Shouting into the echo chamber

By   /   December 2, 2013  /   No Comments

By Eric Boehm | Watchdog.org

MINNEAPOLIS — About two weeks ago, I was invited to a conference call with fellow members of the media that promised to pull back the veil on one of the biggest secrets in state politics today.

It ended up being little more than a long, clanging trip through the political echo chamber.

REPORT: The report from the Center for Media and Democracy attempted to shed light on the funding behind several conservative state-level think tanks.

REPORT: The report from the Center for Media and Democracy attempted to shed light on the funding behind several conservative state-level think tanks.

The stated purpose of the event was to release a report by the Center for Media and Democracy about a group of state-based conservative policy think tanks with financial ties to the State Policy Network. And, like any conference call to which members of the media are invited, the goal was to generate news reports about those think tanks.

Or at least I assumed that was the goal at the beginning. By the end, I was pretty sure it was just about ginning up support and donors from a crowd of people who would agree with every word in the report before they even read it.

The CMD, based in Madison, Wis., was trying to call attention to the supposedly-insidious coordination of conservative groups operating out of state-level “stink tanks.” See what they did there? So clever.

But if the content didn’t convince an average listener the report was meant to merely bound through the echo chamber to friendly ears, the delivery certainly would.

The most obvious example was the overuse of the term “Kochtopus” to describe the think tanks, SPN and a variety of other conservative organizations which can all be linked in some way, however tenuously, to David and Charles Koch, ubervillains to liberals.

For the uninitiated, the Kochtopus is a tentacle beasty from progressive nightmares, with cash-strapped arms wrapped around state lawmakers, academics, policy wonks and anyone who dares to speak in favor of free markets or against the idea that government should run most of our personal affairs.

A RARE IMAGE OF THE KOCHTOPUS: No, wait, that's an old political cartoon about Standard Oil's political influence during the days of Andrew Carnegie. But you get the idea.

A RARE IMAGE OF THE KOCHTOPUS: No, wait, that’s an old political cartoon about Standard Oil’s political influence during the days of John D. Rockefeller. But you get the idea.

Really, they’re just recycling that old political cartoon about Rockefeller’s Standard Oil that appeared in all our history textbooks when we were learning about those evil capitalist robber barons of the last century.

But the “Kochtopus” is a buzzword in modern progressive politics — a signal that followers are supposed to just nod their head in agreement. It’s pretty much the same as when any conservative accuses someone who holds an opposing belief of being a socialist.

And for the reporters on the conference call with CMD, the repeated invocation of the Kochtopus and other buzzwords was a sure sign that this wasn’t real news. You don’t use such insider buzzwords if you want your report to be picked up by the mainstream — but you do use them for maximum effect inside the echo chamber.

That’s exactly where this report ended up.

Within minutes of the conference call, progressive groups’ Twitter accounts were lighting up. Unions like the Service Employees International Union were tweeting about it, along with groups like Media Matters for America, George Soros‘ pet project.

Not one, but two MSNBC hosts — Rachel Maddow and Chris Haynes — used the report as the basis for their own discussions about the think tanks and conservative policy-makers.

The New Yorker and The New York Times each covered the report, though the Times didn’t even do so as a news piece, but instead let Paul Krugman, a noted voice of impartiality, cover it in his weekly column.

Salon ran a big story about it, though it was actually just reprinted from Bill Moyer’s site because the entire episode was apparently beneath even the more well-respected and serious liberal publications.

And then, after the report had rattled around the echo chamber long enough, CMD collected up all that sound and fury and typed it into a nice bullet-pointed list summarizing what their friends had said about their report. Then they used that list to engage in the grandest of political traditions: fundraising emails.

THE END GAME: Reports like this are not meant to change anyone's mind. They are meant to win support from donors.

THE END GAME: Reports like this are not meant to change anyone’s mind. They are meant to win support from donors.

Here’s the point of all this.

Do people with conservative political views and lots of money give some of that money to conservative causes and foundations? Do those conservative causes and foundations work together to do the job they are being paid to do — namely: develop, advocate and advance conservative political and policy agendas? Yes.

Do people with liberal political views and lots of money give that money to liberal causes and foundations? You see where this is going, right?

On both sides of the aisle, this much-sneered-at “coordination” makes a lot of practical sense. And it only looks evil to those who disagree with the political goals of their opponents — the same people who are usually hypocritically engaging in the same activity themselves.

When a reporter on the call raised that same point — that liberal groups on that very conference call were doing the very thing they were accusing conservative groups of doing on other conference calls — Lisa Graves, CMD’s executive director, sputtered out an answer.

“The question of conservative funders versus liberal funders, I think, is a matter of false equivalency,” Graves responded. “Quite frankly a number of these (corporate donors) like Koch Industries … they’re advancing not just an ideological agenda but an agenda that helps advance the bottom line of their corporate interests. That’s quite a distinct difference from some of the funders in the progressive universe.”

Of course, that’s the key difference.

That’s why we don’t hear a chorus of complaints about the Citizens United decision and big money in politics during a year when Democratic “dark money” groups outspent Republican groups by a margin of 3-to-1 in the gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey.

That’s why the Kochtopus is pure evil, a menace bent on destroying the world around us and handing the ashen remains over to our new corporate overlords.

But the Bloomburgzilla and Sorosaurus — if conservative used such epitaphs — are gentle giants using their billions to make the world a better place.

Regardless of political points of view, what America needs is more serious and lively debate about the policy issues that are driving us towards some very real problems. Shouting into the echo chamber — on both sides — accomplishes nothing, save for some fundraising and lots of back-slapping from people who already agreed with you.

Boehm is a reporter for Watchdog.org and can be reached at EBoehm@Watchdog.org.  Follow him on Twitter @EricBoehm87

Update: The original version of this story referred to Andrew Carnegie as the founder and leader of Standard Oil. We regret the error. 

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Eric is a reporter for Watchdog.org and former bureau chief for Pennsylvania Independent. He lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he enjoys great weather and low taxes while writing about state governments, pensions, labor issues and economic/civil liberty. Previously, he worked for more than three years in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, covering Pennsylvania state politics and occasionally sneaking across the border to Delaware to buy six-packs of beer. He has also lived (in order of desirability) in Brussels, Belgium, Pennsburg, Pa., Fairfield, Conn., and Rochester, N.Y. His work has appeared in Reason Magazine, National Review Online, The Freeman Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Washington Examiner and elsewhere. He received a bachelor's degree from Fairfield University in 2009, but he refuses to hang on his wall until his student loans are fully paid off sometime in the mid-2020s. When he steps away from the computer, he enjoys drinking craft beers in classy bars, cheering for an eclectic mix of favorite sports teams (mostly based in Philadelphia) and traveling to new places.