Saturday, January 14, 2017

Gollum gollum gollum

While you're enjoying Friday morning's Fair 'n' Balanced homepage (in order, Brave Massster! Wicked, tricksy Soros! Hobbitses are mean to Massster! Massster makes us happy!), ponder what it might look like when different arms of the Murdoch empire start to disagree with each other. Here's the Journal, for example, from the beginning of the week:

The report concludes “with high confidence” that Mr. Putin “ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election” to “undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary [Hillary] Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.” It also concludes that Mr. Putin “developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”

Yet the report offers no evidence or judgment that the hacking influenced the election result. The leaks from Clinton aide John Podesta’s email and the Democratic National Committee were embarrassing in their candid views of individuals, but they included no bombshells. The emails that really hurt Mrs. Clinton’s electability were those she kept on a private server while Secretary of State.

My, my, my. That's certainly not what Massster said at his news conference!

But remember this — we talk about the hacking, and hacking's bad, and it shouldn't be done, but look at the things that were hacked. Look at what was learned from that hacking, that Hillary Clinton got the questions to the debate and didn't report it? That's a horrible thing. That's a horrible thing. Can you imagine that if Donald Trump got the questions to the debate, it would have been the biggest story in the history of stories, and they would have said immediately, "You have to get out of the race." Nobody even talked about it. It's a very terrible thing.

Nor, of course, is it what Fox thought as those bombshells kept landing:

Should you have actually read the stories, you probably agree with the Journal: Even the ones that Fox fabricated (no, the Clinton Foundation didn't pay for Chelsea's wedding; no, "a longtime Clinton confidant" didn't "express regret that the terrorist wasn't a white man") fall apart in the sad light of day. That doesn't mean that the emails on the Sekret Server were the ones that "really hurt Mrs. Clinton's electability"; the Journal is making that up, because that's what editorial writers do with fact claims about public opinion. It means that "the emails" worked as a Fox story because real issues and fake issues became indistinguishable.

Here's the theory-based explanation, if you're already looking for a topic for your seminar paper. The Model A form of agenda-setting is concerned with the transfer of issue salience from the media to the public. If the top stories at the newspaper and the TV and your favorite website are terrorism, the economy and how kids today got no respect for the law, odds are that when you're asked about the Most Important Problem Facing Our Country Today, you're going to come up with either terrorism, the economy or Those Kids Today. Stories, of course, aren't issues by themselves, but they are the raw material of issues. Consecutive days of stories about the GDP, filings for unemployment benefits and the trade deficit prime you to think about "the economy"; when every story about a random explosion two time zones away notes that investigators either have or haven't "ruled out terrorism," you can be forgiven for thinking terrorism is a big issue.

That doesn't mean that you're stupid, or that viewers in general are stupid, or that Fox viewers are stupider than people who don't visibly foam at the mouth.* It means that the brain is good at picking up cues like issue salience. When the economy is going to hell, the brain is doing you a favor by filing today's GDP report with yesterday's factory closing with last week's decline in holiday spending. But issues are a big basket; when NEW EMAIL BOMBSHELL applies equally to the Sekrit Server and to the latest fiction ginned up from the day's WikiLeaks dump, you shouldn't be surprised when the brain files it all in the same place.

The second level of agenda-setting is the salience of attributes: not just whether "the economy" is a big deal, but whether it's good or bad, whose fault it is, and so on. And the function of news is not to say "no big deal" or "everything's fine"; it's to point out the abnormal. It's kind of a moot question whether a hed like "New Email Revelations Pretty Boring, Frankly" would have a framing effect; things that are boring and inconclusive don't get headlines, because they don't become stories in the first place. 

Media effects are contingent and incremental. A single story doesn't make unbalanced people with too many guns drive to other states to "investigate" sex trafficking rings run by presidential candidates. In that sense, neither meaning of "the emails" had a direct effect on the outcome of the 2016 election. But the idea that "the emails" were an issue in the first place makes it easy to pile up meaning from five or six weeks' worth of fabricated or barely true accounts of routine procedural events. That's unlikely to produce a big effect, but when a few thousands of voters here or there are the difference, persuading them a few at a time to stay home -- or even persuading them that both candidates are uniquely unqualified, which was one of the most effective lies of the campaign -- certainly doesn't hurt.

* Kull et al (2007) does find that Fox viewers were more likely to believe stuff about Iraq that wasn't true, but since Fox has a habit of reporting things that aren't true, that makes sense.

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