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I've felt for a long time that much of the political battle in this country will be centered around language. The relative triumph of what Eisenhower called a "splinter group" of "Texas oil millionaires" can be attributed to their success at redefining the conventional wisdom of the day in such a way that it moves the entire public discourse.
As much as journalists like to feel that their jobs are to reveal the truth of the world through their reporting, and doing so with an unbiased eye, the link between the journalistic world and commercial world is corrupting. Any newspaper that relies on advertising sales to exist must keep an eye on maintaning readers. All other things being equal, newpapers can do so by providing people with good reporting. People will read good stories and valid information if they exist in a vacuum of conventional wisdom.
We've learned from the new art/science of marketing and advertising that repetition can create consensus. You cannot simply pay people to believe in something, but you can pay people to say that they believe in something. If you give those people a prominant forum and you carefully control the public discrourse, you can create the appearance of a growing consensus around an issue.
When this process is limited to commercial arenas, the results, far from being benign, are less dangerous than they would be in the political realm. There might be a consensus among car buyers that SUV vehicles are "safer" when the evidence seems to suggest, that while SUV may be safer in certain types of crashes, they might actually be less safe in other circumstances, including the risk to other vehicles on the road. The results of this consensus are harmful, but not likely to threaten the foundation of a society.
Working with the general public in the area of sales I've seen first hand the effects that created consensus can have. People have to work with the best available information they can access. In a world where the amount of information we need seems to grow on a daily basis we have to take shortcuts in our decision-making process. It is no longer possible to spend the necessary amount of time researching each decision we make. It would simply take too long. We find that we rely more and more on "experts" who are responsible for distilling the information down into usable chunks that we can understand. What we've seen is the growth of the "expert creation" business. Experts are no longer simply people we seek out to condense complex issues down to their core elements, they are now people paid to promote specific idealogical agendas by virtue of their "credentials".
(This, you will realize, is why its become so important for "conservatives" to pry open the doors of academia with complaints of discrimination. Universities have traditionally been the road to credibility as an expert, ironically, through their pursuit of good old fashioned liberal education and research. Goose, golden egg all over again.)
We judge the value of the expert by whether what they are saying "feels right" to us. Which is why framing has become the buzzword in political circles. Much of the message creation process involves finding the "words that work". Frank Luntz, in his playbook for the GOP, explains it in his own words:
The best way to communicate values is to use words and phrases that no Coke-drinking, apple-pie eating American could disagree with. Family, Freedom, Opportunity, Responsibility, Community. These are the true American values, and they should be used as part of a larger personal message.
Its less important that the policies actually promote these core values as it is that they appear to do so. Thus we get increased logging disguised as "Healthy Forests" and more pollution proclaimed as "Clear Skies".
While I may personally feel that each and every person has a responsibility to spend a reasonable amount of time informing themselves about their political decisions I cannot realistically assume that all people feel as I do. I can see when other priorities, namely self-preservation, might be a more pressing concern. I can understand how the political debate might be swayed by a chorus of well-funded and prominately placed voices. A new consensus can be created out of the transimission of a marketed set of ideas, catered to appeal to a genuine emotional need.
More importantly we have to be aware of how this shift in conventional wisdom affects the general quality of information that is made available to the rest of us. Newspapers need, by virtue of their advertising to follow their consumers wherever they might go. In an environment where the consensus is being guided by entities outside of their realm, they have no choice but to be led. Witness the words of the "Credibility Report (PDF)" issued by the New York Times:
The public editor found that the overall tone of our coverage of gay marriage, as one example, “approaches cheerleading.” By consistently framing the issue as a civil rights matter -- gays fighting for the right to be treated like everyone else -- we failed to convey how disturbing the issue is in many corners of American social, cultural and religious
The NYTimes is admitting that the consensus on the Gay Marriage issue is shifting towards the side of religious discrimination and that they will have to tailor their coverage to reflect this fact. You will notice, if you read the report, no langauge that apologizes for "cheerleading" the invasion of Iraq, a time in which the newspaper was in line with mainstream consensus. Gays are, in fact, fighting to be treated like everyone else. That this is "disurturbing" to some people seems irrelavent of the facts, unless you consider that people who are "disturbed" might stop reading your newspaper.
Too often we label whole groups from a perspective that uncritically accepts a stereotype or unfairly marginalizes them. As one reporter put it, words like moderate or centrist “inevitably incorporate a judgment about which views are sensible and which are extreme.” We often apply “religious fundamentalists,” another loaded term, to political activists who would describe themselves as Christian conservatives. ...
As a self described Lover of Freedom, I personally find the loaded terms "liberal", "environmentalist" and "educated", offensive.
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