Framing The Issues

After I graduated law school and had practiced for a time, I realized that what I had learned  could be boiled down to one essential axiom: he who frames the issue wins the debate. The rest (to quote Hillel) is commentary. Or–in the case of lawyering–the rest is process. 

The ability to frame an issue–to make the debate about X rather than Y–is a powerful weapon.

That point was recently made by Rick Perlstein in The American Prospect, in the second of his essays on “The Infernal Triangle.” This piece focused on the frames used by political journalists, and the ways in which those frames distort our current reality.

In journalism, metaphors matter profoundly. Labels matter profoundly. Narrative frames matter profoundly. They matter most precisely when they function unthinkingly. That is when they soothe us into not bothering to look. 

The essay quoted liberally from a book by Jeff Sharlet. At one point, the book described Leslie Stahl’s interview of Marjorie Taylor Green–an interview that was widely panned for  what was seen as Stahl’s ineffective efforts to fact-check Green. Stahl is an excellent journalist, but she was operating from within that professional tradition.

“Those old frames don’t work anymore,” Sharlet explained. “Marjorie Taylor Greene is not trying to join the cosmos that Lesley Stahl and much of American journalism is set up to cover.” She inhabited an entirely separate one: a fascist one, which the likes of Stahl have no idea how to comprehend. “Fascism is a dream politics. It’s a mythology. You can’t fact-check myth. You can’t arch an eyebrow and make it go away.”

Perlstein’s thesis is simple, although its implications are anything but. He contends that “the conceptual tools, metaphors, habits, and technologies that make up what we understand as “political journalism” in America are thoroughly unequal to the task of making sense of what, in America in 2024, politics is.”

In the essay, Perlstein recounts a back-and-forth between Sharlet and a reporter for the New York Times. Sharlet pointed out that Trump—with his “cult of personality, and the celebration of violence”—has encouraged a politics very different from the political battles journalists have encountered previously, and he cited scholarship to that effect. He then asked the reporter

“with love and affection for The New York Times and the dilemma that you’re in: What is the argument against calling that ‘fascism’?”

At which his interlocutor doubled down on the smug.

“For the same reason we don’t call Trump ‘racist.’ It’s more powerful to say what something is than to offer a label on it that is going to be debated, you know, and distract from the reporting that goes into it.”

Sharlet: “Who is debating Trump’s racism right now?”

This exchange highlights a genuine dilemma. When does “framing” devolve into labeling and name-calling? On the other hand, at what point must honest reporters acknowledge that observed behaviors are fascist or racist–or unmistakable signs of mental illness?

Perlstein ends his essay with a promise to continue the analysis, and perhaps he will be able to describe that tipping point–the demarkation between a journalist’s accurate description of what a political figure said or did and a defensible characterization of that description as racist or fascist (or insane). I’m not sure I could identify that tipping point, but I certainly agree that the practice of political journalism is in crisis, and not simply because older professional norms no longer seem adequate to our current political reality.

What is particularly problematic is that “journalism” from the Right has understood the power of framing (Fox “News” et al) while practitioners of so-called “legacy journalism” have reacted by clinging more tightly to an increasingly misleading neutrality. (In all fairness, there are signs that–as the MAGA threat to democracy becomes too obvious to ignore–some of those legacy newspapers are sounding the alarm.)

The problem isn’t simply a stubborn adherence to norms that may be outmoded. There’s also the fragmentation of America’s media landscape–a fragmentation that has been facilitated by the Internet, and that allows us all to seek out compatible information sources, and inhabit realities of our choosing. We have the ability to visit “news” sites that frame current political debates in ways that confirm our pre-existing biases and world-views. In many ways, today’s media environment is a throwback to the bad old days when political parties published broadsides with their versions of what was “news” and there were few competing sources with commitments to accuracy and/or objectivity. 

Bottom line: the successful framing of the stakes of this year’s election will determine who wins–and the fate of the American experiment.


  1. The bottom line seems to imply we’re doomed! We know full well that the Dems are the worst at messaging. Can they turn that around in time to refocus the electorate on the existential crisis we face? We can only hope.

  2. Why do you think changing someone’s perspective by framing an issue, is the same skill set used in framing someone or something for a particular problem or issue?Thereby, driving a political or other particularly divisive narratives!

    History shows that the most successful fascist entities were able to frame narratives to entrench themselves in power. They were able to control the majority even if many in that majority didn’t actually believe in that particular framed narrative. They followed because they wanted to have an alternate reality, they wanted to be something other than what they are. This is what it means to be willfully ignorant or willfully deluded, you know it’s fake but you’re part of the club!

  3. Peggy; all we can do at this juncture is hope that the Democrats are diligently working behind the scenes to gather support, understanding and donations and have some surprises in store for us come November 5th. Of course we do need to be let in on their possible candidates for the Primary in May; we should NOT have to hunt for them on the Internet as is the case at this time. It is not too early; we should have been getting information in 2023, we know the Republican candidates, their well framed issues and their agenda.

  4. “In journalism, metaphors matter profoundly. Labels matter profoundly. Narrative frames matter profoundly. They matter most precisely when they function unthinkingly. That is when they soothe us into not bothering to look.”

    What if we don’t value, even recognize, the difference between journalism and entertainment? We like living a fantasy, being a hero or heroine, playing the role of the most powerful person or being in the universe. We give God a name like Trump. We assume that he is both all-powerful and beneficent. He tells us that is true, for God’s sake.

  5. To often the news story is “Trump said at his rally xxxx….” rather something like “Trump’s racist and fascist remarks were well received at the rally”.

    At some point you have to stop letting das Furer stop framing the story and report the truth of the story.

    You’re right. American main stream journalism is stuck in an old paradigm at a dangerous new time and Republicans are taking full advantage.

  6. The political campaign strategist working behind the scenes in a mickle media war room has a daunting challenge to strategically time phase the right message at the right time that tips turning point in the sweet spot at the polls. When a race is predictably tight, the political strategists must be like NASA engineers knowing precisely when to fire counter thrust to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere resulting in a desired landing within the zone of recovery (victory). There is no room for error born of fake fantasies in a fully articulated flight control center. However, in Trump World, fake wheaties for breakfast is the norm.

  7. Instead of calling Trump a fascist, a journalist could report what he says and then point out that it is the same thing Hitler said. Or the journalist could use similar reporting techniques to draw attention to the parallels between tactics being used today and those used by past authoritarians, fascists, racists, etc. I agree that journalists are starting to catch on to how to do this. I hope it’s not too little too late. Creators of political ads could do this too. Compare and contrast. Focus on positions instead of labels.

  8. I have friends and acquaintances who simply refuse to see what is right in front of them, that MAGA and T*ump pose a real threat to America. Many of them adopted the “alternative facts” of Jan 6 while it was happening. I want to scream at the top of my lungs “WAKE UP”, but I know better than that. MAGA is following the playbook of fascist and authoritarian dictators throughout history, as outlined in the excellent book “How Democracies Die” by Stephen Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. It is like seeing a train wreck happening in slow motion, and you can’t do anything to stop it.
    What I know to do is to organize, donate my time and money to organizations that promote democracy and stand for what I value in life. Not because I expect Democrats to win in Indiana, but so that when they lose I will know that at least I have done something.

  9. Something that drives me crazy is when interviewers allow politicians to substitute long segments of word salad for answers to questions without pointing out that the question was never answered. Saying something like “What you said did not answer the question I asked.” would help viewers keep from getting lost in all the gobbledygook. It might also help the interviewer from getting sidetracked. An interviewer doesn’t have to demand a yes or no answer, but should be free to identify obfuscation.

  10. I will never forget watching Leslie Stahl’s interview of mtg. She allowed mtg to run over her like bulldozer and completely control the interview content. It was disgusting to watch Stahl allow mtg’s lies go unchallenged. It appeared that Stahl was afraid of mtg. I found it even worse that CBS and 60 Minutes chose to show that crazy interview.

    Nick Hanauer’s Pitchfork Economics podcast and Civic Ventures website could really help the Democrat party and President Biden frame just what is at stake in this election.

  11. Maybe Nickki Haley will indeed stay in the race so we can all watch Donald Trump’s diseased brain finally collapse into itself as he becomes increasingly LESS coherent. As she continues to poke at his living corpse, she would then get the nomination by default.

    No journalists required for commentary, only somebody to hold the camera.

  12. While watching republican politicians being interviewed on tv during at least the past 5-6 years, I’ve noticed many times the interviewer chooses not to challenge the politician’s blatant lies. This has me wondering if the interviewer has been warned by upper management not to challenge or point out those lies. I can’t help but wonder if the corporate c-suite members/owners at the news outlets have been warned by large budget advertisers that they will pull their ads if republican politicians are called out on their lies during an interview that gets aired.

  13. You can frame the issue to perfection, but it will not matter so long as the person delivering that message speaks in a whisper and slurs his words like a fragile eighty-one year old.

  14. One of the things I like about the BBC radio interviewers is that they almost always push back on unanswered questions, even to the point of telling the interviewee that they have not answered.
    Another issue I have with journalists is the use of “anti-abortion” instead of “pro-choice”. The subtlety is significant to framing the issue. My choice is to make my own decision.

    Per a previous request, please see the following post from my private neighborhood FB page.
    “In the 2020 election, 80 million eligible voters did not cast a ballot.
    Where you one of them? Please take the time to register for the coming one.
    2024 is a general election year. Voting is the one of two obligations required of us as citizens. It is easy to register on line or check your status or update your information.”
    Then I attached a link to the Indiana voter registration portal.

  15. I like the way Dan framed the issue: It’s always been the media reporting WHAT the fool said, rather than stating that he said “so and so” and critiquing the statement. That’s how hw got all those millions and millions of dollars worth of free advertising in’16.

  16. Nice to see my friend, Sheila, getting “with it” on language. She has now “graduated law school” rather than “graduated from law school” – how cool is that?

    Communications training I have had (or led) suggests you start with the audience and “frame” things for them, e.g. “if X gets elected, the ultra-rich and corporations will pay even less taxes and you will get even less services”.

  17. Biden has stated plainly and forcefully more than once his achievements. He has called out trump’s lies. You who have commented so far are wasting your time. Just shut up

  18. In re Sheila’s topic today, yes, framing the issue does put one side thereof a step up before a jury, but it also obligates such side to prove its contentions as the trial proceeds. I have been on both such sides before juries and have won some and lost some, and here note that framing attempts before trial-wise judges and chancellors are a waste of time and may indeed give such non-jury triers of both the law and the facts a sense that such counsel is trying to cover up his/her weaknesses in the case at hand with such courtroom propaganda.

    However, framing by media, politicians and preachers does not offer judicial control of admissible evidence and instructions to the jury in a courtroom context, and can lead to a potent misuse of the language protected by the First Amendment. We can see how such framing has led to normalization of criminal conduct by Trump’s control of the narrative resulting in polls of Republicans showing that some fifty percent of them see no problem with his fitness to serve even if convicted of one or more felonies!

    I knew Trump had a problem north of the neck, but I never thought any American of any political description would vote for and thus approve of a candidate for the Oval Office who is charged with 91 pending felony counts, who openly talks of ending the Constitution, shooting migrants and shoplifters, attempting to overthrow our government, ruling as a dictator if elected etc. etc. etc. I now have a new problem, i.e., how a framed narrative can persuade some fifty percent of the Republican polity to vote for a candidate who makes Benedict Arnold and Judas Iscariot look like saints.

    Has Trump already destroyed our democratic institutions? Someone enlighten me.

  19. Thank you Vernon for a different possibility and perhaps She will stay and He will leave in more ways than one.

  20. I suggest that this problem of framing can be seen in the reporting of the Israel-Hamas “war,” especially in its early stages. That said, the initial frame is breaking down so thoroughly under the weight of overwhelming evidence that only the most bigoted and/or zionist continue to espouse it. Initially, even to _question_ Israel’s actions was deemed antisemitic, definitionally.

    For me, a frame used in this manner is unabashedly dishonest.

  21. At this point Magas have decided and are firmly planted on the fascist bandwagon. Their cultist minds reject all views except what they’re told by their leader. The rest of American’s need clarity reported on what’s going on and who we’re up against. Just the facts Mam.

  22. “If you believe in the eighteenth century view of the mind, you will look and act wimpy. You will think that all you need to do is give people the facts and the figures and they will reach the right conclusion. You will think that all you need to do is point out where their interests lie, and they will act politically to maximize them. You will believe in polling and focus groups: you will believe that if you ask people what their interests are, they will be aware of them and will tell you, and will vote on it. You will not have any need to appeal to emotion—indeed, to do so would be wrong! You will not have to speak of values; facts and figures will suffice. You will not have to change people’s brains; their reason should be enough. You will not have to frame the facts; they will speak for themselves. You just have to get the facts to them…”

    ― George Lakoff, Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate: The Essential Guide for Progressives

  23. Over it, the only “emotion” folks have these days is over their favorite team, drink or movie star. Get real.

  24. Lester. Are these the only emotions you have? If not, why do you suppose you are so superior to everyone else? If so, why do you bother reading Sheila and responding? Is it that you are hopeless and want to drag everyone else down to your level?

  25. It’s not a time to be demure and soften how bad things can get. This country is at a crossroads and there will be dark money and powers (like 2016 as evidenced in Mueller report) that was wrongly framed by a political AG with power issues. The public can’t grasp the gravity of the situation without the cold hard facts.
    We are being played emotionally, politically etc. It’s an all-out civil war for rule of law and democracy. Both my parents served in US army in WWll and gave up their freedom and risk their lives to fight evil fascism. They had to maintain their emotions and carry out their duties during that horrid time. Not keeping our wits about us at this perilous time is not helpful, and organizing in force to defeat authoritarian fascism is necessary to be successful.

  26. So much truth in your observations. Reminds me of the definitions of progressives being able to reason and consider options. You and I sat in a meeting once where the term “fascism” was recognized identifying a real trend and threat. It was long before the current epiphany. Fascism is attractive to those who love simple answers. Those who prefer to be governed without the responsibility of sharing in governing. Myths of riding a Mustang by driving one. Making America great again to meet the myth not the facts. And modern myths are propagated by mass media. Like Iowa with 6 electors and a very low caucus turn out. Along with primary voters in New Hampshire with 4 electors . Have already decided the nominee of the Republican Party. While many millions in other states and 532 electors have not yet begun to fight.

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