Framing The Economic Debate

It's amazing what you catch when you're trying to detox from too much David Gregory. After Meet the Press ended, I was in the process of gathering my notes from the show of what clips we would highlight this Sunday and a local show called "Press:Here" came on, which looks at media issues centering around the San Francisco Bay Area. Anat Shenker-Osorio, an Oakland-based consultant, has written a book entitled "Don't Buy It: The Trouble with Talking Nonsense about the Economy" featuring my personal favorite bugaboo: framing issues. (I've had the book on my radar for a few weeks; I'll try to get Anat here for a chat in the near future)

Anat's thesis is that the way the media frames issues like the economy can unconsciously change the way we react to the news. When we speak of the economy as some sentient entity, capable of feelings and actions, we absolve ourselves of our collective responsibility as part of the economy. When we speak of unemployment rising and falling, we lose sight of the individuals affected by having their jobs taken from them or employers seeking out more people for more production. From a DKos book review by SusanG:

[A]s Shenker-Osorio discusses in her new book, Don't Buy It, she sees progressives make these same mistakes over and over and over again. In particular, the progressive messaging on the economy—especially the metaphors we adopt in discussing it—have contributed to a massive communication failure.

In a nutshell, when we insist on talking about the financial meltdown and its effects in terms of an unstoppable force of nature–like I just did with meltdown, in fact, or as many, many other well-intentioned liberals discuss it in terms of a crash, an earthquake, a "flood of bad mortgages," "the perfect storm" of circumstances—all these terms cry out that we must hunker down and pray instead of actively work for change.

Body metaphors are little better—an "unhealthy economy," a "sluggish recovery"—these too imply outside agency swooping in and destroying us, usually from within, like germs or cancer. But these scenarios are flatly wrong.

The economic crisis was neither an act of God nor a natural disaster, not an attack by microbes or internal organ breakdown. It was the result of choices—bad ones—made by specific human beings who benefitted from human-created policies at the expense of a majority of the population. And if our language does not reflect that this crisis is human-made, it follows that it cannot be human unmade either, which plays into the shrugging, no-fault stance of conservatives.

I've said again and again: He who frames the debate wins. It's time for us to take back the framing and help people understand the debate on progressive terms.


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