- Echo Chamber: Rush Limbaugh and the Conservative Media Establishment
The election of Barack Obama as President of the United States has become the most notable in a string of recent electoral victories for the Democratic Party over the Republican Party. What began in 2006 continued into 2008 and has the chance of continuing into the future. This trend has created a highly visible identity crisis in the Republican Party, which, left without a clear leader, has been rife with infighting over its ideological direction in the coming years. Numerous figures have emerged to claim a leadership spot—Newt Gingrich, Dick Cheney, Sarah Palin, etc.—but one person in particular has received significant attention as a potential leader of the Republican Party: radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh.
Republicans and Limbaugh himself have attempted to deny this accusation, but the recent record lends it some credibility. Limbaugh has been the most prominent and consistent voice in support of the Republican Party since the election of Barack Obama, for example. Republican officials who have criticized Limbaugh have immediately felt pressure to apologize to him and retract their statements. Most succumb, leaving the impression that the Republican Party takes its direction, at least in part, from Limbaugh. How is it that a radio host can be perceived as the titular head of one of the nation's two major political parties? Part of the answer can be found in Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Joseph N. Cappella's new book Echo Chamber: Rush Limbaugh and the Conservative Media Establishment.
Jamieson and Cappella examine the rhetorical strategies of three prominent conservative media outlets: Rush Limbaugh's daily talk radio program, the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal, and key Fox News programs (specifically, Hannity and Colmes prior to Colmes's departure, and Special [End Page 662] Report with Brit Hume prior to Hume's departure). The book uses extensive research to outline a set of practices found in the rhetoric of these three outlets that can "create a self-protective enclave hospitable to conservative beliefs" that "enwraps them in a world in which facts supportive of democratic claims are contested and those consistent with conservative ones championed" (x).
In the first two chapters, Jamieson and Cappella use two recent case studies to introduce their argument that conservative news media form an echo chamber that both inundates their audiences in conservative views and protects them from counterarguments. These case studies are, first, the 2004 presidential campaign between George W. Bush and John Kerry and, second, the controversial comments former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott made at a celebration of Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday. After introducing the primary players in their study in chapter 3, the fourth chapter identifies a common theme that becomes the foundation for conservative media's rhetorical positioning: the legacy of Ronald Reagan. The authors then move into an outline of their concept of the "echo chamber," drawing from the studies they conducted with the Annenberg Foundation from 1996 to 2004 on the effects of conservative opinion media (especially Limbaugh). The rest of the book examines particular rhetorical devices that conservative media in general, and Rush Limbaugh in particular, employ and their potential effects on their audience. Such devices include "framing and reframing the mainstream media" (140), "balkanization of knowledge and interpretation" (191), and "distortion and polarization" (214), among others. The authors conclude with some analysis of the advantages and drawbacks of such rhetorical strategies as they relate to democratic engagement.
The book's strength comes not from the profoundness of its argument. In fact, Jamieson and Cappella admit up front that they are not breaking any new theoretical ground with this study. Rather, they note that they see their work "as an analysis of how they [the conservative media] function across a decade-long period and a theoretically driven grounding from which to understand their possible effects" (4, emphasis added). The book's contribution, then, is less about what Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and the opinion pages of...