Jewish Journal

The L.A. Times ‘frames’ the Presidential race

by Raphael J. Sonenshein

July 14, 2008 | 5:45 pm

This Sunday, the Los Angeles Times ran an article on the 2008 campaign that I feel bound to comment upon.  It was in the right hand column, front page, prime location.  It was a perfect example of something called framing.  The title: "Obama, McCain agree on many once-divisive issues."  Subtitle: "Their similar stances on immigration, nuclear weapons, global warming and stem-cell research are evidence of a centrist shift in the political landscape."

An interesting thesis.  The only problem is that it is flat wrong in almost all respects.

Yet the frame is well suited for the frame being offered by McCain's campaign.  In fact, the central explanation for what the article portends to find is "McCain's record of defying the GOP party line."  This assertion, which is totally irrelevant to the campaign of 2008, leads to a source saying that McCain would definitely not represent the third Bush term.  (To balance it off, the same source says this centrist argument means that Obama is not as liberal as he is accused of being.)

A frame is a way of presenting something as if it were in a picture frame.  Framing makes a political event into a story.  Facts that fit the frame stay in, and those that don't get shoved out or reshaped.  In a year that Republican ideas are in the toilet with public opinion, McCain's hope has to be to frame the issues as basically consensual. The frame of a centrist American political system with everybody crowding toward the middle is very popular with pundits, even though the evidence for its existence is very weak.

In order to make this frame apply to a race in which Obama and McCain disagree on almost everything, the reporters have to cut, squeeze, add, and in general fix up the facts to fit the frame.  So on Iraq, global warming, Russia, immigration, and wiretapping, they make the case work for the frame in spite of the evidence to the contrary.  

Some examples:
  • On Iraq, the story states that the candidates have moved closer because McCain, who once talked about a 100 year war, now claims to be ready to get out by 2013, and Obama says he will listen to the military on how to get out in 16 months.  Neither candidate has changed their basic view: Obama wants to end the war as soon as possible, and McCain wants to stay until "victory" is achieved.  A huge difference.
  • Both favor a cap and trade system on global warming.  But McCain has indicated that his system would be voluntary, which makes no sense, since there is nothing to trade in that case.  This is a big difference.
  • Both favor stepped up negotiations with Russia?  Are you kidding?  McCain has talked about tossing Russia out of the G-8 group. This is a major difference.
  • On eavesdropping there is indeed some shifting, by Obama, who backed the FISA bill.  But he still opposes telecom immunity, which McCain supports.  That's basically the major issue.
  • And on immigration, they are said to be "converging."  Huh? McCain now says he would have voted against his own legislation on immigration.
The problem with the story is that McCain is not Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is a genuine and consistent moderate Republican. If Obama were running against Arnold, the frame would not be terribly far off, except on some economic issues.  (And I think a genuine Republican moderate would be extremely difficult to beat, even in a bad year for Republicans.)

McCain's campaign depends on convincing people that he is like Arnold, even while adopting actual policies to please his conservative base. The perfect frame for McCain would be to be free to adjust his policies to fit right wingers while still being described as a maverick for things he said years ago and that bear no relevance to the current race.

And that, folks, is framing in a nutshell.

Look for iit.

Columnist Marty Kaplan has his own take on the Times and owner Sam Zell

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Raphael J. Sonenshein (born 1949 in Nutley, New Jersey) was a political science professor at California State University, Fullerton. He is also served as chairman of the...

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