Monday, June 26, 2006

The national media is a power-hungry institution. It maintains its power to determine what is important in American politics and government by making dupes of the American public. The “duping” occurs though media opinion polling.

To preserve their agenda power, the mainstream media have an ace in the hole: opinion polls. By asking the right questions of the public, the media can validate the legitimacy of their agenda focus by claiming the public has a similar view.

What is the mainstream media’s favored agenda focus? They have long devoted disproportionate interest to political conflict, scandal, horse races and bad news. Media polls focus disproportionately on these topics.

The poll questions also reflect the media’s favored framing of the news.

So when the public responses usually reliably echo the media frames, the media claim public support for its interpretations.

Here’s how it works. The Associated Press and national papers put a “label” on recent events, for example, claiming in spring 2006 that Iraq was heading toward civil war. Within weeks, the question is put to the public and majorities indicate a belief that civil war is beginning in Iraq. Label proved, regardless of the more complex facts on the ground there.

A classic example of leading many citizens by the nose was a Washington Post overnight poll in 2003 with the first allegations of a possible White House scandal involving the leaking of CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity. The overnight poll found that only 68 percent of the public had heard of the matter but that fully 81 percent thought it was serious now that the pollsters had framed the matter for them. Moreover, less than 10 percent had no opinion about a matter that a third of respondents had not heard of before they answered the pollster’s phone call.

There is circularity in this. The media determine what presentation of a story is important and then disseminate it to the public. The public then decides the presentation of the story is important because the media have told them so. Media critics then seem to be opponents of the sovereign power of public opinion.

But there is nothing sovereign about public opinion is such instances.

Numerous studies reveal that most Americans do not follow national government news closely. Media polls often create the “illusion” of public opinion by creating responses to topics about which the public may know little, according to political scientist and pollster George Bishop.

At such times, respondents follow media cues and provide, as public opinion scholar John Zaller puts it, “top of the head” responses that often don’t reflect stable and well-thought-out opinions.

It’s true that media polls on topics about which the public has knowledge and information such as candidate preferences in the fall of an election year are quite valuable in assessing public opinion. But media polling goes on every week, not just at election time, so the media can use polls of inattentive citizens as an echo chamber for their agenda choices. That serves to defend their institutional power to determine what matters.

Consider what is missing in this process. Conflict, scandal and bad news get an inordinate amount of attention from the media and their pollsters. In-depth coverage of public policy and government management is deemed unsexy by reporters and editors and thus gets little attention in the media or in its polls.

So a wide variety of questions vital to the quality of American governance gets insufficient attention from the mainstream media. What federal programs work well or poorly? How well are Congress and the president actually managing national government? These unanswered questions result less from ideological bias than from polling routines that support the institutional power of the mainstream media and its coverage habits. By manipulating the public to endorse its agenda choices through polls, the mainstream media retains its power and vital national questions go unexamined.

Steven E. Schier is Congdon Professor of Political Science at Carleton College. He has served as a polling consultant for newspapers and television news.

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