Combative Politics, a compelling new book by Mary Layton Atkinson, weaves together several important threads of American politics research of recent years: the dominance of game-frame news coverage, the renewed emphasis on citizen discontent, and the gap in public preferences and policy outcomes in often-gridlocked Washington. This project uses a range of evidence to make its case, including content analysis of media reports, multivariate analyses of public opinion research, and experiments that expose subjects to genuine and subtly altered news reports to measure reader responses to different media content. This combination of research approaches—something of a mash-up of Out of Order (Thomas Patterson), News That Matters (Shanto Iyengar and Donald Kinder), Governing with the News (Tim Cook), and Stealth Democracy (John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse)—provides an effective and comprehensive framework for examining the roles that media content play in increasing public cynicism and in creating obstacles for passage of even popular legislation. This well-written book offers compelling evidence that journalism norms work against both sound policy development and legislative compromise. Chapter 1 examines public support for public issues during the time they are considered in Congress, noting that even popular policies become objects of scorn “because of their association with the unpopular, contentious process of policy making” (p. 10). Atkinson’s content analysis research focuses on the New York Times, a media outlet selected because it covers the several decades of policy coverage considered here as well as the author’s quite reasonable view that this newspaper would be more inclined to provide depth and background to its policy stories than nearly any other prominent news outlet. In Chapter 2, Atkinson uses content analysis to examine policy news stories relating to health care, K–12 education, and social welfare between January 1980 and December 2010. The content analysis revealed that conflict narratives were prominent in more than two-thirds of policy-oriented stories analyzed, presenting the legislative debates as battles in decade after decade. By only rarely providing links between problems and desired outcomes, the partisan disputes on Capitol Hill rarely focus on finding the best policy path forward. The experimental efforts, which involved a student sample that was then largely replicated in the 2012 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES), found that support for policy initiatives was considerably greater among those exposed to largely hypothetical civil debate media treatments as opposed to news stories that reported on heated debate over the legislation. Too often citizens, particularly less informed ones, imagine that there is an optimal policy solution readily apparent to everyone, which leads to a belief that conflict serves the personal ends of the combatants. But even more informed readers who consume conflict-focused news are less supportive of policies than those who consume news that emphasizes cooperation. (Since reporters don’t write a lot of cooperation-focused legislative news, the author was obligated to create versions of existing news stories that emphasized compromise—experimental procedures carefully detailed in the book’s appendices.) The consequences of conflict-laden news were confirmed in public opinion data from 2004 and 2005 that compared support for the proposed federal Constitutional Amendment to ban gay marriage in states that had separate state-level gay marriage bans on their ballots with those states that did not. Once again, the gay marriage ban demonstrated that heightened controversy led to reduced support for a policy measure as discussion increased. Of course, most policy issues involve greater issue complexity than a gay marriage ban. Citizens trying to untangle the effects of a health care bill, for example, are far more dependent on the media when it comes to making sense of the legislation than when it comes to divining one’s personal views on same-sex marriage. In studies that examine the trajectory of public opinion relating to health care bills backed by President Bill Clinton and President Obama, Atkinson demonstrates that conflict reporting depresses support for the measures. Citizens with less formal education are particularly inclined to believe that policy disputes exist because politicians want to score political points more than because they have genuine policy disagreements. Atkinson wisely demonstrates exceptions to these overall patterns of combative rhetoric and combative news. In those rare situations where an important policy issue does not sustain partisan controversy—like the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990—there was little media coverage and no decline in public support for the measure during the time Congress debated the bill. While the Brady Bill endured considerable criticism from gun control advocates, the clear linking of the measure to a popular and specific policy outcome allowed the measure to pass despite opposition from many in Congress. To Atkinson, many public misconceptions about policy and policymakers are laid at the feet of journalists. By focusing on extreme rhetoric and the most controversial legislation, reporters confirm the most cynical citizen interpretations about business in Washington. Yet incentives for reporters reward that behavior: the for-profit media marketplace will respond to public preferences for the bad and the ugly in Washington. Ambitious lawmakers will attack each other as they also respond to external pressures as they seek to become more prominent nationally. Show horses, not workhorses, make the paper. The book’s evidence demonstrates that journalistic norms, particularly the use of conflict frames, discourage responsible lawmaking and reward divisiveness, conflict, and policy stalemate. Although Atkinson does link this circle of cynicism to the election of Donald Trump in this book, future research might examine how the media denigration of experience and of the struggle to compromise led to the election of a president with profound disdain for conventional lawmaking by an electorate who prized his lack of government experience. Reporters and editors focus on conflict on policy debate, Atkinson argues, because new disputes allow news outlets to provide something new to say about a specific bill, which changes little on most days. The evidence from decades of news coverage in the New York Times demonstrates that reporters, in their desire for novelty, pay little attention to moderate voices in any debate, and likewise largely ignore moderate policies that generate little opposition. Because rewarded behavior is repeated behavior, politicians and journalists gravitate toward comments and news reports that emphasize the most uncompromising commentary. While some critics may object to the absence of television and online content in these pages, any study of media impact on national public opinion across decades could hardly ignore the direct (and arguably greater indirect) influence of the Times when it comes to shaping media and political discourse in a variety of venues. Future scholars, of course, can use this work as a template for subsequent studies about the impact of other media sources on lawmaking and public opinion. As a whole, Combative Politics provides comprehensive evidence, effective and accessible writing, and well-founded conclusions, making this a compelling classroom choice for advanced undergraduate- and graduate-level classes in public policy, legislative politics, and political communication. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Association for Public Opinion Research. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Public Opinion Quarterly – Oxford University Press
Published: May 10, 2018
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