The stunning success of the right wing disinformation machine in the health-care debate should give all progressives pause about our messaging strategy.
The Washington Post’s well-respected media critic Howard Kurtz made an impassioned case today that the the media isn’t really to blame — “Journalists, Left Out of The Debate: Few Americans Seem to Hear Health Care Facts” — which is to say, the media is irrelevant:
For once, mainstream journalists did not retreat to the studied neutrality of quoting dueling antagonists.
They tried to perform last rites on the ludicrous claim about President Obama’s death panels, telling Sarah Palin, in effect, you’ve got to quit making things up.
But it didn’t matter. The story refused to die.
The crackling, often angry debate over health-care reform has severely tested the media’s ability to untangle a story of immense complexity. In many ways, news organizations have risen to the occasion; in others they have become agents of distortion. But even when they report the facts, they have had trouble influencing public opinion.
In the 10 days after Palin warned on Facebook of an America “in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel,’ “ The Washington Post mentioned the phrase 18 times, the New York Times 16 times, and network and cable news at least 154 times (many daytime news shows are not transcribed).
Now the first thing to say is that it is a central rule of messaging, rhetoric, and psychology: Don’t keep repeating a strong word the other side is trying to push (see “Memo to Gore: Don’t call coal ‘clean’ seven times in your ad” for a brief discussion of the literature on that subject”).
But from my perspective this is just another way of saying that once again, the progressive side doesn’t have its own simple message on this issue — like so many others, including global warming. As the saying goes, you can’t beat the horse with no horse, and right now, progressives have banned some of their best horses entirely (see here) and are running a few hapless ponies that get trampled out of the starting gate by the conservative thoroughbreds.
Kurtz continues with his proof of the media’s innocence impotence:
While there is legitimate debate about the legislation’s funding for voluntary end-of-life counseling sessions, the former Alaska governor’s claim that government panels would make euthanasia decisions was clearly debunked. Yet an NBC poll last week found that 45 percent of those surveyed believe the measure would allow the government to make decisions about cutting off care to the elderly — a figure that rose to 75 percent among Fox News viewers.
Less than seven hours after Palin posted her charge Aug. 7, MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann called it an “absurd idea.” That might have been dismissed as a liberal slam, but the next day, ABC’s Bill Weir said on “Good Morning America”: “There is nothing like that anywhere in the pending legislation.”
On Aug. 9, Post reporter Ceci Connolly said flatly in an A-section story: “There are no such ‘death panels’ mentioned in any of the House bills.” That same day, on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks called Palin’s assertion “crazy.” CNN’s Jessica Yellin said on “State of the Union,” “That’s not an accurate assessment of what this panel is.” And on ABC’s “This Week,” George Stephanopoulos said: “Those phrases appear nowhere in the bill.”
Of course, the conservatives and conservative-leaning independents who swallow the disinformation from their trusted sources can’t be moved by journalists a don’t watch or don’t believe.
Consider these stats from Gallup polling over the past decade (see “The Deniers are winning, but only with the GOP”):
In 1997, some 52% of Democrats said the effects of global warming have already begun and 52% said most scientists believe global warming is occurring. In 2008, now 76% say warming had begun and 75% say most scientists believe warming is occurring. It would appear that Democrats believe most scientists.
Few leading climate scientists or major scientific bodies would disagree with the assertion that the scientific case that the planet is warming and humans are the dominant cause of recent warming has gotten much stronger in the past 10 years. That is clearly seen in the scientific literature — as summarized in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports and as amplified by studies and increasingly dire warnings since.
And yet for Republicans, in 1997 some 42% said warming had begun and 48% said most scientists believe warming is occurring “” a modest 6 point differential. By 2008, the percentage of Republicans saying the effects of global warming have already begun had dropped to a mere 42% (an amazing stat in its own right given the painfully obvious evidence to the contrary). But the percentage saying most scientists believe global warming is occurring had risen to 54% “” a stunning 12 point differential.
In short, a significant and growing number of Republicans “” one in eight as of 2008 “” simply don’t believe what they know most scientists believe.
Now if you’re not going to believe what you know scientists believe, you’re certainly not going to believe what mainstream TV journalists say — as long as the right-wing media and pundits you do trust keep lying, which, as Kurtz makes clear, they do:
Still, some conservatives argued otherwise. On the Stephanopoulos roundtable, former House speaker Newt Gingrich said the legislation “has all sorts of panels. You’re asking us to trust turning power over to the government when there clearly are people in America who believe in establishing euthanasia, including selective standards.”
And on Fox the next night, Bill O’Reilly played a clip of former Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean saying Palin “just made that up. . . . There’s nothing like euthanasia in the bill.” O’Reilly countered that as far as he could tell, “Sarah Palin never mentioned euthanasia. Dean made it up to demean Palin.”
Ultimately, the media consensus was that Palin had attempted “to leap across a logical canyon,” as the conservative bible National Review put it, adding that “we should be against hysteria.” But the “death” debate was sucking up much of the political oxygen. President Obama kept denying that he was for “pulling the plug on Grandma.” On Aug. 13, the Senate Finance Committee pulled the plug on the provision, with Republican Sen. Charles Grassley saying the idea could be — yes — “misinterpreted.”
Perhaps journalists are no more trusted than politicians these days, or many folks never saw the knockdown stories. But this was a stunning illustration of the traditional media’s impotence.
Well, a certain kind of impotence — let’s call it factual impotence. For conflict and drama-driven stories, the media is on Viagra — or perhaps Cialis, for misdirection lasting more than four hours.
The eruption of anger at town-hall meetings on health care, while real and palpable, became an endless loop on television. The louder the voices, the fiercer the confrontation, the more it became video wallpaper, obscuring the substantive arguments in favor of what producers love most: conflict.
Never mind if some of the fury seemed unfocused or simply anti-Obama. Katy Abram was shown hundreds of times yelling at Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter: “I don’t want this country turning into Russia. . . . What are you going to do to restore this country back to what our founders created according to the Constitution?” She later popped up on Sean Hannity’s Fox show, saying: “I know that years down the road, I don’t want my children coming to me and asking me, ‘Mom, why didn’t you do anything? Why do we have to wait in line for, I don’t know, toilet paper or anything?’ “
Twenty members of Congress might have held calm and collected town meetings on any given day, but only the one with raucous exchanges would make it on the air. “TV loves a ruckus,” Obama complained more than once. In fact, after the president convened a low-key town hall in New Hampshire, press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters: “I think some of you were disappointed yesterday that the president didn’t get yelled at.” There was a grain of truth in that. As Fox broke away from the meeting, anchor Trace Gallagher said, “Any contentious questions, anybody yelling, we’ll bring it to you.”
The only source of “information” that might change the views of Republicans is the leadership of the conservative movement itself “” conservative politicians, conservative think tanks, conservative media, and conservative pundits. As I wrote last year, until they not only reverse their position completely but also actively spread this reversed position to the faithful, this country will find it almost impossible to adopt the very strong government-led policies needed to avert humanity’s self-destruction aka Hell and High Water.
I do think that messaging aimed at swaying conservatives is pointless and certainly nothing I attempt on this blog.
What to do, then?
Right now, elections and policy campaigns are being won or lost by the 10% to 20% of voters in the middle, assuming a party can keep its base mobilized. And right now, Dems are doing neither. We have only one stallion on the team who can break through the pack and deliver the messages to move both the middle and progressives.
Having waited in vain for Obama to breakthrough with winning messages, I will trot out my messaging horses in the coming days. Saddle up!