The Disease of Right-wing Framing

Here is a recent New York Times headline of an article describing a George Bush stump speech in Michigan: Bush describes Kerry's health care plan as a 'government takeover.' The San Francisco Chronicle republished the very same piece, except its headline read: Bush blasts Kerry's 'enormous price tag' for health care.

What's wrong with this picture?

To begin with, an unsuspecting reader might be led to think – mistakenly, at that – that John Kerry's health care proposals amount to nothing less than the creation of a socialized national health care system.

Then there is the more alarming fact that both of these headlines help further President Bush's partisan slams against John Kerry. These influential media outlets lent credibility to George Bush's false claims by using the same language – or to be more accurate, 'frames' – of the White House spin machine.

By repeating, verbatim, these frames in the context of objective news reporting, big media ends up serving the agenda of those it claims to cover without bias.

The end result is a further degradation of journalistic standards of fairness and an increasingly misinformed public – and therefore, the erosion of the informed choices required to ensure a healthy democracy.

The phenomenon of the media assimilating right-wing language within their own reporting often goes unnoticed by the average reader, making its effects all the more insidious. And this appropriation isn't limited to large-circulation publications, but can be found across the spectrum of local and regional press outlets.

During the recent Republican National Convention, a leading Northern Michigan newspaper headlined Bush's nomination address thus: 'Bush Pledges Safer World, Hope.' The subtitle in smaller print beneath read: 'Acceptance Speech Draws Kerry's Fire.' The message conveyed to the reader is that the incumbent promises to fulfill the cherished dreams of all Americans – over the objections of his opponent. In other words, Kerry is challenging not just Bush's speech, but also the ideals of a 'safer world' and 'hope.'

That most news outlets have also failed to hold Bush adequately accountable for his dangerous and reckless foreign policy or domestic policies that have favored the privileged makes such framing all the more damaging.

This veil of doublespeak has been draped over the realities of the candidates‚ respective health care plans time and again. In the most recent of his many visits to swing state Michigan, Bush charged that Kerry proposes "a massive, complicated blueprint to have our government take over the decision-making in health care." In fact, two of the core elements in Kerry's plan are simply to give small businesses a tax credit to buy health insurance for their employees, and to expand state coverage for the under and uninsured. This is a far cry from nationalized health care.

As for big government meddling in the health-care choices of the individual? It was Bush administration lawyers who backed the HMOs before the Supreme Court when they wanted to effectively limit patient's choices, including the freedom to see specialists of their own choosing.

The White House has also steadfastly worked to deny American citizens the right to buy cheaper imported drugs from Canada. In contrast, Kerry's plan would require the government to negotiate better prices with pharmaceutical companies and restore the right of Americans to import affordable prescription medications.

Meanwhile, Vice President Dick Cheney further inflated the price of Kerry's plan – putting it at a whopping $1.5 trillion – at a recent town hall meeting in Iowa. Here is a measure of just how wildly exaggerated that figure is: even the report Cheney cited for this figure, by the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute (where Lynn Cheney once worked) says Kerry's "spending could exceed $1 trillion over ten years." To paraphrase an old robber baron's expression, "A half a trillion here, a half a trillion there, and pretty soon you're talking about real money." But half a trillion is real money, and to tack it on falsely onto an already misleading figure arrived at by one's own ideological allies is outrageous.

Of course, Cheney did not mention that the AEI report also concluded that the Bush plan "has been criticized for not doing enough for the uninsured, and that might be a fair criticism."

To help clear the Orwellian fog of the right, it is helpful to get an accurate sense of just what Kerry is proposing (of course, his plans have yet to be tested against the economic realities his potential presidency might encounter).

In addition to requiring federal negotiation for lower drug prices, reinstating the right of the individual to import cheaper drugs and offering tax credits to small businesses to foster employee health plans, Kerry would increase funding for safety-net programs like Medicaid and reimburse businesses for some of their most costly or catastrophic cases. While his estimated price tag of some $635 billion over ten years may be optimistic, the consensus of leading economists and healthcare experts places it at far below the $1 trillion-plus cited by the administration.

Kerry plans to pay for his plan by rolling back tax cuts for people earning more than $200,000 per year, reducing health care administration waste and redundancy, and taking advantage of the savings foreign drug imports would provide. His proposals would cover between 25-28 million of the roughly 44 million Americans who are currently uninsured.

Bush, on the other hand, offers a combination of tax credits for businesses and individuals to boost personal savings that could potentially be applied to Health Savings Accounts for the individual, and the creation of Association Health plans for small businesses. While the idea may sound good in theory, the results may be disastrous. Bush's approach to "helping" the uninsured is but another step toward ending tax-supported healthcare entirely and "drowning it in the bathtub" – the same fate radical right wing operative Grover Norquist has vowed for all U.S. social programs.

Projections by the Congressional Budget Office, the Treasury Department, leading academics, and some of the Bush administration's own experts reveal that Bush's plans would extend coverage to no more than 6 million people and possibly as few as 2 million over the next decade. How's that for promising "hope?"

The larger impact of each candidate's health care plans – and the real motivations behind them – become easily apparent after an even cursory examination of the hard facts. But most Americans don't make the effort to understand the facts behind the rhetoric, and rely instead on the media to do their research for them. Sadly, the icons of the massively corporate Fourth Estate seem to have abdicated their responsibility to do their homework and dig deeper for the accurate picture. Worse, they have now taken to passively or actively borrowing the right wing's language to frame their own "objective" analysis.

The corpocracy now controlling the ship of state has long understood the power of language in grabbing the hearts and minds of the public. David Corn, in The Nation, says:

One cliché among Washington commentators has long been that the Republicans are the Daddy Party (the warriors, the tough-on-crime guys) and the Democrats are the Mommy Party (the gang that worries about health care, education, and such.) Bush (is) striving to be both Ma and Pa. Seeking the holy grail of most presidents – a strategic political alignment – Bush is attempting to turn the GOP into the Both Parents Party, which smites enemies abroad and then tucks you in when the economy falters.
Some of us see the ugly reality behind this hollow conservative myth. What, then, must we do to counter its toxic pervasiveness?

Cognitive linguist George Lakoff gives this admonishment to journalists:
Reporters have an obligation to notice when they are being taken for a ride and they should refuse to go along. It is a duty of reporters not to accept this situation and simply use those right wing frames that have come to seem natural. And it is the special duty of reporters to study framing and to see through politically motivated frames, even if they have come to be accepted as everyday and commonplace.
But it's not just reporters but also citizens who have this duty. It is time for us to reframe the health care debate. We need to create new terms that better describe the truth of the progressive vision: Not "big government takeover" but "efficient, universal coverage"; not "enormous price tag" but "publicly supported health care"; and above all not "wasteful government handouts" but "the foundation of a healthful and secure nation."

It is only when we learn to speak in the right language – rather than the language of the right – that the progressive movement can begin to regain the ground ceded to the conservatives, and empower our vision of equity and justice.

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