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«Director and Editor: Susan Ericsson Executive Producer: Sut Jhally Featuring Justin Lewis Author of Constructing Public Opinion Media Education ...»

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How Politicians and the Media Misrepresent the Public

Director and Editor: Susan Ericsson Executive Producer: Sut Jhally Featuring Justin Lewis Author of Constructing Public Opinion Media Education Foundation © MEF 2001 2


[News: George Bush] Invest your money in the future [News: Al Gore] Invest in the future [News: George Bush] I’ve been talking about clean air.

[News: Al Gore] We’ve got to clean up our air.

[News: George Bush] I support a ban on soft money [News: Al Gore] We would get all of the soft money out of the campaign.

[News: George Bush God bless you!

[News: Al Gore] God bless you!

[Montage of News clips, Music: Testify, Rage Against the Machine] Who controls the past now? Who controls the future? Who controls the present now?

Who controls the past now? Who controls the future? Who controls the present now? Now testify. Testify! Its right outside your door!

JUSTIN LEWIS: One of the most important beliefs that people have about politicians is that politicians do whatever polls tell them to do. We hear a lot of complaint about the lack of strong leadership, that politicians find out what the public wants, and then they pander to it, or at least they say they’ll pander to it.

Now what this idea of the poll driven politician creates is the impression that the political system may have all kinds of problems but on the whole it’s responsive and accountable to the public. But once you actually start to look at public opinion in a more detailed way, what you discover is that the idea of the poll- pandering politician is really a myth. For example, there’s broad support in the US for a whole range of policies. Polls show that most people support increased spending on inner cities, more spending and regulation on the environment, more spending on education, more spending on health care. We also find the majority support increases in the minimum wage, stricter gun control, and campaign finance reform. In other words, if politicians really were poll driven, then they’d be in favor of a whole range of liberal or left wing policies, when in fact they’re not. Now the question that this raises in a democracy is how is this mismatch between what the people want, and the policies pursued by their representatives possible?



JUSTIN LEWIS: Now let’s look at what the terms liberal-left wing, and conservative-right wing stand for in terms of the role of the government in the economy. Liberals believe that government intervention is needed to protect the rights of all individuals in the community, while conservatives believe that individuals are best served by minimizing government intervention. So in general, liberalism is associated with high spending on social programs like education or health care, and conservativism is associated with low spending on social programs. Now what’s interesting is that when you look at public opinion, you find that people are often in support of vague conservative themes, but when you ask them about specific policies, then they tend to shift away from abstract notions like individual freedom and instead, they support policies which require government spending or regulation.

For example, a Harris poll asks people about the regulation of private property.

They asked whether the government should have the right to regulate or whether that right should be left solely up to the property owner. Now in response to this very vague question, that pitches individual freedom against government regulation, you find only 38% support government intervention. But when the poll asks the same question in the specific context of regulating private property to protect the environment, everything changes, and an overwhelming majority now support government regulation.

So, why do people support conservative ideas, but liberal policies? Well, in part it has to do with the misleading nature of labels. Polls show that large numbers of people prefer the label moderate to liberal or conservative.

[ABC News] Among the biggest news from our exit polling on Tuesday was that the Electorate has a more moderate cast than it has in recent years. Take a look at the numbers. In 1994, 45% of the voters called themselves moderates, but this year that number is 50%.

JUSTIN LEWIS: Now in media discourse, the word moderate usually has very positive connotations. You know, moderates are good, extremists are bad. So really it’s not surprising that most people prefer that label. At the same time, many people who are well to the left of the mainstream on a range of issues are really quite suspicious of the label Liberal. So for example, on economic issues, you find that blue-collar workers support what you could call liberal policies, but they’re often very skeptical about people who call themselves liberals. Again that’s because of the way the phrase liberal is used in the media. Where liberals are generally portrayed as being affluent rather than working class, and as being progressive on civil liberties rather than on bottom line economic issues.

–  –  –


JUSTIN LEWIS: Now the kinds of issues where there is some real difference between mainstream politicians are in terms of what me might call civil liberties.

And the defining thing here is that money isn’t central to how you think about it, so on issues like abortion, or the death penalty, or gay rights, there are very real difference between Democrats and Republicans.

[NBC News] The Texas governor acknowledges for the first time today that the conservative judges he would appoint to the Supreme Courts might try to overturn the landmark abortion rights decision Roe vs. Wade.

JUSTIN LEWIS: Now the reason for this is that these issues often don’t involve money, but on economic issues like health care or wages or the environment, then you find that Republicans and Democrats are really very close together.

And when it comes to raising money, then these economic issues are vitally important because politicians have to raise huge amounts of money just to get elected. Most ordinary people don’t contribute to political campaigns. Instead that money comes from a very small group of wealthy people.

[NBC News] There are forty-five co-chairmen here who raised or gave $250,000.

Those co-chairmen include the NRA, and Phillip Morris; other key players represent the HMOs.

JUSTIN LEWIS: But the Democrats and the Republicans get most of their money from corporate interests and in order to keep raising campaign funds, politicians have to support policies that favor those business interests. Now politicians who aren’t prepared to heed those more conservative voices are really unlikely to raise enough money to be viable. So that left wing or very liberal candidates tend to be weeded out before they can ever make it to the ballot. In the 2000 Democratic primary for example, the only candidates able to raise enough money to be competitive were Bradley and Gore who were both moderate rather than liberal Democrats.

–  –  –


JUSTIN LEWIS: So, how do we explain this contradiction between the myth that politicians reflect the public and the reality that on most economic issues, they actually ignore public opinion? Well let’s look at how the news media covers public opinion. When the media report on polls, what they’re actually doing is telling a story about what public opinion is, rather than just reflecting it. They’re constructing how we understand public opinion. And the news media have a lot of power here, because they choose what questions to ask and what questions not to ask. Ordinary people’s opinions usually only count in as much as they respond to that conversation.

When Washington was focused on alleged scandals in the Clinton White House then that’s what many pollsters asked questions about, even though many people stated in those polls that they were actually much more concerned about other things. One of the issues that in recent years people have said they’re most concerned about is education. Now if you read the polling data on this issue, you’ll find that more people tend to think that more money should be spent on public education. But when the networks do their own reports on education, they often ignore the issue of spending. So for example, ABC began a report on education by saying that people cared about it.

[ABC News] As we said at the beginning of this week in virtually every poll that tries to measure the state of public opinion, the public says that education is one of the country’s most important issues.

JUSTIN LEWIS: But the story they tell us is about a school that has done well without increased spending.

[ABC News] Tonight a closer look at one school that is turning itself around without having a lot of money.

JUSTIN LEWIS: We then here the various improvements the principal of this school has inspired. The implicit sentiment here is directly opposed to what public opinion tells us. People say they want more money spent on education.

ABC is telling us that money isn’t the answer.

The next question we should ask is: Does the media coverage of public opinion recognize the gap between a public that on economic issues tends to be pretty liberal and mainstream politicians, whether they’re Democrats or Republicans, who hold conservative views on those issues? And the answer’s a very clear No.

Because when you closely examine the way the media report on public opinion, you find that the left wing or liberal side of it more or less disappears. This makes the public appear to be more conservative than it really is.

7 Now there’s lots of reasons for this. The major one being what we call the elite oriented nature of reporting. Not everyone has the same access to newsmakers.

The people with the most access to the media are powerful political figures because the news media tend to define politics in terms of the words and deeds of politicians, not on public opinion. I call politicians elite in as much as they have a lot more power and control and money than the average citizen because they set the stage for what we talk about and how. Now since politicians are much more conservative than the public, and the media take their lead from these conservative politicians, the poll reporting by the media, tends to replicate elite agendas. As we’ve seen, this agenda places corporate financial interests above citizen preferences.

The most prominent way that happens is through media coverage of what we might call “horse race politics,” trying to figure out which politician is going to win an election, who’s popular and who’s not. Now when responding to polls like these, people can only reply with simple, brief answers. There’s no room to give complex answers. No way to shift the terms of the debate, to say how neither politician really reflects the person’s views. The problem with candidate-centered polls is that people are steered into giving an opinion about a mainstream politician. And this implies that they are endorsing not only one or other of the main politicians on offer, but the policies those politicians are supporting. In fact because the media spend very little time actually telling us what those policies are, most people are really expressing little more than an opinion about a loosely constructed image rather than a well-understood political program. So these horse race polls actually tell us very little about what people want, but their prominence in media discourse makes it appear that people are more or less in line with their political representatives. This perception would be much more difficult to sustain if the media looked closely at public opinion on policy preferences.

Examining an issue like health care would make it explicit that public opinion is really at odds with the opinions of the main presidential candidates. Instead of rocking the boat, the media force people to side with those candidates by the questions it asks. So when an NBC report shows a brief glimpse into public unhappiness with the current health care system, the popular alternative – a single payer health care system – which is a non-for-profit system with universal coverage – is never discussed.

[NBC News] Seventy-nine year old Eleanor Chapin belongs to a different HMO in Kentucky, which recently tripled her premiums. She sees these questionable expenses as a waste of her tax dollars.

JUSTIN LEWIS: We only hear what political elites have to say.

–  –  –

JUSTIN LEWIS: The single payer option is so completely excluded from discussion that when the news media do discuss solutions, they’re always in the context of existing, private insurance, market-based systems that leave millions of Americans without health coverage. And this is how the media coverage leaves the current profit based corporations and the politicians who back them at center stage.

Another implication of this focus on candidates and not issues is that the media create the impression that the American public has a real choice. You can choose Bush, or you could choose Gore, the implication being that they’re both very different. But on substantive budgetary, or economic issues, the differences between them are really on the margins. Both leading Democrats and Republicans support a privatized health care system, they support corporatebacked global trade agreements, they support maintaining a Cold War defense budget, and they generally favor the interests of Big Business. That the media give the impression that Democrats and Republicans represent a broad range of opinion by focusing on civil liberty, non-monetary issues, like gay rights or abortion. Where Democrats and Republicans really do differ. And this masks the degree of the lead consensus.

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