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.Comments