In yesterday’s OP-ED page of The New York Times, Thomas Friedman suggests characteristics of what non-extremist factions of the American polity want in a leader. I was struck by the high levels of communication capacity these criteria demand. According to Friedman, the following are among the required traits of desired leadership: 1) the ability to persuade constituents and 2) the ability to lead, not merely read, public opinion. Not only do these two things require expertise, they are inextricably linked.
The underdogs of the world, all the outgunned of the world, have a technique they can deploy that the powerful consistently underestimate. They can deliberately provoke the powerful, and the powerful take the bait and unleash their mighty forces. The key to the technique is that the underdogs make sure that the depredations of the powerful are caught on camera...and mass communicated.
The holy trinity of media effects research is "agenda setting - priming - framing." We've used all of these terms at some point in this blog. Since they are central to all kinds of communication work - and policy work, to quite some extent - we'll introduce all three a little more thoroughly, starting with agenda setting.
Agenda setting means the ability of the mass media to bring issues to the attention of the public and, related, of politicians. The basic claim is that as the media devote more attention to an issue, the public perceives the issue as important. When the media take up a specific topic - such as climate change, or manager bonuses - they make us think about it. The theory was introduced in 1972 by Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw in their seminal study of the role of the media in the 1968 Presidential campaign in the US ("The Agenda-Setting Function of Mass Media").
The presidential election campaign in the United States is suffocating. You can't escape it anywhere, even when on vacation outside the US. Everyone is absorbed in it, I find. They want to talk about it; they want to watch CNN coverage of it nonstop. Now, for the issues we discuss in this blog the campaign is a good thing, but it is also a bad thing.
The presidential campaign is a good thing because it showcases some of the dynamics that we seek to draw attention to here. First, it shows the importance of public opinion in governance. In a sense, the entire campaign can be seen as an attempt to shape public opinion in rival directions by two well-funded campaigns.