‘In the Dark: Media Coverage of Local Elections’ and the Power of Language in Politics

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In a nation where the public owns the airwaves, do local stations drive corporate profits at the expense of the communities they are supposed to serve? David Brancaccio begins this show by examining how local broadcasters cover politics. Bill Moyers talks to political analyst Kevin Phillips about the conclusions and recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. And , ahead of the Democratic convention, Brancaccio speaks with world-renowned linguist George Lakoff about the power of words to win votes. Moyers wraps the show with an essay on Michael Moore’s film, Fahrenheit 9/11.



MOYERS: Welcome to NOW. It takes time and a magnifying glass to read the 9/11 Commission Report. More has been said about it in the last 24 hours than any of us can digest. But one thing needs to be said again and again: we wouldn’t have this without the families of the people who died that day. President Bush didn’t want the investigation. His administration resisted it; Condoleezza Rice, remember, didn’t want to testify. Congress was hoping the subject would go away. But the widows and kin of the victims demanded an independent investigation.

KLEINBERG: We are asking you America to stand behind us. Please, pick up the phone. Call your senators. Call your congressman. Tell them that you want to be safe. Tell them that you want an independent investigation.

MOYERS: Tim Roemer is a member of the commission.

ROEMER: One of the most influential things that they did for me was not only dig into facts and give me knowledge but really inspire me. Both with their effort to move forward and say, “We’re not giving up. We will never give up. We are going to make government be accountable and we are going to get answers.”

MOYERS: So tonight, a tip of the hat to those families who wouldn’t take no for an answer. The country owes this to them.

BRANCACCIO: We’ll have more on the 9/11 Commission report in a moment. But first, with the Democatic convention starting next week and the elections nearly fourteen weeks away, what accounts for the uninformed views on politics that all of us run into on a daily basis? Yes, there’s a race for the White House, but there are also thousands of campaigns that affect our lives at the local level — Congress, state legislatures, mayors, town and county commissioners, school boards. But you’ll only hear about a fraction of them. The question is, “Why?” As I saw on a trip to California this week, one answer is that most people get their political news from local television newscasts, and local television tends not to cover politics at all. Our report was produced by Peter Meryash.

The Federal Communications Commission came to Monterey, California Wednesday night for its only west coast hearing on the quality of local broadcasting in the age of big media and the locals were not happy.

OLSEN: Local media should be ashamed in my mind and arrive with their heads covered to hide for the shame of not serving this community.

DEAL: I need civic discourse and thirty seconds in the local news isn’t going to do it.

BRANCACCIO: Speaker after speaker told the hearing that local broadcasters are not covering the issues that matter to them.

FIRELAND: I came here to ask you to give us some real news, so that voters can make some intelligent decisions. And so that as citizens we can act in our own interest.

BRANCACCIO: What’s the problem? Just take a spin through your local television dial, and more often than not, you’ll find stories like this one.

Political coverage reduced to celebrity endorsements or how candidates are doing in the polls and not much about what they stand for.

Why is it important for broadcasters to cover the national, state and local issues of the day? Because most Americans get their news from local television.

KAPLAN: That is the biggest town square we have. And that’s a town square which has a sign on it saying, “Political news, stay out.”

BRANCACCIO: Martin Kaplan of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School follows political coverage on stations across the country.

KAPLAN: The sad truth is that local stations show almost nothing of the campaigns that they could cover if they wanted to.

BRANCACCIO: For example at the ABC station in San Francisco, it literally took a car accident for one local candidate to get on the air.

KAPLAN: We’ve been looking at the way in which local television covers politics in campaigns since 1998. It wasn’t a pretty picture then, and it’s not a pretty picture now.

BRANCACCIO: Kaplan’s team at the Lear Center, in partnership with researchers at the University of Wisconsin, looked at more than 10,000 broadcasts from top-rated half-hour evening news shows at 122 stations across the country covering seven weeks before the 2002 elections.

And what did they find?

KAPLAN: The truth is that only 44 percent of those broadcasts had any campaign coverage whatsoever. So if you want to complain about the quality of coverage, first you have to find it.

BRANCACCIO: So let me be sure I understand this properly. Half of the newscasts that you gathered didn’t have any mention of the campaign?

KAPLAN: More than half. More than half. Only 44 percent had a campaign story. And by campaign story, I’m talking about any level of office. From dog catcher, mayor, county sheriff, state legislature, governor, Senator, U.S. House.

If you look at the ones that did have coverage, it’s pretty dispiriting. About half of the stories were about horserace or strategy and not about issues.

BRANCACCIO: Take for example this horserace story from WDIV in Detroit. Notice anything missing from this story?

KAPLAN: In about two thirds of the time in those stories, no candidate ever says a word. Even if you’re lucky enough to have your face in a campaign story, it’s really quite rare that any word that you will have said is broadcast. Instead it’s the anchor speaking, or the anchor turning to somebody else for a comment.

BRANCACCIO: I was going through some of your data point by point, and that’s one of the things that really stood out for me, that if you’re a person running for Congress, local TV news isn’t gonna do much justice to your campaign.

KAPLAN: No. If you want to get on television and you’re running for Congress, pretty much you only have one way to do it and that’s to pay for ads.

BRANCACCIO: Political advertising— free-speech at a price. It’s about the only sure-fire way for a candidate for local office to be seen or heard on television.

KAPLAN: When people are angry about the gushers of money that are involved in running for political office, about the potential corruption of that, the thing that they should keep in mind is the huge proportion of all that money is going for television.

BRANCACCIO: And what sort of coin do those stations earn when they sell air time to local, state and national candidates? An estimated 1.3 billion dollars or higher for this campaign season.

KAPLAN: Those stations get to use our airwaves, the public owns them, for free. They don’t pay a penny for them. And not only do they get it for free, they then get to sell it back to us.

BRANCACCIO: Marty, help me with this though. How cynical should I be? Is there a connection between the lack of coverage of campaigns that you’re seeing, and the fact that they can get money to broadcast ads? In other words, less coverage because that’ll make them buy more ads?

KAPLAN: Don’t buy the cow when you get milk for free? I think the cynicism is appropriate if you look at what programmers guided by consultants think makes money for local stations.

BRANCACCIO: When I started out in broadcasting more than twenty-five years ago, we were taught that the airwaves were owned by the public. That is to say, owned by you and me. But there was a bargain. The station got to use the airwaves, but in return, had to give something back, maybe covering community events or politics. These days, the airwaves are still owned by the public. But for a lot of stations, there’s not a lot of give-back in the form of political campaign coverage.

Indeed, according to Kaplan’s study, the average election story — when there was a story — ran 89 seconds. And the average candidate sound bite in a story was 12 seconds long.

Kaplan says it does not have to be that way.

KAPLAN: That’s the real tragedy in this. There are reporters and stations around the country who have taken the trouble to cover local politics and do it really well. Local politics is the original reality television. There’s— you don’t know who’s gonna win, there’s true life stories, there’s tension and suspense, there’s drama. And they cover it that way.

BRANCACCIO: Case in point: San Francisco Bay Area station KTVU, which has a long tradition of political reporting.

SHANDOBIL: We’ve always done it here. We’ve always just assumed it’s our responsibility to do. To let people know what’s going on in politics and in government.

BRANCACCIO: Randy Shandobil is the station’s political editor. He says too often campaign coverage is superficial.

SHANDOBIL: Well, hey, I cover politics full-time and those speeches bore me, too. I get turned off by the speeches and I do it full-time. But I don’t get turned off by analytical stories dissecting the speech. Will what this person’s proposing work? Why is he thinking that? What’s the strategy behind it? Is he being truthful?

Is it consistent what with what he or she has said before? I don’t think those things are boring. If you just take the canned speech: yeah, boring. I’d switch the station, too.

BRANCACCIO: Shandobil’s station has won high marks for serious political coverage. It turns the conventional wisdom — that politics is ratings poison — on its ear because the audience is watching. KTVU has the highest rated newscasts in the market.

SHANDOBIL: One way of involving an audience that is a little bit wary or bored with politics is to kind of at least fold in on occasion some of the strategic thinking and the how it really works.

Let’s part the curtains and show you what’s really going on. I think people are interested in seeing that.

BRANCACCIO: For example, the day we visited his newsroom, Shandobil was preparing a two-part, 10 minute report on campaign finance.

Ten minutes! Enormous by local TV standards. The coverage wasn’t just long— it was important stuff. And a real departure from the norm.

SHANDOBIL: A lot of local stations will cover political events. They’ll basically be giving the politician free reign.

It would be as if the, you know, the CEO of Ford Motor Company got on the air and told us why, you know, his Ford products were great cars and we didn’t have a consumer reporter doing a comparative analysis.

That’s like running an ad.

BRANCACCIO: Which may be just how the politicians want it. Journalists aren’t the only ones at fault here, says Shandobil. Campaigns frequently limit reporters access to the candidates.

But in the San Francisco market, Shandobil’s station, has found a way to make it work not just in how they cover political news, but how much they cover.

According to a recent report by researchers at Stanford University, KTVU aired the most political coverage in the market — more than twice as much as the stations at the bottom of the survey.

In the half-hour broadcasts studied, KTVU aired 5 minutes a day of campaign coverage, three minutes of that just on campaign issues.

Compare that to 46 seconds at the ABC station and just 24 seconds at the CBS station in town.

The Bay Area stations say the Stanford report is incomplete, because it only looks at one half hour of their daily newscasts.

Now the industry in the form of the National Association of Broadcasters says it thinks that local TV news stations are doing just fine in covering campaigns. They say they have surveys that show that when they ask viewers, they say, “We see just about enough of all this campaign stuff.” And they’re not begging for more.

KAPLAN: That’s right. The problem is that those viewers are feeling so sick and disgusted by the quantity of ads that they’re seeing that I expect they don’t distinguish between the mudslinging that’s in those ads and what might be occurring in the news. Those people rarely have a sense of what good political coverage actually is. Because they don’t get any.

The broadcasters have an obligation to provide news. It’s not an option. It’s not about ratings. It’s not about what consumers in their market say they do or don’t want—

BRANCACCIO: It’s essentially a legal obligation?

KAPLAN: It’s a legal obligation. When they apply for a license, they pledge to cover local politics and public affairs. The sad truth is that for the majority of these stations, they don’t fulfill that pledge because there’s no monitoring system and there’s no accountability system.

BRANCACCIO: That’s why this week, FCC commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, along with media and campaign watchdog groups, challenged local stations to do better, asking them to pledge two hours a week of substantive political coverage in the weeks leading up to the November elections.

COPPS: Good grief. We’ve got the issues of war and jobs and health care and deficits and consumer well-being. Yet those charged with using the public airwaves for the public good can’t get serious or can’t seem to get serious about what’s at stake.

BRANCACCIO: One person who wasn’t at that hearing in Monterey: Michael Powell, the FCC chairman. He was right there in California to meet with the media industry, but he left, reportedly for a family vacation on Cape Cod.

Powell continues to advocate letting big media companies get bigger, but now has missed two of the four regional hearings where the public has the chance to speak up.

There’s more to come on NOW—

What to do about Republicans who twist the English language.

LAKOFF: When they say Healthy Forest for a bill that’s going to, you know, clean cut forests and destroy forests, what do you do if you’re on the other side? Well, you rename it.

BRANCACCIO: Using language to win the debate.

MOYERS: So much to talk about the 9/11 Commission, the Democrats in Boston next week, the economy. And who better to have at the table to talk about them than Kevin Phillips. He got his start in politics with Richard Nixon, wrote a seminal account of the emerging Republican majority, and went on to become one of the country’s most influential independent thinkers. His books include THE POLITICS OF RICH AND POOR, WEALTH AND DEMOCRACY, and the latest, AMERICAN DYNASTY, about the Bush family. He’s joining us for the election season as a regular analyst.

Welcome back to NOW.

PHILLIPS: My pleasure to be here.

MOYERS: I brought in the headlines from the little morning neighborhood paper that I get on the subway every day. And it says, quote, “The September 11th commission’s final report concludes the hijackers exploited, quote, ‘deep institutional failings within our government’ over a long period of time. But does not blame President Bush or former President Clinton for the mistakes.” What do you make of that?

PHILLIPS: Well, I think it’s a pretty accurate summary of the underpinnings of what has just come out. Essentially, we have an indictment of the government in the abstract. And then we get some particulars about institutions. But it’s not personalized. You don’t hear about the failure of Bill Clinton and the failure of George W. Bush.

You don’t hear details on things that we know went wrong. You don’t hear about the White House or other people trying to interfere and influence the way all of these things are described. Influence the way the 9/11 Commission did its job in the first place. The story is really one of still not telling the American people.

MOYERS: It does say, quote, “Across the government there were failures of imagination, policy, capabilities and management. And it’s critical of the intelligence agencies, law enforcement and the military.” But it never connects the dots between who was running the intelligence agencies, who was running the military, who was running the law enforcement agencies.

PHILLIPS: That’s the problem. I mean, I guess they want everybody to think the leprechauns did it. But, in fact, we know the names of a number of the leprechauns. And this is what’s missing in what the Commission has to say. I mean, everybody knows that the two Presidents did not do a good job.

So you can name them. Failures related to Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Then you can name people that were very senior who worked for them. And we’d probably have to talk about the National Security advisors, the secretaries of Defense, the secretaries of State, the CIA director. A lot of these people made big-time mistakes.

But this isn’t the way a Washington commission works. A Washington commission goes after the institutional problems but doesn’t name names quickly. They don’t explain who messed up what. And that’s what’s missing in it.

MOYERS: It does describe Condoleezza Rice, the National Security Advisor, and her deputy, Steven Hadley, as not having regarded the coordination of domestic agencies as part of their responsibility after they took office even as warnings of a possible attack continued to grow.

Now Condoleezza Rice, it’s her job as the National Security Advisor to coordinate the agencies of national security. She clearly failed.

PHILLIPS: Well, this is exactly the problem that we’re getting to here. Phil Zelikow, the executive director of the Commission, used to work for Condoleezza Rice. He’s the last person who’s going to say, “Condi screwed it up.” You get this all across the way, all the mechanisms in which one of these commissions work.

From the people who were selected to run them, the people who were selected to staff them. They have to know about the subject matter to some extent. But that generally means they have ties, connections, patrons, obligations and they don’t want to name names.

MOYERS: If this had happened on Clinton’s watch, if 9/11 happened on Clinton’s watch, would there be calls for Condoleezza Rice’s firing?

PHILLIPS: You know, it’s a fascinating coincidence. But the Clinton National Security Advisor, Sandy Berger, is being hatcheted by the Republicans for something it may or may not be a tempest in a teapot with having to do with documents that he mishandled. Shouldn’t we be asking the question why is Sandy Berger being pursued right at this point?

Is it to take people’s minds off whether the National Security Advisor whose failure was much greater was Condoleezza Rice? The Republicans and, you know, you know and I know from having been in politics, people do these games. I mean, sometimes you attack somebody to make the issue move away from the people on your side. I would say yes. I mean, if Condoleezza Rice has been somebody with the Democrats and 9/11 had happened, I think the Republicans would be all over her.

MOYERS: In a way, you’re saying, I hear you saying that this is the establishment investigate— the beltway establishment investigating itself. They want to find some responsibility but no accountability?

PHILLIPS: I would say that’s another fair description because what you have here, well, on the Republican side, Tom Kean, the former governor of New Jersey, I think is a pretty respected guy who, considering that this is his party in the White House, was pretty forthcoming.

MOYERS: Yeah. I agree with that.

PHILLIPS: But the problem I have with Lee Hamilton—

MOYERS: The other—

PHILLIPS: …the Democratic vice-chairman, is that Lee Hamilton is somebody who’s made a name in Washington for being somebody who never follows the trial close to the White House or anybody important. You say, “Well, that’s a hell of a thing to say about somebody.” But, in fact, I mean, he started back in the ’80s.

He was the chairman of the House Select Committee on Iran-Contra and he didn’t find anything. Then he was the head of the task force of the House of Representatives on the October Surprise which had some relations to Iran-Contra because it was another thing having to do with the United States doing a behind-the-scenes deal with the Iranians. This—

MOYERS: The October Surprise, that was the allegation— the rumors that in 1980, operatives of Ronald Reagan, running for president, including by the way, the first Bush, negotiated a secret deal with the Khomeini government in Iran to delay the release of those American hostages being held by Iran until after the November election to ensure the defeat of Jimmy Carter.

It’s an allegation that’s never really been confirmed.

PHILLIPS: No. There’s circumstantial evidence. And Hamilton, when he was running this task force, basically didn’t pursue a lot of this. They closed up shop in early-1993 after George Bush had lost the election, George Bush, Sr. So there really wasn’t any point in the Washington code of ethics of beating the body too much. And they just let it drift away.

But it’s not so much important in itself except that what you get— you have here Lee Hamilton, the Democratic vice-chairman of this commission, who has this background in having investigated these things, you know? Never having taken them very far.

Now, President Bush appointed another commission, this is the one to investigate the CIA. Now, the co-chairs there, the senator from Virginia, former senator from Virginia, Chuck Robb, and a Republican named Larry Silverman, who was a senior federal judge. Well, Larry Silverman was accused by the Iran-Contra special prosecutor, Larry Walsh, of having been involved in the Iran-Contra cover-up as a federal judge.

And in Walsh’s book FIREWALL, he refers to the fact that Silverman was also on the periphery of the October Surprise scandal. So here we have two Bush commissions. And you have people who were chairing or vice-chairing these two commissions who were involved in the family’s previous skeleton closets.

MOYERS: Let’s take a specific that is in the report and sees what it says about accountability. Look at the video of those hijackers going through the security at Dulles Airport. The commission is very specific about this.

Now, the report says that screener, who’s not identified by name, should have reconciled or resolved why the detector went off. But the screener never did. It names no name. Surely, though, above the screener was a supervisor.

Above the supervisor was a manager. Above the manager was a CEO. Above the CEO was, you know? You never find out who the person was who might have made a difference.

PHILLIPS: Well, the interesting thing there is who was in charge of security at Dulles Airport at that time? Who was in charge of security at the World Trade Center? Who was in charge of security at other airports? Who are they?

I mean, who was supervising these people? Who had the contracts? Were they people who were politically connected? What were they? You don’t know. But one of the things that comes to mind, Bill, there were five people in that video. Fifteen of the nineteen participants were Saudis.

I presume probably four or five out of the five in that shot were Saudis. Now one of the questions has been raised, and I think pretty persuasively, is that if there’s one group of people that the George W. Bush administration did not want to cause any trouble for, did not want to investigate, wasn’t absolutely necessary, was Saudis. The family’s been in business with the Saudis for two generations. So what we need to know more about is the whole background from top to bottom of how the Saudis basically walked through Dulles Airport.

MOYERS: Is it possible that we have the most dysfunctional political system since the Articles of Confederation?

PHILLIPS: We can go back a long way. But we have to go back to the Clinton Administration where you had a movie made, WAG THE DOG, and it was perceived describing the foreign policy of the President of the United States who wanted to bomb something that take the public’s mind off his girlfriend.

And nobody thought that was too far-fetched, because he was what he was. And now we have another bunch of dysfunctionals in different ways. And it doesn’t amaze me that we have only 50 percent of the people going to vote for president. You know, what’s the great choice? What do you get to pick between?

MOYERS: There was a survey this week I read saying that baby boomers have lost faith in both parties.

PHILLIPS: I don’t know why not. You’ve lost faith in both parties. And I’ve lost faith in both parties. And we’ve had 60 odd years to get there. And no wonder they can do it a little faster now. They don’t have to take 40 years.

MOYERS: Let’s turn to the Democrats. John Kerry supported the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and passage of the Patriot Act. He is on the record as saying he would consider sending even more troops to Iraq. The Democratic platform next week will call for at least 20,000 more troops to be sent. Is he offering an echo and not a choice?

PHILLIPS: I think in some ways he is. It puts me in mind of back in 1968 and ’69, when Nixon came in, he would talk about how we have to get tougher and do more things or all kinds of possibilities on Vietnam. But in fact there really wasn’t a strategy. And he just got suckered into extending sort of what was there and Vietnamizing and getting out.

And now we’re — how do you say it — Iraqifying? And is it another mess? Is it another quagmire? Are we Vietnamizing with, you know, Bedouins? What is this? I don’t think the Democratic policy process is worth much more than the Republican policy process.

And my big problem with John Kerry is I can’t figure out— I hope he’s a seven on a scale of one to ten, but I think he’s a five. I don’t think he’s saying anything. But the ex-politician in me can say, well, would I want to say a whole lot? No, I wouldn’t.

MOYERS: The ECONOMIST has a cover this week, look at it, says, “He robot?” And it says, “It’s high time for Kerry to show what he’s made of.”

PHILLIPS: Yeah, and that’s I guess what we’re worried about. When we say we hope he’s a seven and worry that he’s a five, you know, is there stuffing in there? What is there? What makes him tick? I don’t understand how somebody can run for the Democratic presidential nomination and not be outraged at a lot of stuff that’s gone on in the last 10 or 15 years.

But then you look at the way the Democrats are complicitous in everything from lobbyists running Washington to bi-partisan, weak-kneed no-brain foreign policy. And you have to wonder where we’re ever going to see a part of Kerry that really stands for something and really feels something. I would like to.

MOYERS: The ECONOMIST also took a survey and asked people, “Who would you rather hang out with for an hour over a beer or coffee?” More people chose Bush by 54 to 46 percent. But they chose John Edwards over Dick Cheney by an even wider margin, 61 percent to 39 percent. What do you make of that, that people would rather have a drink or coffee or beer with Bush and Edwards than with Kerry and Cheney?

PHILLIPS: How many people would really rather have the beer without any of them? That’s what I’d pick.

MOYERS: You’ve written… Of course we live in the real world of politics. We have to make a choice. The voters out there have to make a choice. You and I as citizens have to make a choice. You’ve written that Kerry can win by quote peeling away some of the Republican unbase. Who you talking about?

PHILLIPS: Well, the unbase in the Republican party in my opinion, it’s something I used to do, consists of the 20 to 25 percent of the Republican Presidential Coalition, that departed to vote for either Buchanan or Perot in 1992 and then departed to vote for McCain in the primaries of 2000. And if you look at the McCain and Perot vote, it’s very concentrated in the Northeast and the Ohio Valley and the Great Lakes and the Pacific. All the places that have the key states.

Absolutely the key states. The Democrats, if they have one single strategy, should aim to peel away people who voted for Ross Perot and John McCain. And that’s your ticket in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Oregon, Washington.

MOYERS: Is that the vote you’re talking about when you talk about the unbased in the Republican party?

PHILLIPS: Well, in a sense I think of myself as an Eisenhower Nixon Republican who’s just totally out of place at this stage. But frankly I think the people who voted for Perot and McCain are pretty out of place with what’s going on here, too. You look at the differences that John McCain has with the administration.

MOYERS: But he’s embraced the administration.

PHILLIPS: Well, he’s campaigning with Bush, but he’s running for re-election. Part of me—

MOYERS: In Arizona?

PHILLIPS: In Arizona. Part of me thinks that nothing would delight John McCain more than seeing Bush go down by six or eight points and having a chance to fight for the soul of the Republican party. But to have a chance to fight for its soul, you have to support its nominee.

MOYERS: What message do you expect from Kerry next week? Does he talk religion?

PHILLIPS: I don’t think he can talk religion. I think he’s, you know, a Catholic who isn’t very Catholic. And the press are raising all these issues about how the bishops don’t like him and some don’t want to give him communion and so forth.

Why don’t they spend a little time talking about all the people George W. Bush associates with in religion-like towers?

There was a lunch that was held by the Bush people, an inaugural lunch for the religious community that was hosted in essence by Sung Yung Moon, who obviously we know who he is vaguely, but a lot of people don’t know that he thinks he’s the new Messiah. And he had a coming out party as the new Messiah in Washington recently. And this is the fellow that the Bush people as part of their right-wing outreach had as the co-host of their inaugural.

And then you turn around and go to the Sun Belt and pretend that you’re the hero of every fundamentalist and evangelical. The extent to which this president is a captive, is a architect, is a player with the religious right in a way that no president has ever been before, ought to be a major headline if people in the press can ever get away from which bishop wants to deny Kerry communion.

MOYERS: Kevin Phillips, we’ll continue this discussion next week. Thank you for joining us.

PHILLIPS: Thanks, Bill.

BRANCACCIO: With the Democrats gathering in Boston for next week’s convention, we thought we’d give you a field guide to some of the rhetoric you’ll be hearing from the podium.

A couple of weeks back, we examined “Republican speak” with pollster Frank Luntz, an opinion researcher who comes up with resonant phrases and slogans for politicians, usually conservative ones. Tonight you’re going to meet a fellow who has a hand in the ways that some Democrats put their ideas.

His name is George Lakoff. Four years ago, he and colleagues at the University of California Berkeley and UC Davis decided to start a think tank called the Rockridge Institute. They felt Republicans were awfully good at winning the battle of words and they wanted to come up with new rhetorical weapons for the other side.

Lakoff is a noted linguist and the author of eight books including MORAL POLITICS: HOW LIBERALS AND CONSERVATIVES THINK. We began our conversation with ways that language builds the frame in which we view political issues.

Now you say “frame,” that’s a key to understanding this. What kind of frame?

LAKOFF: Well, frames are everywhere. Think of what happened on the very first day that George Bush took office. A press release came out using the words “tax relief.” Now a linguist who looks at the word “relief” would say, “Ah-hah, there’s a frame in which there is an affliction, an afflicted party who’s harmed by this, a reliever, who takes away this affliction. And if anybody tries to stop them, they’re a bad guy.

You add “tax” to that, and you get taxation is an affliction. And if the Democrats oppose the President’s tax relief plan, they’re bad guys.

BUSH: We need tax relief now—in fact we need tax relief yesterday. And I will work with Congress to provide it.

LAKOFF: So the word “tax relief” goes out to every radio station, every TV station, every newspaper, day after day after day. Soon, everybody’s thinking tax relief with the idea that taxation is an affliction unconsciously, automatically.

BUSH: We’re going to talk about some of that tax relief right quick.

What was in the tax relief package—

If you pay taxes you’re going to get relief—

Tax relief—

Tax relief—

Because of the tax relief we passed.

LAKOFF: And then the words become part of normal everyday language, and the conservative frame becomes part of the way you think about it.

If you’re a Democrat, you want to really change the frame. The problem is that there is no existing frame out there. You have to create it.

How do you think about taxes? Taxes are what you pay to be an American, like paying your dues to have democracy and freedom and opportunity, and all the infrastructure that America provides.

BRANCACCIO: At what point do we, as voters, notice that being used on us? Whether or not we’re conservative, whether or not we’re liberal?

LAKOFF: Only when it’s framed in the right way.

A lot of liberals believe that the facts will set you free. It’s in our inheritance from the enlightenment. Where, in the enlightenment that everybody is a rational person, all you have to do is just tell them the facts, they’ll reason to the right conclusion. It’s false.

And the Republicans have learned that it’s false. They’ve set up a frame, they set up a narrative, and they set it up in terms of their values. And they get it as part of normal, everyday language and normal everyday thought.

Once they’ve done that, the facts are irrelevant unless the Democrats can learn to re-frame the issues from their point of view, and then make the facts fit other frames.

BRANCACCIO: Well, controversial issue that perhaps frames would help: trial lawyer. John Edwards is one. How do you use that as a political weapon or an asset?

LAKOFF: Well, you use it as a weapon because it’s been made into a weapon with terms like “frivolous lawsuits,” and so on.

That is a frame that has been constructed by conservatives to attack trial lawyers, because trial lawyers, you know, support the Democratic Party in many parts of the country. So they’re trying to de-fund the Democrats by attacking trial lawyers.

Now instead of trial lawyers, you should say what folks really are doing. These are public protection attorneys. They’re doing public protection law. These are—

BRANCACCIO: Protecting the public.

LAKOFF: Protecting the public from corporations and professionals who are either negligent or unscrupulous. And they’re the last line of defense we have.

That’s what, you know, public protection law is really about. And the Democrats need to come back and talk about public protection law and public protection.

BRANCACCIO: It’s interesting how these phrases get inserted into the synapse. You say through repetition is one good way. Want you to take a look at this. We have President Bush couple years ago talking about his Healthy Forest Initiative. And he doesn’t, as you’ll see, talk about cutting down trees.

BUSH: Forest policy can be common sense policy.

A policy that is based upon common sense.

We need to make our forests healthy by using some common sense.

Common sense.

Common sense.

Common sense forest policy.

BRANCACCIO: If I were covering that speech, I’d say that the lead might have something to do with common sense.

LAKOFF: Yes. And what does that mean? It means experts are not needed. And who are the experts? They’re ecologists, environmentalists. This says, “Don’t listen to the experts. Just think about it yourself. And we’re going to tell you how to think about it.”

Now when they say Healthy Forest for a bill that’s going to, you know, clear cut forests and destroy forests, what do you do if you’re on the other side? Well, what you have to do is rename it.

Now, I mean, if it had been renamed something like Leave No Tree Behind, that would have been, you know, perfect. Or, you know, The Forest Destruction Act. You know?

Then what that does is allow you to bring it up as an issue, and allow you to ask the experts in as the arbiters. That’s the way you deal with the attempt of common sense to say, “This isn’t an expert issue. We don’t listen to the experts.”

Now the person who I think taught me most about this is one of your former guests, Frank Luntz.

BRANCACCIO: Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster and opinion researcher.

LAKOFF: That’s right.

Luntz puts out a little workbook every year or so. And last year in his section on the environment, he said something very interesting.

He said that on global warming, the Democrats have the science on their side, but we can win with language. What we need to do is use words environmentalists like, like “healthy,” “clean,” and “safe.”

Now what that does is each word like that evokes a frame. But what they do is they evoke frames that are the opposite of what they know they mean. These are sort of Orwellian frames. These are ways to manipulate the public.

So whenever you hear an Orwellian term like “Clear Skies Act” or “Compassionate Conservative,” means they know they’re weak on something. And what you have to do is rename it. Rename it to fit the truth.

It is the Dirty Air Act. It is the Forest Destruction Act.

BRANCACCIO: A lot of the hot button political issues of the moment really can be framed and re-framed. Big debate this summer over gay marriage. You might re-frame it, I don’t know, you could call it “right to marry the one you love.” That’s a different kind of frame.

LAKOFF: Exactly right.

You have to change the terms and change the words to make them your words all the time. As soon as you say, “gay marriage,” the image of gay sex is going to come up.

Most people, you know, if you say, “Are you in favor of gay sex,” will say, “Who me? No.” But if they say, “Do you think the state should tell people who they should marry?” Different question. Different frame.

BRANCACCIO: So what do you do, say it over and over?

LAKOFF: Over and over and over, just as they say it over and over. That’s how they get people to think the way they want them to think.

And it’s not an unfair, people think it’s an unfair tactic. It’s an effective tactic. It’s true. It works that way. That’s how people do think.

BRANCACCIO: Republicans tend to talk about being moral, family values. But I don’t know if you’ve seen some of Kerry’s speeches this summer.

KERRY: For values that make America strong.

The values that matter most.

Values that you live by.

The values that unite us, the values that define us.

Values, values.

Narrow values.

Shared values.

Now I’ll tell you what values mean.

BRANCACCIO: Spot the key word there. I think it has something to do with values. About a 40 minute speech, we counted 28 usages of the word “values.” What’s he trying to do there?

LAKOFF: Well, he’s bringing up the issue of values, and he’s right. You have to say it over and over. But now here’s the next step, you can’t just repeat the word “values.” You have to say what they are. You have to start talking about things like fairness, safety, freedom, community, trust, honesty. I mean these are values. Integrity.

Then he has to say why he has them, why progressives have them, why the Democratic Party has them, in detail. And then every time he mentions a program or an idea, he has to say why they follow from these values, and what they have to do with values. That’s the sort of things that conservatives have been doing for many, many years.

BRANCACCIO: When you see that, though, where’s that values word going? Who does John Kerry hope this word will resonate with?

LAKOFF: Everybody. Because everybody is looking for a candidate who shares their values.

BRANCACCIO: And that applied to George W. Bush as well? In other words, people who voted for him saw something in him that they could identify with?

LAKOFF: Absolutely. They saw it not only in the words, but in his body. They saw it in his gestures, they saw it in his dialect, in his choice of a particular, this kind of bubba dialect.

This is a guy who grew up in Kennebunkport, Maine around his father. His father didn’t use that dialect. He went to Andover. He went to Yale. He went to Harvard Business School. He heard people not using the bubba dialect all the time.

But he also grew up in Texas, and he learned the other dialect, too. And he’s used that very effectively to get people in the red states to identify with him and to say, “Hey, that guy is like me.”

BRANCACCIO: You sometimes see that when you see a conservative critique of John Kerry. They say, “Well, that guy went to Yale.” Now of course the President of the United States also went to Yale.

LAKOFF: Exactly. They both went to Yale. You know? President United States went to Andover. I mean these are, you know, elite institutions.

BRANCACCIO: A couple of times you’ve used the word “progressive” interchangeably with I think the other word is liberal.


BRANCACCIO: We moving away from liberal? Is liberal finally— even you admitting it’s a dirty word?

LAKOFF: Well, it’s been branded by the other side. For the last 20, 30 years they’ve been putting other adjectives with liberal, like limousine liberal, latte liberal, you know, Chardonnay and brie liberal, even though more Republicans eat brie than Democrats do. Very important, you know—

BRANCACCIO: There’s research about this?

LAKOFF: There’s research about this. Everything has market research. But the fact is that the identity has been given to the word “liberal.” And people talk about the liberal elite when, in fact, it’s the conservatives who have the real money in the country and the elitism. The Democrats should use that. The Democrats have to call the people who get those big tax cuts, not just the rich, but the elite. “Rich” is a good word in America. You know, remember, you have rich experiences. You want a rich life. You know? “Rich” is a good word. But “elite” isn’t a good word.

BRANCACCIO: If you ever watch the Comedy Central program THE DAILY SHOW, they have a mock newscast. But they seem to have caught the conservatives trying to use this word “liberal” as a weapon. Take a look.

CNN CLIP: “two of the foremost liberal senators”
CNN CLIP: “two of the foremost liberal US senators”
MSNBC CLIP: “the most liberal member of the United States Senate”
CNN CLIP: “the most liberal member of the United States Senate”
FOX CLIP: “who was the number one rated liberal in the United States Senate”
FOX CLIP: “the number one most liberal senator in the United States Senate”

STEWART: Wow! Those guys are liberal! In fact if I didn’t know better I’d say they were the first and fourth most liberal senators in the whole Senate. And while we don’t have any idea what that means or where those rankings come from or how they were arrived at or whether it’s even true, I don’t like the sounds of it.

BRANCACCIO: Liberals have lost the battle to hold onto the word “liberal,” wouldn’t you say?

LAKOFF: They’ve lost it at least temporarily. There’s no way they can get it back before November. They could take the word back over a period of years.

Now remember that the word “conservative” used to be a dirty word. Back in 1964, when Goldwater lost, nobody wanted to be called a conservative. But the conservatives took the word back over many, many years of working at it.

BRANCACCIO: Let’s take a look at the President of the United States this summer. And he’s making a speech, and he has a refrain which you’re about to see.

BUSH: And the American people are safer.

The American people are safer.

And the American people are safer.

BRANCACCIO: Post-Iraq, presumably, the American people are safer.

LAKOFF: He has to say the American people are safer, whether they are or not. Now notice what would happen if you went out and said the opposite. The American people are not safer. That’s why—

BRANCACCIO: Say you were a Democrat—

LAKOFF: You’re—

BRANCACCIO: You said, “The American people are not safer.”

LAKOFF: Yeah. It’s like Richard Nixon getting up there and saying, “I am not a crook,” and people think of him as a crook. Right?

They think of the American are safer— not. Right? You have to say why they’re not safer. You don’t just say they’re not safer. They say you have to say, “More terrorists have been created by the war in Iraq than were eradicated in, you know, in Afghanistan.”

You have to say that things are more dangerous now.

BRANCACCIO: Are you going to hear that from Kerry-Edwards, all that their opponents will say is, “Well, you voted for the war, too?”

LAKOFF: I don’t know. So far a lot of Democrats are used to simply negating what the other side said. You know, like “Not safer.” They have to learn to re-frame and put it in their terms.

Take, for example, the war on terror. You should never use the word “war on terror.” Why? First of all, “war” gives the President war powers. And secondly, “terror” talks about everything that could possibly make anyone afraid. It’s like it’s a pervading thing in the world.

Whereas if you talk about terrorists, there are only a handful, several thousand terrorists. They’re dangerous. But if you’re a nation of 250 million people, you can deal with the several thousand terrorists if you really go at it.

The issue is fighting terrorists. You know, as opposed to this general thing on terror. If you use “war” then you have the President having war powers. He’s Commander-In-Chief. And, you know, you go on a wartime basis where people can’t criticize the government.

BRANCACCIO: But Democrats don’t want to understate the threat. There’s more than a couple of hundred or a couple thousand terrorists.

LAKOFF: Whatever the estimate is, it’s not millions. It’s not hundreds of millions of al-Qaeda. The point is there is a threat, and there’s a threat having to do with groups of individuals, not nations.

BRANCACCIO: Among George Lakoff’s latest books IS MORAL POLITICS: HOW LIBERALS AND CONSERVATIVES THINK. George Lakoff, thank you so much for having come by NOW.

LAKOFF: Okay. My pleasure.

MOYERS: In closing, a confession.

I haven’t seen Michael Moore’s FAHRENHEIT 9/11. Not that I haven’t wanted to; it’s just that I have not been able to tear myself away from the live show — the political theatre playing out in full sight right before our eyes. Who needs a movie when you have the news?

Michael Moore’s weird alright, but not as weird as Michael Powell, our cartel-loving chairman of the Federal Communications Commisson whose idea of the press seems to be channeling William Randolph Hearst.

Michael Moore’s outrageous, but not as outrageous as George W. Bush and Tom Delay conspiring to let the ban on killer assault weapons expire. Bush says he doesn’t like all that loaded hardware lying around but, hey, it’s up to the House of Representatives to vote. The aptly named Tom Delay, the House majority leader, on the other hand, says, wink, wink, he can’t let a vote happen because Bush hasn’t asked him to. After you, Alphonse; after you, Gaston – and will the last man out please turn on the lights?

Michael Moore has a keen eye for the absurd; I know that from his earlier wickedly funny films. But we don’t need a seeing-eye absurdist to understand how wacky it is for Ralph Nader to get on the ballot in different states with the help of a conservative outfit that’s a front group for all those corporate interests Nader has spent his life trying to cut down to size. Imagine: 43,000 Michigan Republicans suddenly seized by the vision of Nader the savior, putting their names on a petition urging him to run for President! Save us, Ralph; save us. Politics makes strange bedfellows, but this is a ménage a trois, as John Kerry might say, that would shame the Marquis de Sade.

No, I don’t need to shell out $9 for a movie when I can watch the Democrats in Boston next week piously pretending to be taking seriously a homily on values from Al Sharpton. Or when I have C-Span to watch Congress in action. Or not. There was to be a congressional hearing this week into the safety of anti-depressant medicine. Seems some pharmaceutical companies are suspected of keeping secret the bad news about their products. The hearing was abruptly cancelled when word spread that the committee chairman is under consideration for a big-paying job representing — are you ready for this? — the biotech and pharmaceutical industries.

You think I’m kidding. Believe me, I couldn’t make this stuff up if I wanted to. Unfortunately, I don’t have to.

That’s it for NOW. David Brancaccio and I will be back next week. Thanks for joining us.

BRANCACCIO: Connect to NOW online at pbs.org—

Explore the history of the terms “conservative” and “liberal” in American politics. Find out how much news coverage your local election is getting. Follow this week’s news from the campaign trail.

This transcript was entered on May 11, 2015.

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