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.


The Rest Of The Story

Yesterday, I linked to this essay in the American Prospect, written by historian Rick Perlstein. It identified the three sides of an “Infernal triangle,” which it identified as “authoritarian Republicans, ineffectual Democrats and a clueless media.” The essay was pithy–and in my opinion, perceptive enough–to warrant additional citation.

I was especially struck by Perlstein’s analysis of media bias toward the GOP. That bias is not ideological, at least not in the political sense; it arises from deeply-seated notions of what constitutes “proper” political journalism. As he writes,

A political journalism adequate to this moment must throw so many of our received notions about how politics works into question. For one thing, it has to treat the dissemination of conventional but structurally distorting journalistic narratives as a crucial part of the story of how we got to this point.

 For instance, the way mainstream American political journalism has built in a structural bias toward Republicans. If one side in a two-sided fight is perfectly willing to lie, cheat, steal, and intimidate without remorse in order to win, and journalists, as a matter of genre convention, must “balance” the ledger between “both sides,” in the interest of “fairness,” that is systematically unfair to the side less willing to lie, cheat, steal, and intimidate. Journalism that feels compelled to adjudge both “sides” as equally vicious, when they are anything but, works like one of those booster seats you give a toddler in a restaurant so that they can sit eye to eye with the grown-ups. It is a systematic distortion of reality built into mainstream political journalism’s very operating system.

A recent example was one of NBC News’s articles in response to Donald Trump’s new turn of phrase in describing immigration. It was headlined: “Trump Sparks Republican Backlash After Saying Immigrants Are ‘Poisoning the Blood’ of the U.S.”

It took exceptional ingenuity for someone at NBC to figure out how to wrench one side’s embrace of race science into the consensus frame, where “both sides” “agree” that major presidential candidates should not imitate Nazis. That frame squeezes out any understanding of how Trump’s provocations rest along a continuum of Republican demonization of immigrants going back decades (“Build the dang fence,” as John McCain put it in 2010), and that most Republicans nonetheless support Trump (or candidates who say much the same things) down the line.

Pravda stuff, in its way. Imagine the headache for historians of the United States a hundred years from now, if there is a United States a hundred years from now, seeking to disentangle from journalism like that what the Republican Party of 2024 is actually like.

The inadequacy of the Democratic response adds to the cluelessness of our current media environment. In the face of a truly enormous threat to America’s constitutional democracy, Perlstein points to

Democratic “counterprogramming”: actions actively signaling contempt for the party’s core non-elite and anti-elitist base of support. That’s a term of art from the Clinton years, but it has its origins as far back as the early 1950s, when Adlai Stevenson Sister Souljah’ed a meeting with party liberals by announcing himself opposed to Truman’s goal of a national health care program, derided federal funding of public housing, and came out in favor of the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act.

Another Democratic tradition associates political surrender with moral nobility. Al Gore, for example, had wanted to concede on Election Night 2000, based merely on network projections that had Bush up by 4,600 votes in Florida—and not even wait for the actual initial count, which ending up having Bush ahead by only a few hundred.

This is the infernal triangle that structures American politics.

In one corner, a party consistently ratcheting toward authoritarianism, refusing as a matter of bedrock principle—otherwise they are “Republicans in Name Only”—to compromise with adversaries they frame as ineluctably evil and seek literally to destroy.

In the second corner, a party that says that, in a political culture where there is not enough compromise, the self-evident solution is to offer more compromise—because those guys’ extremist fever, surely, is soon to break …

And in the third corner, those agenda-setting elite political journalists, who frame the Democrats as one of the “sides” in a tragic folie à deux destroying a nation otherwise united and at peace with itself because both sides stubbornly … refuse to compromise.

And here we are.

I would frame the sides a bit differently. Today’s GOP is a fascist cult that must be defeated if American democracy is to survive. Democrats are feckless, true–but it’s hard to  message to a “big tent” that includes everyone from rational folks fleeing the GOP to voters to the left of Bernie Sanders.

It’s the journalism that normalizes the fascism and highlights the fecklessness that will destroy us.


They’re Inextricably Connected…

Back in August, I came across a poignant, first-person essay in CounterPunch, a site I rarely access. (A reader may have sent it to me.) The essay was from a longtime journalist and professor of journalism at Indiana University, Bloomington who was mourning the demise of Bloomington’s long-time newspaper.

The author, Steven Higgs, wrote that the fall of the Herald-Times newspaper after  61 years had been 30-plus years in the making.

It’s a local story that mirrors the decline of daily newspapers nationwide and, along with it, American democracy. As I’ve long lectured to journalism students and anyone who would listen, it’s no coincidence that our democracy and journalism paralleled each other’s descent into the void, into these desperate times.

You simply can’t have the former without the latter.


When he began his career, his “beat” was county government. That included coverage of meeting of the County Commissioners, County Council, Plan Commission and Board of Zoning Appeals. He writes that he attended “every meeting from gavel to gavel and writing comprehensive meeting covers on each,” and that the newspaper had reporters who did the same for city government, schools and the state legislature.

Citizens of Bloomington and the surrounding areas were fully informed about what their government entities were proposing and doing. As a result, among other things, aroused citizens

* Killed outright a preposterous, experimental PCB incinerator that was supported by Westinghouse Electric Corp., our Mayor and City Council, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management and U.S. EPA;

* Transformed a Hoosier National Forest Land Management Plan that would have clearcut 81% of the forest and constructed 100 miles of ORV trails into the most ecologically sensitive forest plan in the nation; and

* Scuttled a plan by greedy local doctors to turn our hospital for profit.

In other words, the paper had been fulfilling the mission of journalism–giving citizens actionable information about their communities, information that allowed them to participate in democratic decision-making.

Then, as he recounts, the mission changed. Journalism was reconceived as purely a consumer product. He quoted the publisher of the Orange County Register saying “the paper no longer called its audience readers. They referred to them as customers.”

Then, of course, came the Internet.  And Craig’s List, the site that decimated the classified ad business nationwide.

It’s not that their concerns weren’t legitimate. But their initial responses were galling. For example, the H-T hired a consultant from the University of Missouri to deprogram the newsroom through a program called New Directions for News.

First, she sat a room full of professional journalists cross-legged on the floor, gave us pads and markers, and told us, “Forget everything you know about journalism.” Then she had us write down answers to questions like: “Ten things teenage girls would like to see on the front page of the newspaper.” “Ten things senior citizens would like to see on the front page.” Ad infinitum.

The decline was inevitable:

At its peak, the H-T had 38 newsroom full-time equivalents (FTEs). In 2019, when the paper sold to GateHouse Media, that number had dropped to 29.

In less than a year, GateHouse merged with Gannett. Three years later, FTEs dropped to about a third of its peak – to about a dozen.

Gatehouse and Gannett were–and are–what I would call “scavengers.” They have stripped newsrooms of knowledgable journalists, sold off real estate and other assets, and displayed zero interest in informing the sort of public debate that nourishes democratic governance. (If you don’t believe me, take a look at the Gannett-owned Indianapolis Star, which–absent some scandal or announcement– no longer covers local government, opting instead to focus on sports and entertainment.)

At the once-excellent Herald-Times, the story was the same.

On Aug. 12, three weeks after putting the building up for sale, Gannett laid off two more H-T reporters – one of my best and favorite former students among them – as part of the corporation’s latest cutbacksnationwide.

The Monday before the layoffs, Gannett CEO Michael Reed purchased $1.22 million of company stock for himself, according to an Aug. 13 article in the New Jersey Globe.

In today’s America, it is still possible to get national news, and from a wide variety of perspectives. But in community after community, local newspapers have either shut down entirely (over 2000 of them in the past several years) or become “ghost” papers like the Indianapolis Star- –papers with newsroom staffing so dramatically pared back that the remaining journalists cannot adequately cover their communities.

As a result, local residents no longer share a common understanding of what is happening in their communities, and no longer have the kind of verified, in-depth information that makes democratic decision-making possible.

Unfortunately, as Higgs said, you can’t have democracy without real journalism.


Objectivity Versus Balance

George Packer recently sent out a newsletter hawking subscriptions to the Atlantic. I’ve been a subscriber for many years, so I was preparing to delete the email, but it contained a description of genuine journalism that was so apt and timely–especially in the era of Fox and its clones–that I decided to share it.

Packer, as many of you know, is a highly respected political scientist, and author of several well-received books. He also writes for the Atlantic. He began his newsletter as follows:

When I went to Ukraine last May to report the story that appears in The Atlantic’s October issue, I didn’t go as a neutral observer. I very much wanted Ukraine to win the war, and I was happy to bring a suitcase full of medical supplies to Ukrainian doctors who would make sure the equipment reached soldiers at the front. If I’d been asked to do the same for doctors on the Russian side, I would have had no trouble refusing. Intellectually and morally, none of this was complicated. Ukraine is the victim of Russia’s unprovoked aggression, it is a smaller country bullied by a larger one, and it is a democratic society threatened by an imperial dictatorship. The stakes of the war were as clear and high as those of any event in living memory.

For all the high-minded, public-spirited justifications that journalists offer for what we do, at the bottom lies a fundamentally selfish motive. Some stories attract us for their novelty, others for their scale, or their complexity, or their sheer excitement. Ukraine attracted me because I wanted to see a cause in which I’d come to believe—because I’d chosen sides.

Isn’t “choosing sides” exactly what we don’t want journalists to do? Packer weighs in with an explanation of why that is the wrong way to think about the nature and necessity of objectivity.

Should this partisanship have given me ethical qualms? Should it bother readers of the article? Journalists are not licensed according to a professional code of ethics, but there’s a long-standing sense that we shouldn’t take sides—at least not openly. A reporter covering a presidential election is not supposed to announce which candidate he or she supports, and some reporters even abstain from voting at all to remain above suspicion. At an extreme, the idea of neutrality leads to an absurd pursuit of balance in which a lie on one side of a political divide is given equal status with the truth. At the opposite pole, journalists with a strong bias might hide important facts and shade their storytelling in intellectually dishonest ways to manipulate the reader to a prefixed conclusion. In one famous example, The New York Times’ Walter Duranty, a Stalin sympathizer, denied the existence of the Soviet-engineered famine in the early 1930s that killed several million Ukrainians.

Welcome to the Fox proclamation that its news coverage is “fair and balanced.”

As I used to tell the students in my Media and Public Policy classes, “balance” is most definitely not the same thing as “factual” or “objective.” The emphasis on balance has given us what observers call “stenography journalism”–he said/she said, we report, you decide. (For years, that approach undercut efforts to explain the gravity of climate change; it gave equal time and emphasis to the 97% of scientists who were issuing warnings and the 3% of outliers and outright cranks who denied it.)

Packer addressed the danger–and dishonesty–of that false emphasis.

There’s a great deal of space between both-sides-ism and Duranty-ism, between spurious balance and outright deception. In that space, journalists are bound to take sides. But choosing sides requires objectivity, which is very different from neutrality. Objectivity is the pursuit of truth regardless of subjective impulses or political commitments. It’s what makes it possible to choose sides and remain credible. Partisanship imposes an extra burden to keeping our minds open to whatever might challenge our biases, to being on guard for any impulse to suppress or self-censor. As Bob Dylan put it: “To live outside the law, you must be honest.” (Emphasis mine.)

Journalists are human, and they will get things wrong. As with all humans, they can see only through their own eyes. What we have the right to demand is not a”balance” that abdicates responsibility for truth-telling– the stenography approach. Instead, we have a right to expect journalists to do as Packer counsels–keep their minds open to information that challenges their biases. 

As we have all seen in discussions that accompany this blog, that’s not easy. When people are convinced that their understandings are more accurate and trustworthy than the perceptions or reports of others, they will cherry-pick sources and evidence.

Objectivity is beyond them, so passion substitutes.


Why We Need Journalism

Given the tensions in the wake of the Kyle Rittenhouse trial, it was a relief to receive news of the  guilty verdicts in the Ahmaud Arbery trial. Those verdicts owed much to a vastly more competent prosecution–and there has been widespread recognition of that fact and praise for that prosecutor.

What is far less widely recognized and celebrated, however, is that the trial wouldn’t even have occurred had it not been for a local reporter.

Larry Hobbs is the crime beat reporter at the Brunswick News, and he covered the initial story, which was pretty bare-bones. He got his information from the local police:: a burglary suspect had been shot and killed in Satilla Shores, a subdivision outside Brunswick, Ga.

The next day, a Monday, Hobbs managed to get Arbery’s name from the coroner and included it and a few more lines in a followup story. Then he wrote about the close involvement of district attorney’s office investigators in examining what happened, and about official silence on whether the incident was being investigated as a possible homicide or case of self defense. Those were the first of many stories Hobbs would write about the shooting on Satilla Drive in February 2020, an event that would go on to seize national attention. He fit that work between other daily news, his column and a crime blotter he writes….

Hobbs’ reporting ultimately played a major role in getting larger news outlets—and eventually civil rights groups and state law-enforcement agencies—interested in digging into what had happened. Hobbs and his many questions produced work that, while he himself admits it wasn’t always perfect, served a critical need. Now, almost two years later, with Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan having been convicted of murder and other charges, the weight of that role is clearer than ever, and at a moment when the future of local news reporters and newspapers is in jeopardy.

If Hobbs hadn’t been part of a local newspaper covering local news–if he hadn’t been “doing journalism”– the original prosecutor’s conflict of interest and actions covering for the McMichaels might never have come to light. When we talk about the “watchdog function” of journalism, this is what we are talking about.

As the Washington Post Magazine wrote last week in a special issue,

The state of local journalism is widely, and correctly, understood to be grim. About 2,200 local print newspapers have closed since 2005, and the number of newspaper journalists fell by more than half between 2008 and 2020. In many places where papers still exist, a lack of resources prevents them from reporting thoroughly on issues vital to the community — issues like public safety, education and local politics.

Yet what is missing from these raw facts — depressing as they sound in the abstract — is a detailed sense of what, exactly, is being lost: the local controversies, wrongdoings and human-interest tales that are severely underreported or entirely untold.

The Post devoted the entirety of its Sunday magazine to stories that had been under-reported–or in several cases, not reported at all. (Some had been previously covered by outlets that are trying desperately to preserve a market for local journalism against long odds;  others were reports that were seeing the light of day for the first time.) All of them deserved “more space, scrutiny and attention than they have previously received.”

I have previously posted about the continuing loss of journalism. Those of us bemoaning that loss are not talking about the loss of newsprint–the loss of physical paper. That is immaterial. We are talking about the loss of journalism, which can certainly be delivered digitally. As the Post reminded readers, in the last 15 years, a quarter of U.S. local newspapers have ceased publishing. Not just ceased producing newsprint–ceased publication. “By 2020, out of the 3,000-plus U.S. counties, half had just one local newspaper of any kind. Only a third had a daily newspaper. Over 200 counties had no newspaper whatsoever.”

And that doesn’t even count the places like Indianapolis that do, theoretically, still have a newspaper–places where corporate ownership (in our case, Gannett) has decimated staff and eviscerated coverage, leaving communities with what are called “ghost” papers.

The Post used its special issue to remind readers that we don’t know what we don’t know–and a lot of what we don’t know is important.

When we lose local journalism, we lose a fabric that holds together communities; we lose crucial information that allows democracy to function; and at the most basic level, we lose stories that need to be told.