Thursday, November 01, 2007

Thursday night theory class

It's kinda tempting to pick on the piece over at CJR about how -- nah, let's have another beer and pick on Fox instead. Here's some Fun With A Purpose.

Why "Thompson Questions Clinton's Diplomatic Skill After Her Lack of Clarity at Debate" is on the Fox frontpage is an agenda-setting question, not a framing question. Fox wants questions about Clinton's competence to be moving upward on your salience chart. In the classic agenda-setting formulation, Fox's message is what to think about, not what to think. Should a pollster ask you what concerns you associate with Hillary Clinton, with enough prominence for enough coverage like this, you'll say "competence at diplomacy."

The prominence of items is distinct from their attributes. So if Fox is lucky, it'll get a knock-on effect known as "second-level agenda-setting," in which you not only think competence at diplomacy is a big campaign issue, you think Hillary's distinctly short on it. Whether that is or isn't just a long way of saying "framing" is an issue for another discussion. Your comps, for example.

Anyway, that's why it's a frontpage story for Fox. Whether it has an effect on the attribute agenda as well as much more closely tied to content:

LAS VEGAS — Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson suggested on Thursday that Democratic rival Hillary Rodham Clinton's lack of clarity in her answers at the debate raises questions about her ability to handle diplomacy.

Hem-hem. Lack of clarity, you say? (In the hed, of course, the "lack of clarity" is Fox's assertion, rather than Thompson's.) As opposed to ...?

... "Yes, it's about Hillary, and we have our fun, but it's also about something else," Thompson said. "When our worst enemy sits down at the negotiating table and looks across the table ... how much can they get away with, how much of what they're hearing is really true? Are they going to mean what is said on the other side of the table? The question is, 'Who do we want on the other side of that table facing them?"'

Can we clarify that a little?

1) "Our worst enemy sits down at the negotiating table and looks across the table" -- GOP Newcomer Calls For Talks With Bin Laden! The good heds just write themselves, you know?
2) "... how much can they get away with, how much of what they're hearing is really true?"
No fair. That's two questions:
a) Dunno. That's why we have "realism," so we can separate "how much can they get away with" from "what they say."
b) Well, how much of what they're hearing do you want them to think is really true? Hey, maybe Senator Thompson wants to write a comps question about the role of the media in the respective signaling behavior of democracies and autocracies!
3) "Are they going to mean what is said on the other side of the table?" Oh, come on. Don't they cover this in acting school?
4) "The question is, 'Who do we want on the other side of that table facing them?"' Well, that certainly is a question. Whether it's the question ... hard to say.

It's safe to say that Fred Thompson, like lots of us, tends to babble when he doesn't quite know what he wants to say or how he wants to say it. It doesn't mean he's actually an incoherent loony, or that he wouldn't be the guy we want facing down Bin Laden in negotiations (hey, his idea, not mine). It should strongly suggest that when we put "competence" on the table as a salience-agenda item, we don't want to be in a position where our own competence is also tested on the spur of the moment. And that our pals at Fox should hope that there really isn't a second level of agenda-setting. Which is sort of our lesson: Media theory is sort of like Great Cthulhu. If you don't want to pay attention to theory, you'd best hope it doesn't decide to pay attention to you.

You see why it's tempting to take CJR's clarion call for a "rhetoric beat" at face value? As in: Dude! Grab a shovel! What kept you?

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3 Comments:

Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Wow. Obama takes heat for suggesting he'd talk to Chavez and Thompson thinks we'll be talking to bin Laden? That's a stop the presses, all right.

Or does he think we're gonna have a worse enemy? Ahmadinejad? Well, talking to the Iranians is a huge step forward, too. Putin? Once George "I saw his soul" Bush is gone, is Thompson suggesting, we're going to turn him into "our biggest enemy"? Oops. Zubkov, I mean. Zubkov. Or Raul Castro?

That's an amazing thing to say on any count.

5:38 AM, November 02, 2007  
Anonymous raYb said...

Looks like a classic case of worrying about the mote in the opposition's eye and leaving the log in their own. It's no real secret that Fox is anti-Democrat, so they poke the Democrats and conveniently overlook disjointed comments like Thompson's that call his ability to negotiate into real question. But then, never been a president yet sat down to negotiate with an enemy: they meet, mealy-mouth each other, leave the room while the negotiators pull out the knives.

1:08 AM, November 03, 2007  
Blogger fev said...

Yeah, but that's the brilliance of agenda-setting (for which you can thank Don Shaw, at least a little). You don't have to show that you're better or worse than the other guy at something. You just have to make "something" an issue. The rest comes later.

The Bombardier has landed, by the way.

4:38 PM, November 03, 2007  

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