Framing The Debate

Wednesday, September 28, 2005
In a sign that the Old Media monopoly on information is starting to crack, Eric Pfeiffer of The Buzz at National Review Online interviewed Senator John Cornyn and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Meanwhile MSNBC reports that Hillary Clinton has set up meetings with “key bloggers”, presumably on the left.

The typical political news story as found on the AP news wire or the pages of the New York Times features a quotation from some political figure, whom the reporter may or may not have interviewed. This is embedded in several paragraphs in which the reporter sets the statement in context. Very often there is also a comment from an “expert” at a think tank and a statement from a politician of the opposing party. Once public figures agree to be interviewed by members of the on-line media, there is no reason that these functions of the Old Media cannot be duplicated or improved on.

The crucial step of course is the willingness of public figures to be interviewed by people whose bona fides are unknown. National Review has sufficient prestige to get past this hurdle, regardless of the medium they use to get the message out. To my knowledge no prominent figure in the Republican party has agreed to answer questions from a pure blogger.

I suspect that many in the GOP are still stuck in the old paradigm and pine for the days when the media consisted of the three alphabet networks and a couple of major newspapers. Politicians as a group seem to be highly risk averse and are unlikely to sit down to discuss anything with an anonymous blogger. Those who manage to successfully leverage the strengths of the new medium will either have already established a reputation as a journalist or author, or they will be a new breed of reporters working for organizations fronted by people with an established record in the news business.

The policy decisions taken by any government are influenced by the news coverage they draw. In some sense the media does act as a “voice of the people”, pressuring government to act in some ways and not others. The problem at present is that the media represents the voice of a small and unrepresentative segment of the American people, and that the majority effectively has no “voice” to the government. The majority who voted for Bush last November do not hear their point of view expressed at White House press conferences, or on the evening news.

It makes an enormous difference to American foreign policy whether the question posed to the government, supposedly on behalf of the people, is “What are you doing to ensure that captured terrorists at Guantanamo are treated with sensitivity?” as opposed to “What steps are you taking to dissuade the Syrians and Iranians from aiding and abetting the terrorists in Iraq?”.

In the same vein, the course of domestic policy in America would be dramatically different if reporters asked the press secretary “Why does government cost so much money?” rather than “How much money will the President ask Congress to spend on hurricane recovery?”

From the standpoint of the Old Media the answers to their questions are largely irrelevant.The whole point is to pose the question and to effectively frame the debate in ways favorable to the policy outcomes favored by the Old Media themselves.

Much of the “New Media”, an idea still in embryonic form, is focusing on the other Old Media sins, and they are plentiful enough, to be sure. The lies of both commission and omission, the statements torn out of context to appear to mean the reverse of what was really said, the selective use of “expert” commentators to buttress the point the reporter wants to get across, these are all known problems and ones which the bloggers and others are intent on trying to overcome. But while a good and worthwhile project in its own right, this cannot address the underlying problem. It's not simply that the Old Media distort the answers to the questions they pose, it is that the questions they pose themselves introduce a distortion.

In the final analysis we don't need more and better fact checkers. We need the questions posed to accurately reflect the concerns of the majority of the American people. Once that happens we can finally begin to make better progress at addressing those concerns.


Knucklehead said...

Eegads, Flensor!

I will ignore the embarassment prompted by the paucity of my knowledge of early nineteenth century British history and forge ahead.

I am currently reading Arthur Herman's How the Scots Invented the Modern World. Just this morning I devoted a few minutes to begin chapter ten, Light From the North: Scots, Liberals, and Reform

The reason I mention this is that while reading, and being introduced to Herman's version of what the Whigs were all about (the only version I have - see embarassment and paucity cited above), it occured to me that there may well be that useful comparisons can be made between Britain of the early 19th and the United States of the early 21st century.

I have not given enough thought and research to this notion but recollection of Rick Ballard's occasional references to "neo-Whigs" prompted the idea that perhaps one of the areas of useful comparison would be the conflict between the "old guard" (media, academia, politicians) and the "new guard" (new media and, I certainly hope, those replacing the rapidly "aging out" academics and politicians).

I have nothing useful to add to this discussion but I sincerely hope others will pick it up and join. I will listen with rapt attention.

Rick Ballard said...

I was right with you until I read:

"We need the questions posed to accurately reflect the concerns of the majority of the American people."

The majority always has the potential to be 'everyone below average + 1'. A very good question that a majority will always get around to asking is: "Why should those possessing an abundance of wealth be allowed to retain it?". That is, in fact, the central tenet of the current media template, or framework, if you will.

New Media does offer an opportunity to approach questions of importance from a different framework. Developing the narrative framing of question and response cannot be simply a matter of referring to the whim of the majority but should reflect the first principles which pre-existed the current medias initiating premise and will endure when that premise is long forgotten.

The redistributive framework of the Wooly Mammoth Media has envy and covetousness at its core. While hardly enviable as prinicples they call to base human attributes that guarantee a significant audience. I remain hopeful that language can be developed (are you listening, Truepeers?) that restates or clarifies first principles in a manner that is understandable to those who have undergone or are undergoing indoctrination based upon the redistributive model.

While I agree with the need for a new framework I hope that its development will be based upon principle rather than the perceived 'needs' of the common mob.

flenser said...

Then I find myself in the rare situation of disagreeing with you, Rick.

It was the conventional wisdom in the 18th and 19th century that "the people" were little more than savage brutes who would bring society to ruin if they ever sized the reins of power. Both the Left and the Right of the time believed this. And they were both wrong.

It has turned out to be the working class, in the true sense of the term, who are the true conservatives, in the true sense of the term. And the "elites" have proven themselves time and again to be the true radicals.

It's true in principle that the majority may be no more than a mob. But in todays America, it is not true in practice. And if it becomes true, the proper solution will not be rule by some "elite", but the raising of the character of the rest of the people. At the end of the day, our system is built on the assumption that the average citizen is more than an ignorant parasite.

It seems a bit odd to assume that the desires of the majority are founded on base impulses, and that the desires of the minority are based on pure principle. Although I imagine todays Democratic party would find the idea comforting.

Anyway, this is wandering off topic. We can save it for my future post on positive law versus natural law. :)

flenser said...

I didn't mean to sound like I'm trying to close off debate. By all means make that critique if you like. It's an important discussion, if tangential to the question of correcting the media.

Rick Ballard said...


It can wait. You're correct about the tangential nature of the response. I would note that the 38% of the voting age population who voted for W do not constitute a majority. That's the premise for my next political post.

Returning to the central point, what you posit concerning Dying Media is that they are propagandists (and poor ones, at that) rather than reporters of fact. I'm unsure as to what type of question framing could be developed that would not be construed as simple oppositional propaganda. I suppose that beginning the questioning of a pol by asking for a clear definition of the matter at hand might be one approach but most pols are so gifted at spouting obfuscational bafflegab that I'm not sure of the efficacy of such an approach.

Knucklehead said...

...the question of correcting the media.

The media give us what we want. Correcting it means we have to alter what we want.

Accomplishing that, it seems to me, is done by a rather tried and true methodology.

Enough "pundits" and, eventually, lesser discussers of the human condition, promote a "vision" (sorry, but it serves), preferrably optimistic and with some humor, in a sufficiently compelling way that people give it a fair hearing.

Then come "sponsors" or "benefactors" who believe the vision compelling enough to invest their resources in its further promotion and ultimate success. They, in turn, hire those promoting the vision to teach it to their offspring, endow university chairs, fund research and entertainments that promote the vision, etc.

Eventually the vision is pushed out to the masses who take it to heart and, more or less, live it as conventional wisdom.

This is how the classic liberalism took over from monarchism and how free-trade unseated mercantilism. It is also how those were, in turn, supplanted by Gramscian socialism.

The devil is in the details, of course, but the methods for instituting change are not secret. They have been used repeatedly.

The old-guard has become stagnant and insular. It no longer serves the interests of the people who have become addicted to it. We're in a period of stormy weather (speaking figuratively about public discourse rather than Gulf Hurricane trends) because one front is pushing out another.

Fair skies are ahead, they just aren't part of the 24 hour forecast ;)

MeaninglessHotAir said...


The media give us what we want.

Sorry, I have to disagree on that one. The NYT gives me what they want. I am then given a choice of reading it or not. Take it or leave it. I generally leave it, but that doesn't seem to affect anything.

If the environment were competitive, then I think my actions and the actions of millions like me would affect the NYT. But nowadays the media is almost entirely monolithic, which means that the people creating the stories can focus on what brings them approval from their peers rather than on what pleases the customers.

The view themselves as being in the catbird's seat, and quite rightly. I believe one action that makes them most bitter toward George Bush is his refusal to acknowledge their power. He treats them as the worms they are and they respond in kind.

truepeers said...

RB, I hear you. Flenser, the new questions won't come from the center. They have to come from the likes of us and slowly find their way into the mainstream, which they inevitably will when there is a whole other world talking about them. We just have to be patient in building up our own centers of attention.

flenser said...


I'm not sure I believe that the MSM are propagandists, although that may be so depending on how you define the term.

The question asked will always be a reflection of the world view of the questioner. "Why aren't you shrinking government?" is simply not a question that any member of the MSM will ever ask a president. It would simply never occur to them that it is even a valid question.

I think what this means for New Media is that simply being open and honest is not enough. Its reporters will have to be people who disagree with the MSM/left/liberals about means and ends.