the challenge of framing. "My sense is that the left is now thoroughly confused about framing, and that the term is used interchangeably with spin and messaging," he says. But getting it right, says Teague, really matters. "What 'framing' really points us to is a deep rethink that forces us to challenge our assumptions and identities and that may require a re-organization of our efforts."
Teague continues: "I think we can agree that no single issue 'movement' has what it takes to build a more progressive America. Therefore, the central assumption behind most of our efforts -- that we can build an effective counterweight to conservatives and corporate hegemony from the conglomeration of several different issues or identity-based movements -- must be challenged. We now have decades of experience with this theory, and we are no closer to the rebirth of a genuine movement than we were 25 years ago."
Basically what Teague is challenging us to do is understand that "reframing" requires challenging some of our most basic assumptions -- that continuing to do the same thing is not going to do the trick. Framing begins at a deep conceptual level, and despite the unfortunate backlash to dismiss framing as superficial, it actually is radical and deep. It is about how we understand the world, how we define the problems and the solutions, how we organize ourselves to achieve our goals, and how we talk about all of it. It is back to the basics.
We at AlterNet have always felt ourselves part of the progressive echo chamber, especially because we amplify the content of other media sources (half of our content is original; the rest is taken from the best of the progressive media). We spend time thinking about the language of change -- what do our headlines and summaries convey? Are we framing a positive vision for the future, as well as providing the critique that gets our juices flowing?
Echo Chamber, the blog, is a work in progress and all of our readers are invited to participate. Many of you already do; each time you email a story to a friend, you are participating in the progressive echo chamber -- and our readers email tens of thousands of AlterNet articles to friends and colleagues every week. So jump into the echo chamber, offer your comments and critiques, and frame your own democratic vision for the future.
Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.