JEFFREY FELDMAN'S FRAMESHOP
FOX News' John Gibson recently ran a segment on what he termed Barack Obama's "dirty little secret"--that Obama is a cigarette smoker. This is a published fact, by the way, as it is mentioned in the Senator's two best-selling books and in a recent New Republic article. But, Gibson ran with the particular "dirty secret" framing anyway, weaving it into a five minute segment with such insightful questions as whether Obama could keep his smoking a "secret" and whether Obama's "secret" would hinder his Presidential campaign. As Gibson put it (transcript/video from MediaMatters.org):
"And [Obama's] team works overtime trying to hide Obama's dirty little secret. He is -- get this -- a cigarette smoker. The point is: What else do we not know about Barack Obama?"
Indeed, that is the point in all this -- Gibson has turned the well-known fact of Obama's smoking habit into a new campaign to smear the Democratic Presidential hopeful as a man full of "dirty secrets."
And this is exactly how a Republican smear campaign works.
The key is to start with a candidate's strengths. In this case, Obama has published two autobiographical books -- both of which are mega-hit best sellers and revealing of both is personal habits, background, and beliefs. Pretending we want to run a Republican smear campaign against Obama, we would conclude that his openness is one of his strengths.
Next, using leading questions and personal attacks, accuse the Democratic candidate of the exact opposite of their strength. In Obama's case, this means accusing a very open candidate of having lots of hidden secrets -- even worse: dirty secrets.
But don't be fooled into thinking that the goal of such a campaign is just to convince voters of the false weaknesses posited by the hit squads who launched the campaign. After all, it was well-known that George W. Bush was an excessive drinker arrested for drunk driving, smoked cigarettes, and used drugs. But he was elected twice.
Rather than just get out false facts, the goal of these Republican smear campaigns is to trick the media in so-called "balanced" debates about lies -- to flood the airwaves with false accusations and innuendos about a Democrat until the media falls for the trick and stages a debate by two supposed experts on the issue.
So, soon enough, if this "dirty secret" smear campaign by Republicans against Obama works, we can expect to see CNN, CBS, NBC, ABC, MSNBC and other major networks producing their own segments in which they ask two or more experts whether or not Obama has "dirty secrets" -- during which these so-called experts will discuss the lies floated in the media by Republican hit squads.
What are the "dirty secrets" pumped into the press about Obama in this Republican smear campaign?
So far, the three secrets have been that he was involved in a real estate deal to someone involved in politics, that he is a secret smoker, and -- the lie of all lies -- that he is a covert Muslim.
Once the "dirty secret" frame takes hold, every single one of these ridiculous lies about Obama will become the subject of "balanced debate" on the major networks -- debate about lies circulated for the sole purpose of destroying a Democratic candidate for President on both a personal and political level.
So what can be done about this?
Well, for starters, it is vitally important to see that the "dirty secret" smear campaign is an effort to trap the debate in a logic whose sole purpose is to destroy the political career of a Democratic candidate. So, the first step is to stop using those words:
Step One: Stop using the words "dirty secret" or "secret" in discussions of Barack Obama
The next important step is to move to another frame. One possibility is to focus on the smear tactic as the product of "gangs," as was discussed in an earlier Frameshop piece (Frameshop: Swiftboaters are 'Gangs' in a Moral America). The idea is to reframe the entire debate in terms of the moral basis of elections in America. In this logic, elections are based on a moral principle that looks something like this:
All Americans must be free to participate in elections free from intimidation by physical harm or slander
This is a basic moral principle on which the American electoral system is based -- the idea that whoever so chooses to stand for election must be free to do so free from threat of physical harm or slander. If, for example, I decide to run for election, it would violate the basic moral principles of our system if a gang of thugs were to ride into town and beat me up with axe handles, or publish lies about me in a newspaper that forced me to withdraw. These acts would be against the law, but they are also against the Constitutional principle of free and fair elections. To accept otherwise would be to acquiesce to rule by violence and intimidation.
The second step, then is to reformulate the situation through a different logic:
Step Two: Move the debate to a different frame
Next, we want to begin to build a logic out of this moral principle of free and fair elections -- to restate it in terms of a basic story that helps orient us in the new logic. This is the hard part, because it is real creative work. We started with one frame (e.g., the "dirty secret" frame"), but now we have to build something new. To get the ball rolling, try answering this question:
If we had to compare a free and fair election to a situation, what would it be?
I like to think of elections in as a group of people standing peaceful in an open square. It's a nostalgic image I have in my mind -- part Western movie, part Norman Rockwell painting. To describe it, I might use this basic diagram:
[an election] is [a group of people standing together]
Now, this may seem a bit strange at first, but it is accurate. I remember watching footage of elections in past campaigns and they always seem to show the same basic idea: people standing together in a high school gym converted into a polling station, smiling, talking to each other.
What then would be a violation of this situation? Again I like to use a somewhat nostalgic image of a gang of rustlers who ride in on horseback and proceed to frighten and brutalize the people standing together until they scatter in fear.
Hence, in step three, we begin to build a story about fair elections and what violates them -- not a perfect story, but one on that we can begin to think through:
Step Three: Build a new frame about [fair elections] as [a group of people]
The next step is to create some new messages out of this new story. Again, as someone who has probably watched too many Western movies, I find it effective to talk about Republicans smear campaigns against Democrats as the work of "gangs," using phrases such as:
- We must crack down on these gangs that threaten our electoral system
- Americans must not let these gangs run amok and intimidate Americans from participating in elections
- We must protect our elections from the threat of these smear gangs
The exact messaging will depend on the needs of a particular campaign. In Obama's case, he would be wise to immediately start speaking out against these "gangs" and "hit squads" that threaten our entire election system. The "dirty secret" campaign, in other words, is not just about him, but about the entire political system. And to reframe it, he must build new messages based on a new frame:
Step Four: Break down a new message based on the new frame
The last step is very simple:
Step Five: Repeat the new message
Dealing with the "dirty tricks" smear campaign, in other words, is no different than reframing any other issue. As outlined in Framing the Debate, "Framing in 5 Steps" is the essential technique for understanding what our positions are in a politics, differentiating them from the opposition's talking points, and then developing new messages to drive the debate.
Of course, in addition to reframing "dirty secrets" into "fair elections" and "cracking down on gangs," the Obama campaign would also be wise to be very aggressive. After all, the media -- like nature -- abhors a vacuum. And if Obama does not step up and speak back soon, then the empty space will be filled with the smear campaign put there by the Republicans.
JEFFREY FELDMAN'S FRAMESHOP
Jeffrey Feldman's new book on framing and progressive politics is available for pre-order: Framing the Debate (in stores April 1, 2007). Support progressive publishing: reserve your copy right now online.
© 2007 Jeffrey Feldman, Frameshop.