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New Study Gives Media "A" for Scandal, "F" for Politics

A new study by a University of Massachusetts research team reveals that the average American voter knows a lot when it comes to the latest scandals swirling around President Clinton, but next to nothing about his policies. And it seems -- surprise, surprise -- that the media system, in the way it frames issues, is responsible for this knowledge gap.
 
 
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PUBLIC KNOWS MUCH MORE ABOUT FLOWERS, LEWINSKY AND TRIPP THAN WELFARE AND HEALTHCARE AND LAND MINESA new study by a University of Massachusetts research team reveals that the average American voter knows a lot when it comes to the latest scandals swirling around President Clinton, but next to nothing about his policies. And it seems -- surprise, surprise -- that the media system, in the way it frames issues, is responsible for this knowledge gap. In addition, conservative efforts to portray Clinton as a liberal have backfired, the study demonstrates. As Clinton's popularity continues to climb in the face of the Zippergate scandal, voters consistently link Clinton to liberal policies for which they give him high grades. In doing so, the public perceives Clinton to be much more liberal than he actually is. This finding of strong public support for liberal policies flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that Democrats have to run to the center to be elected. Clinton's popularity, one assumes, is not based upon the public's assessment of his character, although he is likely picking up some support because of the backlash regarding Special Prosecutor Ken Starr's intrusion into the personal side of the Presidency. No, Clinton's popularity appears to coincide quite directly with the public's sense that he is a clearly defined liberal Democrat, an image that was recently reinforced by what was probably his most liberal State of the Union address. THE STUDYThe study was designed and implemented by University of Massachusetts communication professors Justin Lewis, Michael Morgan and Sut Jhally. "We saw Clinton's approval rating continue to climb in the wake of the recent sex scandal, and we wanted to find out why," says Lewis. "What we found is the media coverage is having a backlash effect, even as it misinforms the public about the most basic facts of the President's political agenda." Lewis further adds that "while it's not surprising that people find scandal more entertaining than politics, the extent of the lack of knowledge about Clinton the politician is dramatic and disturbing." For example, while 81 percent of respondents to the survey were aware of Gennifer Flowers' claims to have had an affair with (then Governor) Clinton, and 75 percent were able to identify Linda Tripp's role in the Monica Lewinsky affair, only 13 percent knew that Clinton signed the Welfare Reform bill, and only 26 percent had even a vague notion of where he stands on healthcare reform. The current study is part of series of research projects investigating public knowledge -- and not just public opinion -- about contemporary issues. Since knowledge (or what is assumed as knowledge) provides a basis on which opinions are constructed, the work is aimed at uncovering what actually informs public opinion. The role of the media are instrumental in this context, not so much in directly swaying opinion one way or the other, but in providing a very particular knowledge base. The author's particular interest is in exploring the nature of the knowledge base, and to see whether it is informed, uninformed or misinformed. PUBLIC OF TWO MINDS -- BENEFITS FROM *ECHO EFFECT* The study found that although the public is highly informed about the latest scandal, 77 percent say that the media are spending too much time on the story. And there is evidence that heavy TV viewers have been served up a surfeit of sex. "When asked what crime Clinton was alleged to have committed, heavy viewers talked about sex, not perjury," says Morgan. Nevertheless, while the public complains about titillating coverage, it doesn't stop people from watching, listening, reading and talking about the scandal. Zippergate is woven into many aspects of daily life, from fodder for the nighttime talk shows, material for cartoons and Doonesbury, to insider stories making the rounds of the InterNet and off-color jokes and gossip around the water cooler. Zippergate for the time being has transformed the nature of the national conversation. In fact, it may be the "echo effect" -- the repeating of information and themes in many different media context's -- which has produced the remarkable public knowledge about the current scandals. Issues like health care and welfare reform are not the regular fare of Oprah and Jay Lenno, nor the Internet.And there has been big payoff for the media covering the scandal. As Todd Gitlin documents in the New York Observer for the all news media, the benefit seems obvious:"CNN, the Fox News Channel and MSNBC lifted their ratings by 50 to 60 percent in Week 2 of Monicagate (though the Big Three's network news shows didn't follow suit). ABC's Nightline, converted to 'The Lewinsky Report,' was up 31 percent. Newsweek and Time cashed in. The hunger for a look at the President even rubbed off on the State of the Union speech, raising the audience for it by 36 percent over last year's performance, according to Nielsen Media Research. ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox News -- all caught in the act."SCANDAL KNOWLEDGEThe U-MASS study found that the public had quite a handle on the details of the Clinton/Starr/Lewinsky sage, but hardly any handle at all on policy politics. While some of the Zippergate figures received recognition scores as high as 93 percent for Monica Lewinsky and 89 percent Paula Jones, even some of the less salacious details of Clinton scandals were more familiar than most of his policy positions. More than half of the sample were able to answer an open-ended question about the name of Kenneth Starr's initial investigation (Whitewater), yet even when given a choice of just two answers, only 23.5 percent were able to identify the position taken by the Clinton administration in the recent international treaty on the banning of land mines (the administration opposes the treaty). Significantly, the only scandal-related question that a majority had trouble with was the only overtly political one: only 38.5 percent were aware that Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr is a Republican. Of the six purely scandal-related questions, 62 percent of respondents gave five or six correct responses. For the nine policy related questions, less than 20 percent got more than four correct.MISINFORMEDThe authors argue, however, that the study's most interesting finding is not that people are uninformed, but that they are misinformed. The study shows that when Clinton has taken a position on the liberal side of an issue, people get the answer right. So, for example, 69 percent knew that he is generally in favor a woman's right to an abortion, and 74 percent knew that his State of the Union address advocated spending the surplus on social security rather than tax cuts. However, when Clinton has adopted more conservative positions, people are not only unaware of this (between 13 percent and 31 percent get the answer right in these cases), but they tend to assume he has taken a liberal position. More people say Clinton refused to sign the Welfare Bill than knew he signed it. More think he backs a national, universal healthcare system than know he favors working with the existing system of private insurance. More think he favored the land mine treaty than knew he opposed it. More assume he opposed the deregulatory Telecommunications Bill than knew he supported it. One doesn't need a Ph.D. in social science to see that there is something going on here." PUBLIC LIKES LIBERAL POLICIESThe findings suggest, according to the authors, that regardless of his attempts to frame himself as a "new Democrat" prepared to work with a Republican Congress and take "bipartisan" positions, the public still tends to think of him as an unreconstructed liberal. And for all the negative connotations often attached to the "L-word," most people seem to approve of their imaginary left-wing President.This is not to say that the public take uniformly liberal positions on policy positions -- there is clearly public support for conservative positions too (such as the death penalty). President Clinton has been skillful in recent months in focusing on those liberal positions, which do tend to be popular. What the survey suggests is that most people seem to be prepared to buy the whole package for the sake of those things they support.Why do people see Clinton as more liberal than he really is? The authors suggest two reasons: first, the media's tendency to emphasize conflict rather than agreement leads people to assume that Clinton has acted as a liberal in response to a conservative Congress; second, the Republican strategy of labeling Clinton a liberal appears to have stuck in people's minds. But, as Lewis suggests, "this success does not seem to have put people off Bill Clinton -- his current approval rating suggesting that while the public may disapprove of his character, they like his policies. Even if, as it turns out, they don't know what those policies are." HOW IS THE MEDIA RESPONSIBLE?One compelling question is the role of the media in creating a picture of the President as a liberal Democrat. Since it is likely that most political journalists would have known the correct answers to the questions, how might such an impression have been created? The study's authors return to the 'conflict' framework in which politics is presented as offering clear choices between candidates and where differences tend to receive more attention than areas of agreement. Although the areas of agreement between Bill Clinton and his Republican opponents in both 1992 in 1996 were substantial -- particularly on economic policy -- the elections were characterized in strictly partisan terms. Despite candidate Clinton's attempts -- notably in 1996 -- to appear consensual and non-partisan, the media framework tended to cast him in a more traditional adversarial position. Thus, if Bush and Dole were conservatives, Clinton the Democrat must be a liberal. " The authors continue: "This framework depends on more than simply the use of conflict to create interest. If both candidates are too alike, the democratic process itself is open to interrogation -- one that the mainstream media are extremely reluctant to engage in. To do so would be to break with a traditional format and risk 'going out on a limb.' It is much easier, in this context, to make the political arena fit the format than it is to question the format itself. This would seem to be particularly comfortable when both candidates embrace generally pro-corporate positions that are congenial to most media owners."I'M NOT A LIBERAL, BUTFinally, what the study seems to have revealed here is what the authors might call the "I'm not a liberal, but..." syndrome, in which many will feel uncomfortable with the label, but will endorse a number of liberal policy positions. While the percentage of the population declaring themselves to be "liberal" has been declining for some time, support for a range of liberal position remains robust (e.g., on education, child care, the environment and the minimum wage). Thus it is an environment which one would imagine the Republicans would relish appears not to be working in their favor. While some see him as a libertine and most as a liberal, neither appears to be off-putting -- at least in times of perceived economic prosperity.The study is based on a sample of 600 respondents across the United States. The sample was broadly representative in terms of age, gender, education, political persuasions, and media habits. Interviews were conducted by telephone during the first week of February. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percent.