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“Are Americans “Stupid” Or Uninformed?”: The Purpose Of The Media Is To Produce ‘Eyeballs’…For Advertisers

Republicans are making hay out of Jonathan Gruber’s suggestion that those who crafted Obamacare thought the American public was stupid. While that was a politically incorrect (and stupid) thing to say, we’ve all seen enough “man on the street” interviews where too many people don’t know which party controls Congress or who the current Vice President is to simply dismiss it as untrue.

But a more relevant question would be to ask whether or not the American public is “stupid” (inferring a lack of intelligence) or uninformed. That is the question sparked by this recent Gallup poll. They found that – while the violent crime rate has dropped dramatically since the early 1990’s (from 80 incidents of violent crime/1000 people to 23/1000), 63% of Americans think that violent crime is increasing.

Back in the 1990’s I attended a workshop on the effects of television on young people. The presenter asked the audience, “What is the purpose of television?” After a lot of responses that focused on entertainment, the presenter said that the purpose was to produce eyeballs…for advertisers. I would suggest that the same thing is now true of our news media. The perception of an increase in violent crime is likely a direct result of the old adage: “if it bleeds, it leads.”

Media Matters recently produced a report showing that both cable and network news reporting on Ebola spiked in the days leading up to the 2014 midterms and then simply went to almost nothing afterwards. I don’t buy the idea that this was some collusion between the media and Republicans. I suspect it had more to do with the way that fear of the disease spreading grabbed everyone’s attention, and then a total elimination of coverage once it was clear that wasn’t going to happen (at least not in this country). In other words, success at containing the spread of Ebola doesn’t produce eyeballs.

Circling back to the subject of Obamacare, its interesting to note the effect all this has on the perceptions of the public.

Jon Krosnick, Wendy Gross, and colleagues at Stanford and Kaiser ran large surveys to measure public understanding of the ACA and how it was associated with approval of the law. They found that accurate knowledge about what’s in the bill varied with party identification: Democrats understood the most and liked the law the most, independents less, and Republicans understood still less and liked the law the least. However, attitudes were not just tribal. Within each party, the more accurate your knowledge of the law, the more you liked it.

These researchers found that in the unlikely event that the public had a perfect understanding of the law, approval of it would go from 32% to 70%. That’s the price we pay for an uninformed public.

Its true that technology has allowed partisans and ideologues to choose media sources that confirm their beliefs. But those who simply want “the news” are pretty regularly fed a diet that inflames more than it informs. If you doubt that, take a look at one retired anchorman’s reaction to the movie “Anchorman.”

If we want this to change, we’ll need everyone to think twice about what they do with their eyeballs.


By: Nancy LeTourneau, Political Animal, The Washington Monthly, November 23, 2014

November 24, 2014 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Media, Public Opinion | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Stop Kidding Yourselves”: No, Conservatives, You Won’t Stop Watching Football If The NFL Markets Obamacare

News broke last week that the Obama administration had reached out to the National Basketball Association about a partnership to promote the president’s health reform law. Now, it is seeking a similar deal with the National Football League that will involve “paid advertising and partnerships to encourage enrollment” in Obamacare’s new programs, according to The Hill.

I’ve explained why the Obama-NBA partnership makes sense for both parties, and that reasoning holds true for the NFL–and more importantly, the networks that air the games–too. Given the enormous amount of money television networks pay for the right to air football games, they’re unlikely to turn down advertising that will help them reach the break-even point on those investments. And for the Obama administration, football is a logical target. The NFL has the largest audience of any sport in America. It reaches people in demographics that the Obama administration needs to reach with basic information about. And beyond the ads, such a partnership meshes nicely with other corporate citizenship efforts the NFL has undertaken, like its health-driven Play60 campaign. Plus, it’s the law.

Conservatives, to no one’s surprise, are nevertheless outraged. The Weekly Standard’s Jeffrey Anderson said it would be “yet another reminder that football is best watched on Saturdays,” and Twitchy highlighted tweets from conservatives who said it would cause a “mass exodus of support.” “If the NFL backs Obamacare,” one Twitchy tweet says, “they can kiss this season goodbye.”

It’s unlikely the NFL is rethinking its strategy based on a few tweets, but here’s a word of advice in case they are: the idea that people are going to stop watching football because of a few pro-health care ads, most of which will likely deal more with the details of new programs instead of advocating for it on ideological grounds, is absurd. I might personally share Anderson’s view that football is, indeed, best watched on Saturdays, but the NFL is the most popular sport in America. Its TV ratings are sky-high from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon. The league has endured two lockouts, the beginnings of a concussion crisis, and plenty of other on- and off-field controversies without turning the masses away. It’s going to take much more than a few health care ads to get people to stop watching.

The NFL, of course, knows that, but that doesn’t mean the partnership is going to happen. The cost of advertising may be too high for the government to pay on a regular basis, or the two sides may just fail to reach an agreement on other collaborations. If it does happen, though, conservatives might kick and scream and send angry tweets that the Twitchy team aggregates into a post every Sunday afternoon. To suggest that people will stop watching, though, is an exaggeration on the same level as cries of “government takeover of health care” and “death panels.”


By: Travis Waldron, Think Progress, June 28, 2013

July 2, 2013 Posted by | Affordable Care Act | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Troubling Dynamic”: Weather Forecasters And Climate Scientists Live On Different Planets

Here in Atlanta, we’ve had a string of days in which the temperature has hovered around 70 degrees — more representative of late spring than late autumn. The balmy weather has left me in a funk.

Sure, I’ve enjoyed the chance to put my toddler on the back of my bike and take her out for a ride. Yes, it was pleasant to don a short-sleeved shirt to put up my outdoor Christmas lights. Of course, I like the long chats with my neighbors, who walk their dogs at a leisurely pace instead of rushing to get out of the chill.

But I fear the unseasonable temperatures are a harbinger of a slow-moving disaster — a serious threat to my child’s future. What will it take to get people focused on the crisis of climate change?

It would certainly help if TV weather forecasters at least noted the possibility of a link between the un-December-like weather and disastrous global warming. They are popular figures who are embraced by their local viewers as climate authorities. If they helped the public understand the dangers of global warming, the voters, in turn, would demand solutions from their elected officials.

But there’s a troubling dynamic that helps to explain why you’re unlikely to hear about global warming when you’re watching the weather report on the 6 o’clock local news: Many TV weathermen — and weather women — dispute the science of climate change, believing it’s a “scam,” according to a recent study. Their ignorance has contributed to the public’s apathy.

Even though cooler weather is expected soon, 2012 is still on track to be among the hottest years on record, according to the World Meteorological Organization, a United Nations agency. With the exception of 1998, the hottest years on record have occurred since 2000, climate scientists say. The longstanding consensus among scientists is that greenhouse gases are warming the Earth, melting the polar ice caps, raising sea levels and creating untold environmental havoc.

Yet, many television weather forecasters — who are not climate scientists — remain skeptical. Only about 19 percent believe that human activity is the primary cause of climate change, according to a 2011 study by George Mason University and the University of Texas. A similar fraction — 18 percent — knows that scientists have concluded that human activity is warming the planet, the study said.

Quiet as it’s kept, you don’t have to know much science to be a TV weather forecaster. Those with science degrees tend to be meteorologists with expertise in short-range climate models. They can predict the weather a week from now with relative accuracy, but they know little about long-term climate trends.

By contrast, climate scientists usually have graduate degrees and are associated with research institutions and universities. They use complicated models to study long-term weather patterns.

But there is hope the two groups can come to a consensus that elevates the discussion: TV weather forecasters are often members of the American Meteorological Society, which represents a broad range of experts in atmospheric sciences. Marshall Shepherd, the group’s president-elect, wants to help to educate “our colleagues in the broader community,” including TV weathermen, he told me.

A former NASA researcher who currently heads the atmospheric sciences program at the University of Georgia, Shepherd said: “We want to forge an environment where all viewpoints are welcome. At the end of the day, though, our position will be based on the science.”

That rankles some in the ranks. Earlier this year, when the AMS issued a strongly worded statement on human-caused climate change, Glenn Burns, the popular weatherman for the Atlanta ABC affiliate WSB, was flippant in response to a question about it.

“Our climate has been changing since the beginning of time. Only the civilizations that adapted to it have survived. That should be our goal,” he said. And Burns is by no means alone in downplaying climate change.

Here’s hoping that Shepherd and the AMS can persuade TV forecasters to accept the scientific consensus. If they engaged their viewers on the subject, they could help to elevate climate change as a political concern. We’re running out of time before those balmy December days prove costly.


By: Cynthia Tucker, The National Memo, December 8, 2012

December 9, 2012 Posted by | Global Warming | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Beware Condemning Barack Obama For A Low Bully Pulpit Profile

Peppered with complaints about his relative silence and flagging leadership, the president urges his friends and allies to be patient. They are understandably skittish: His low profile is underscored by unceasing criticism from his political opponents and even broadcast commentators. His supporters wonder what happened to the politician who had used new technology to communicate with the American people.

Barack Obama in 2011, assailed by friends and foes alike for quiescence in the face of—take your pick—the looming budget battle, disaster in Japan, or upheavals in the Mideast and Midwest? No. Try Franklin Roosevelt in 1935. With Father Coughlin and others railing on the radio and in Congress during a period of slow motion on his agenda, Roosevelt was besieged by nervous allies wondering why he wasn’t showing more vocal and forceful leadership. “My difficulty is a strange and weird sense known as ‘public psychology,’ ” he wrote to one supporter. He explained to another his belief that the public cannot “be attuned for long periods of time to a constant repetition of the highest note on the scale.” [See the month’s best editorial cartoons.]

FDR had mastered what his cousin Teddy had termed the “bully pulpit,” not simply through great speeches, but through an understanding of that platform’s limitations. Overexposure can diminish its power as the president’s voice becomes one of many, so it is most effective when used judiciously. Consider Roosevelt’s famous fireside chats. Popular imagination sees them as something like the modern weekly radio address. In fact, he never gave more than four in a year.

Another president who understood the limitations of the bully pulpit was John F. Kennedy. During his brief tenure too, allies complained of his failure to speak often or forcefully enough on key issues, especially civil rights.

“The nation will listen only if it is a moment of great urgency,” he once said. He liked to quote Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I, where in response to Owen Glendower’s boast that he can “call spirits from the vasty deep,” Hotspur replies: “Why, so can I, or so can any man; but will they come when you do call for them?” Kennedy understood that the power of a president’s speech is constrained, or augmented, by context. To the extent his audience is primed for a message, it resonates, multiplying the power of that address. The most effective presidents find a leadership balance where they are far enough in front of public opinion to lead it, but not so far as to lose it.

JFK and FDR had another important commonality: They were skilled communicators at times of communication revolution. FDR came into office just as most U.S. households first had radio receivers. He wasn’t the first president to deal with this new mass medium, but he was the first to understand the opportunity it provided to fundamentally change the way presidents engaged with voters.

So too Kennedy was not the first president to deal with television, but he was the first to figure out what kind of new communications opportunities it afforded. He used weekly televised news conferences, the first such presidential appearances to be broadcast. Columnist James Reston warned the president that it was “the goofiest idea since the hula hoop,” but Kennedy relished the opportunity to connect directly with the voters. And the news conferences allowed him to flash his most winning qualities: his smarts, his broad grasp of facts and data, and of course his ironic wit. Kennedy referred to these conferences as “the 6 o’clock comedy hour.” But more seriously, he said, “We couldn’t survive without them.”

Which brings us back to Obama, another eloquent Democrat taking criticism for inexpertly using (or failing to use) the bully pulpit. Poor Obama has gotten it coming and going. When he first took office he was seemingly everywhere at once, and widely panned as being overexposed. This lurching approach to public communications is due at least in part to the fact that Obama, like his predecessors, is trying to govern at a time of communication transformation. In fact he is arguably dealing with a double revolution, involving both the fracturing of the old mass media (presidents can no longer count on the television audience being easily captured on just three networks) and the rise of the new social media. At first Obama and his team tried to flood the zone; now they seem to have adopted a more classical view that the presidential voice is a resource to be husbanded.

Obama is caught at the crux of a tension in presidential leadership that has grown since FDR chatted with Americans at their firesides. The limitations of the bully pulpit are in opposition to the demands mass media have placed on it. In his single term as president, from 1929 to 1933, Herbert Hoover made an average of eight public appearances per month. In his thousand days, JFK made 19 per month. In his first term, Bill Clinton averaged 28. In his two years in office, according to statistics compiled by CBS News’s Mark Knoller, Obama averaged more than 42 public appearances per month. Presidents must speak more, even if it diminishes the power of their voice.

In noting similarities between Obama and his predecessors, I do not mean to suggest equivalency. It may well be that in 50 years historians will say that Obama was the first real social media president in the way of FDR and radio and JFK and television. But if such mastery does emerge, it is currently still a work in progress. In the meantime, his friends especially would do well to remember that the bully pulpit is not a cure-all. And that even our most eloquent leaders have had good reasons for their silence as well as their words.

By: Robert Schlesinger, U.S. News and World Report, March 23, 2011

March 30, 2011 Posted by | Democrats, Media, Politics, President Obama, Public Opinion, Republicans, Voters | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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