Tuesday, November 04, 2014

POLITICAL MASTER NARRATIVES DON'T JUST HAPPEN

At Bloomberg View, Jonathan Bernstein expresses agreement with a view of this year's election that's becoming conventional wisdom in the liberal punditocracy. According to Bernstein, Norman Ornstein is right to say that the press settled on the following narrative months ago, and won't report stories that contradict it:
The most common press narrative for elections this year is to contrast them with the 2010 and 2012 campaigns. Back then, the GOP "establishment" lost control of its nominating process, ended up with a group of extreme Senate candidates who said wacky things -- Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock, Sharron Angle -- and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in races that should have been slam dunks. Now the opposite has happened: The establishment has fought back and won, vanquishing the Tea Party and picking top-flight candidates who are disciplined and mainstream, dramatically unlike Akin and Angle.
I agree that that's the narrative, or a big part of it at least. Republican candidates believe ISIS terrorists might cross into non-border states via Mexico, fear Agenda 21, support personhood amendments -- and the press doesn't care.

But Bernstein thinks this sort of narrative-crafting just happens, because the press has certain work habits:
The "neutral" press does have biases – but they are more for sensational stories, for individual-level explanations over institutional ones, for bad news over good....

The bottom line is that while media bias frequently produces liberal or conservative results in newspaper, online and broadcast stories, the biases themselves aren't liberal or conservative.... They have to do with what sells, or with the incentives of individual reporters and editors, or simply with the way that news-gathering and publishing are organized.
But master narratives don't just happen. Republicans crafted this we're-not-crazy-anymore narrative. Republicans sold it to the press -- a press that's decided it doesn't like or respect the president anymore -- while Democrats never really made an effort to counter the narrative or craft an alternate narrative.

I know a lot of you think the press has an anti-liberal bias because media outlets are largely owned by conservatives. I actually agree with Bernstein that it's not that simple. The press challenged Nixon and Gingrich and George W. Bush. The press has challenged the Religious Right.

The press was successully sold an anti-Republican narrative in the Bush years. Anti-war activists and public figures (Michael Moore, Cindy Sheehan) chipped away at solid support for Bush until disgust at the war became key to the campaign of Howard Dean. The John Kerry campaign picked up the message, as did Democrats in 2006 and 2008. Combined with Terri Schiavo and Katrina, and eventually the financial crisis, the anti-Bush message became the one the press reported.

But Democrats and liberals stopped trying to craft the narrative after that. They yielded to the tea party. The Obama campaign crafted a successful narrative about Mitt Romney in 2012, but in the Obama years the Republicans have crafted all the press narratives having to do with how the country is being governed, as well as the overarching narratives of both midterms. (Yes, Democrats successfully drew attention to crazy Republican candidates in 2010 and 2012, but Republicans countered by persuading the press and electorate that they were a few bad apples.)

What's going on now isn't just about the media's habits of thinking and working. Republicans never stop selling stories to the press. Democrats stop for years at a time.

4 comments:

Victor said...

Why don't Democrats ever learn to 'message?'

Is it because they mis-read Americans, and think we're logical, and will vote in our own best interests?

We've seen 4o+ years when the population goes into mass hysteria over something - drugs, crime, immigrants, diseases, etc - and vote against their own best interests.

And we'll likely see that again today - though, I hope against hope that the Democrats hold onto the Senate.

flipyrwhig said...

Democrats "message." It's just that the loudest voices "messaging" are those that say, "Whoa, whoa, whoa, just because I'm a member of the Democratic Party, that doesn't mean I'm like our extremist redistributionist President." And that's going to keep happening until and unless someone runs a successful political campaign in a "red state" that sounds themes of economic justice and interracial solidarity, rather than the template the (D) consultant class knows well: work across the aisle, protect old people's medicine, etc.

D. Hussein said...

Steve, I totally disagree that the press ever bought into an anti-Republican narrative during the Bush years. Michael Moore, Cindy Sheehan, and Howard Dean influenced the media narrative? Seriously? It was just that the anti-GOP sentiment was so strong at the time because of Bush's massive fuck-ups that the press couldn't do anything to stop it.

That being said, you're still right: Democrats are incredibly bad at messaging, with rare exceptions like Elizabeth Warren.

Roger said...

I pretty much agree with D. Hussein. I don't have numbers to back up my feeling, but the press seems to have developed a stronger anti-liberal bias over the years of media consolidation. Out of my imperfect memory, in 1978 there were 23 major media companies. In 1990 there were 16. In 2000 there were 9. Today? These numbers may be inexact, I'd have to look in Manufacturing Consent to get the exact years and numbers, but the trend is there. Each of those 9 or 6 media companies is subject to the control of two or three people. Well, within each company there are probably two or three hundred people who think they are decision makers, but they consciously or unconsciously defer to the owners. Heck, if you watch the video Manufacturing Consent they don't even think they do that, it's that insidious.