First, we’re in the middle of a “framing war,” as Matt Bai’s 2005 cover article in The New York Times Magazine made clear. In the wake of their inability to wrest the presidency from the GOP in 2004, Bai tells us, leading Democrats in Congress embraced the concept of framing as articulated by George Lakoff, the Berkeley linguist who suggests that most thought is based not on facts but on unconscious physical metaphors imbedded in our brains. Simply put, framing involves choosing the right words to activate a desired mental “frame” or perception—“private” Social Security accounts instead of “personal” accounts, or “sectarian violence” in Iraq rather than a “civil war,” or the role of “personal responsibility” when it comes to the breadth and depth of our social safety net. The right has had considerable success at framing controversial issues for years—think “liberal media,” or those “founding fathers” in Nicaragua in the 1980s. Now the left has launched a counteroffensive.
We all frame things, often unconsciously—it is how we organize and comprehend reality. When we say, “Our relationship has hit a bump in the road,” for example, or “We’ve gone our separate ways,” we invoke an unspoken metaphor—or frame—of love as a journey, as Lakoff and Mark Johnson showed in their 1980 book, Metaphors We Live By. This largely benign aspect makes framing distinct from spin, which implies premeditation, although there is considerable overlap between the two. The rhetoric beat could take on both conscious and unconscious framing, but I am more interested in those frames that are built with language that is deliberately made overly vague or euphemistic or difficult to define precisely.
There is a substantial framing literature that the rhetoric reporter could draw on, including Todd Gitlin’s 1980 book, The Whole World Is Watching, which diagnoses the largely unspoken frames that the press applies to the world unilaterally. These media frames could be part of the purview of the rhetoric beat, as could the work of Lakoff’s critics, who suggest that in his recent role as campaign adviser he has overstated both the persuasive power of framing and its ability to cure what ails the Democrats. Steven Pinker, for instance, the Harvard psychology professor, takes on Lakoff in his new book, The Stuff of Thought, as well as in a scathing review in The New Republic last year of Lakoff’s latest book, Whose Freedom? Pinker argues that frames do not trump facts, and that frames and their implications can be tested against reality. “Even if the intelligence of a single person can be buffeted by framing and other bounds on rationality,” Pinker writes, “this does not mean that we cannot hope for something better from the fruits of many people thinking together—that is, from the collective intelligence in institutions such as history, journalism, and science, which have been specifically designed to overcome those limitations through open debate and the testing of hypotheses with data.” Sounds good, but I would add that a rhetoric beat could allow this testing to happen in an accessible and broadly public way.