Political Media: Reader Beware

We can learn a lot about politics from news stories and commentary but we can also be misled at times by poor framing and illogical arguments. There are a couple of good examples from recent pieces on the Scott Brown vs. Elizabeth Warren senate race.

The first example is from a WBUR blog post titled What’s Wrong with the Warren Campaign by Democratic media consultant Dan Payne, which I previously critiqued in Dems on Warren: “The Sky is Falling” (The Sequel). The WBUR post was published on September 11 and presented three key pieces of evidence for the thesis that the Warren campaign was in deep, deep trouble: First, Payne felt the campaign was going poorly and this was confirmed for him by “my (small) sample of well-educated Democratic and independent women, [who] are realizing they’re not alone in being turned off by the Warren campaign.” Second, “Recent partisan polls show that Brown is up from 1 to 5 points. The Huffington Post, which charts all publicly available polls, shows Brown ahead by less than 6 points.” Third, “Talking to political people, I find nearly all believe Brown will win.”

Let’s start with the first and third bits of evidence. Does it seem that small samples of educated women and political insiders form a sound evidentiary basis for the judgment that Warren was in trouble? No. It is extrapolating from small and select groups to form a judgment about a much larger population, the Massachusetts electorate. Aha, but the second ground, polling, is designed to reflect a snapshot of the electorate. So let’s examine the most recent polls on the Huffington Post chart as it existed on September 11. Two mid-August polls showed Brown ahead by 5 and 6 points. But then a poll conducted from September 7-9 showed Brown’s lead dropping to a single point, a statistical tie.  That might have given one pause before rendering the judgment that Warren’s campaign was stagnating. Since September 11 we have four polls showing Warren ahead by 2 to 6 points and one with Brown up by four. These results reflect conditions before Warren’s new, more aggressive ad strategy could take effect.

My second example involves a Saturday, September 15 Boston Globe article “Brown, Warren do battle in TV ads,” and has to do with issue framing. The article describes a Brown ad that touts his pro-choice stance on abortion. The story points out that “Brown has long said he supports abortion rights, although he has received the endorsement of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, the state’s leading antiabortion group.”

But, the Globe continues that abortion rights groups that had endorsed Warren questioned Brown’s commitment to choice. A spokesperson for EMILY’s List, a group that raises money to elect pro-choice Democrats, said that “Scott Brown is straight-up lying to Massachusetts voters with his latest ad.” But how pro-choice is pro-choice? Brown may be suspect, but the Globe reported that Warren supports abortion in most cases but would not try to overturn a federal ban on what pro-life groups’ term “partial birth abortion.” Warren also supports Massachusetts’ parental notification requirement, which can be bypassed by application to the courts. Some abortion rights groups oppose parental notification. One conclusion we might draw from all this is that both Warren and Brown are somewhere between the positions held by MCL and Emily’s List. And that is where most Americans are, as Prof. John Sides described in Media Bias, Abortion, and the Other 80%: “If media coverage ignores some Americans, it’s not because it focuses on a pro-choice perspective but because it focuses on the perspectives of both pro-life and pro-choice activists—neither of whom represents the vast majority of Americans.”

At first reading I simply accepted both the WBUR blog post and the Globe news article. But something gnawed at me about both. That something was illogic in one case and either-or framing in the other. Reader beware.

About Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He teaches courses in American government including Massachusetts Politics, The American Presidency, Catholics in Political Life, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, American Political Thought, and Public Policy. His book Maximization, Whatever the Cost: Race, Redistricting and the Department of Justice examines the role of the DOJ in requiring states to maximize minority voting districts in the Nineties. He has published articles dealing with the role of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts politics and on party politics in the state. His research interests focus upon the changing political culture of Massachusetts.
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