American Thinker’s Thomas Lifson had an excellent post on Sunday about the creation of media themes. A reader sent in a question to the editor (Lifson) about what American Thinker’s stable of thinkers believe is behind the regular paroxysms of themed “news” we see today in the mainstream media.
The reader, Ron Joseph, framed it this way:
I wonder if any of [the site’s authors] have the insight to know or understand how, and at whose direction, this multitude of Fake News stories come to be?
A goodly many of them suddenly (on the same day and at about the same hour) pop up or come into being on and in the same TV channels and newspapers time after time. It happens too often to believe it is accidental or coincidental, as would happen with real breaking news as we all understand that term to mean.
We go to bed at night and nothing out of the ordinary is being reported; however when we awaken, all matters of Hell has broken out. All of the liberal channels are “on a story” and are quoting one or two newspapers about the “story/event” and all saying the same things, often using the very same phrases.
Who is doing this, who is the conductor of this liberal orchestra, who decides what they shall all be saying and at exactly which chosen hour?
This pattern has been seen too many times over the last several years to be dismissed as imaginary. In fact, I see it virtually every day.
It’s especially noticeable if half a dozen major news outlets publish on the same topic within an hour or two of each other, when the type of story and the original publishing source (e.g., the Washington Post) are clearly not the kind of news phenomenon that could produce a slew of simultaneous stories. It takes time after someone else has put up a “big” story for other outlets to have worthy articles of their own to publish. Yet somehow, Politico, Think Progress, MSNBC, Raw Story, and BuzzFeed (just to pick a few off the menu) have coverage ready to go, and often additional details to chime in with.
That the creation of “echo chamber” themes is real and intentional was famously established in 2016, when Obama adviser Ben Rhodes explained how the administration did it in an interview with David Samuels for New York Times Magazine.
Journalist Lee Smith has had some seminal articles on the topic as well (e.g., here, here, and a related discussion I posted last fall), with a separate focus on “news-for-hire” outfits like Fusion GPS. It’s not actually a secret in the journalism industry that themed “news” is packaged and (basically) sold by “consulting” and “research” firms like Fusion.
Indeed, there was an unintentionally humorous moment in Fusion founder Glenn Simpson’s congressional testimony in August 2017, when he basically complained that after all the trouble he’d gone to, to place the Steele dossier and its themes with media outlets in the summer of 2016, the story just wasn’t taking hold the way it should have. That failure was reportedly behind Christopher Steele’s frustration about the story’s lack of echo, and his decision – while actively working confidentially with the Justice Department and FBI – to run off and shop the dossier to journalists Michael Isikoff and David Corn. (My write-up from January 2018 is here. Its screen shots are classic examples of how the media themes come out in fire-bursts, as Ron Joseph describes.)
But Mr. Joseph is talking about a bit more than that, to my ear. He detects a systematic persistence in this pattern of themed news-bursts. It’s not just about trying to introduce big, specific topics, like the 2015 Iran “deal” negotiations (Ben Rhodes’ echo chamber), or the Steel dossier and “Russiagate.”
It’s more like a routine practice now, meant to shape the whole information environment and set priorities and expectations in it.
I believe Thomas Lifson has treated it that way, in his discussion. And that makes his discussion very useful. But it also makes it ultimately unsatisfying.
Lifson takes off on the metaphor of a “conductor,” advanced in the email from reader Joseph. Lifson’s deliberations take him through a comparison between the idea of a centrally coordinated conspiracy, and an uncoordinated but sympathetic movement, in which like-minded media actors are basically responding to the same inner cues.
Lifson concludes that the themed news-bursts are better thought of as a movement. And that’s where I think we’d be shortchanging the observed elements of the phenomenon, if we simply accepted his assessment.
Conspiracy, however, is a freighted word, and one I don’t like at all myself. Our laws may recognize the reality of conspiracies – it’s stupid to say there are none – but that doesn’t mean “conspiracy” is the right word for every enterprise in which more than one person cooperates for the same goal.
Conspiracy has an inherently negative, vicious connotation. It also typically implies secret cabals and the exercise of powers that humans don’t really have over each other; e.g., the power to bring about consequences through wielding vaguely defined – but secret and nefarious – influences. Humans gang up to exploit each other’s weaknesses all the time, but it didn’t take a conspiracy, for example, to get a bunch of people to vote for Donald Trump, any more than it took a conspiracy to get a bunch of people to vote for Barack Obama.
Just as important, if not more so, a conspiracy could not achieve these effects. “Conspiracy theories” are the wrong way to look at human life, whether the topic is geopolitics, electoral politics, the operation of businesses, or the impact of the mass media.
I think the concept we’re looking for, rather than either a conspiracy or an amorphous “movement,” is a campaign. There is a design to it, there is a central intention, and it is something on which multiple actors are manifestly cooperating. But none of these factors means that the observed phenomenon – the existence of the campaign – is comprehensively explanatory about outcomes. The mistaken conclusions about causation are what turn useful observations into conspiracy theories.
In the Ben Rhodes interview from 2016, the “echo chamber” discussion revolved around a “war room,” meaning a central coordination nexus for seeding the echo chamber and monitoring its progress. When news outlets suddenly erupt with theme-bursts, half a dozen of them just happening to have different details on the same story and everyone ready to publish, using the same themed wording, at the same time, we can be confident there is something behind it that goes beyond an unguided “JournoList” finger-tapping session.
The idea of one or more “war rooms” is simply obvious. Detecting such a thing in operation is a matter of analysis, not paranoid suspicion. If I had to guess “where” at least one of these war rooms is – and the “where” may be in a virtual sense – I’d start with Ben Rhodes’ firm National Security Action, and any Fusion-type political research firms it contracts with. David Brock’s Shareblue is another obvious candidate.
But there are plenty of other possibilities. Everybody and his dog has a consulting or research firm retailing themed, media-packaged news these days. Other potential points of coordination include journalism consortia funded by big donors with left-wing agendas like the Ford Foundation, George Soros’ Open Society Foundations, and Pierre Omidyar’s philanthropies. It should be no surprise to see themed “news” reflecting the progressive agendas of these donors, considering that they are paying for a lot of it.
The professionals populating these firms come from journalism and media backgrounds, and/or political jobs, whether in retail politics or government. During the Obama administration, in fact, a number of people in exceptionally significant positions in the media and government were related to each other – like, for example, Ben Rhodes and his brother David, the president of CBS News.
Obama spokesman Jay Carney is married to ABC correspondent Claire Shipman, and ABC President Ben Sherwood is the brother of Obama special adviser Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall. Ben Sherwood was president of ABC News from 2010 to 2015, and took over Disney-ABC in January 2015. (In other cases, journalists went back and forth, as they do fairly often in all recent administrations, between jobs with Obama agencies and jobs with media organizations.) It would be ridiculous to suggest that this could have had no impact on the opportunity for news-packaging in the Obama years.
It would be equally ridiculous to insist that dozens of politically sympathetic people who have known each other in journalism, political consulting, and government for the last 20 or 30 years would somehow be precluded by a magic force-field from coordinating on themed news management, from new jobs in political non-profits or research firms. (Lee Smith, in his article on the Fusion GPS model, linked above, points out that most of the people working for Fusion GPS are former journalists – meaning they have longstanding ties to newsrooms, and professional bona fides to trade on when they shop themed news in them.)
Don’t think of it as a conspiracy. It doesn’t have to be one. Continuing to manage themed news, from different desks but through connections to many of the same people, is nothing more than normal human behavior.
But there’s also not a thing wrong with being alert and savvy enough to think this thought, in the face of the relatively new phenomenon of themed news-bursts: “If someone like Ben Rhodes wants me to believe this – as is evident from the way I’m being bombarded with it – I should approach it with skepticism.”
That’s just basic common sense.