Foreign Policy Blogs

The Echo Chamber

Do the mass media form or reflect public opinion? Specialists in these matters always answer "both," but in this election year it's critical to know which predominates. Take the Rev. Wright "issue." In the seven weeks since March 18th, when ABC-TV unveiled footage of Wright's most notorious quotes, the media have incessantly declaimed on behalf of a putatively outraged public. But how much of this was a story created by the media?

Look at the way the New York Times began its front page story today:

WASHINGTON — A majority of American voters say that the furor over the relationship between Senator Barack Obama and his former pastor has not affected their opinion of Mr. Obama…

The Times goes on to cite a number of caveats: some voters were indeed upset; polling on racial matters is often inaccurate; it was a national poll, not a poll of voters in Indiana and North Carolina, etc.
But aren't we entitled to ask whether, if the public doesn't care about the "furor," whose "furor" was it, anyway?
And even if — and this appears to be the case — polls in general have moved away from Obama and toward Clinton in recent weeks, how much of this trend is attributable to the way the media hammered the Rev. Wright story?
To put this in perspective, consider how much media attention Obama's initial response — his Philadelphia speech on race — received in comparison to Wright's Detroit NAACP speech and Washington Press Club performance. The answer is that the speech by Obama was treated as a one-day story, reported respectfully, and then disregarded. The Wright story has been covered, seven weeks straight, as though it were the key to Obama's character and policies.
Even after Obama made a total split with Wright, one week ago, the media focus did not let up. It was simply transmogrified to "Why did it take him so long?" and, contradictorily, "How can Obama denounce him now?" With on-air pundits asking each other "How long will the issue last?" it fell to CNN's curmudgeon, Jack Cafferty, to respond that the story would last as long as the media kept covering it.
If the votes tomorrow in North Carolina and Indiana go against Barack Obama, the high drama of this campaign will have another, perhaps final, turning point. And that turning point will be traced back to a decision by ABC TV to dig out the Wright tapes and the decision by ABC's George Stephanopoulos, at the urging of Fox's Sean Hannity, to try to smear Obama's reputation at the start of the Philadelphia debate.
The public, domestic and foreign, will then have every reason to ask how the American media have come to be so politicized. It will be hard to explain that Stephanopoulos, formerly a campaign tactician for Bill Clinton, had long ago changed from political operative to objective journalist and that, in yesterday's ABC TV interview with Hillary, she merely outwitted him when she stood up to take a question from the audience, forcing the diminuitive Stephanopoulos into the background.
The media thrive on conflict and, in a close election, there's plenty of conflict to cover. But in the Wright affair we have at its essence a made-by-media conflict that could be just enough to tip the scales in Hillary's favor. In which case, the "furor" over Jeremiah Wright will show the media echo chamber to be just as gullible and careless today as it was in its early Iraq coverage.



Mark Dillen

Mark Dillen heads Dillen Associates LLC, an international public affairs consultancy based in San Francisco and Croatia. A former Senior Foreign Service Officer with the US State Department, Mark managed political, media and cultural relations for US embassies in Rome, Berlin, Moscow, Sofia and Belgrade, then moved to the private sector. He has degrees from Columbia and Michigan and was a Diplomat-in-Residence at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins. Mark has also worked for USAID as a media and political advisor and twice served as election observer and organizer for OSCE in Eastern Europe.

Areas of Focus:
US Government; Europe; Diplomacy