How Politicians and the Media Misrepresent the Public
Featuring Justin Lewis
Constructing Public Opinion explodes the myth that politicians too
often cave into polling numbers, that too little leadership and too much
knee-jerk democracy is at the root of Americans’ disillusionment with politics.
Professor Justin Lewis argues instead that public opinion is in effect
manufactured and distorted in ways that undermine true democratic
participation. He also maintains that the reasons for this are less
conspiratorial than institutional: a reflection of the mandate of political,
corporate and media elites to maintain the status quo in order to satisfy their
The film takes a sustained and critical look at the rise and influence of
public opinion polls in American politics, and examines the relationship
between politics, media and the public. It demonstrates that public opinion
data used by politicians and reported by media do not so much reflect what
Americans think as construct public opinion itself. Lewis investigates, against
conventional wisdom, a central paradox: that the very opinion polling that
appears to wield such influence over politicians, and media coverage of
politics, has in actuality distorted and limited the voice of the public.
The film explores this paradox by showing how the potential power of polling
to give people a voice in the political process is undermined by the nature of
the political system itself. While the public is now surveyed with greater
frequency and sophistication than ever before, Lewis demonstrates how people’s
desires often carry less urgency with political elites than the need of elites
to manage people’s desires. His argument is not an indictment of a few powerful
individuals conspiring against the public, but of a political culture so
infused with money, so confined by mainstream corporate media coverage, and
therefore so beholden to elite moneyed interests, that it fails to respond to
the real opinions of ordinary people. The chief casualty in all of this is the
truth, the real things that real people say they want from their government and
representatives – and the effect is cyclical: true public opinion continues to
be misrepresented, and these misrepresentations in turn continue to shape and
severely limit the public’s sense of political reality and their place in it.
The film shows how this ongoing misrepresentation of public opinion:
- constructs, rather
than reflects, true public opinion by failing to reflect the specific and
accurate opinions of the public on specific issues;
- constructs by misrepresentation
the public itself;
- excludes real and
mainstream public sentiment that has been shown repeatedly in surveys to
lie outside, and to the left, of what mainstream reporting of opinion
- reflects the
interests of politicians who must first satisfy the interests of those
who fund them, interests that are by definition conservative because
wedded to the status quo;
- reflects the
interests of the mass media whose job it is to report what the public
says it wants: the media’s institutional interests as corporations
themselves, and the related pressure on them to trade in labels, image
and oversimplification – rather than specifics, nuance and substance – in
order to maintain ratings and market share;
- reflects media bias
toward the elite interests who have the greatest access to media;
not so much measure public feeling about the direction or shape of policy
as it does direct and shape public feeling about predetermined policies
that often work against what the public says it wants.
a climate of misinformation which in turn affects public opinion by
affecting people’s understanding of major issues.
THE FILM: KEY POINTS
In his introduction, Lewis challenges the myth of the
"poll-pandering" politician. He cites data that show the American
people to be far more "liberal" than their representatives on a broad
range of issues. The section ends with these questions: If, as we so often
hear, politicians do only what the polls tell them to do, then how is this
mismatch between popular sentiment and mainstream policy possible? And what
does this mismatch say about the democratic process?
- It is a myth that
politicians, in quest of popularity, do what polls tell them to do.
- This myth creates
the impression that the political system may have problems, and that
politicians may not be strong leaders, but that on the whole both are
responsive to the public.
- A detailed look at
public opinion reveals broad support for a range of liberal or left-wing
policies, including increased government spending on inner cities, the
environment, education, health care, a minimum wage increase, more gun
control, and campaign finance reform.
- Despite the popular
support of ordinary people for liberal policy on a range of economic
issues, their representatives – whether Republican or Democrat – are
generally far more conservative.
- This discrepancy
raises questions about the true influence and use of public opinion, and
in a democracy forces us to ask how it’s possible that there could be
such a mismatch between what the people want and the actual policies
pursued by their representatives.
2. Political Perceptions:
This section begins to explore reasons for the discrepancy between popular support
for liberal policies and the more conservative policies pursued by
representatives. After defining what is meant, broadly speaking, by the terms
"liberal" and "conservative," Lewis shows how people often
support vague conservative themes – like individual liberty and wariness of big
government – while at the same time supporting specific policies that favor
government spending and intervention. The section ends by considering one
possible reason why people support conservative ideas and liberal policy: the
negative connotations in the public mind of extreme labels like left-wing or
right-wing, liberal or conservative.
- In terms of the role of
government in the economy, the term "liberal" or "left
wing" refers to a belief in high government intervention, high
spending on social programs.
- "Conservative" or
"right wing" refers to a belief in low government intervention,
low spending on social programs.
- Public opinion enters here:
people often support vague conservative "themes" – abstract notions
like "individual freedom." But when given specific options, they
tend to support policies that favor government spending and intervention.
- This apparent inconsistency
is due, in part, to people’s reactions to political labels – specifically
their ambivalence about extreme labels.
- People prefer the label
"moderate" to either conservative or liberal.
- The way media construct
narratives in political coverage plays a role in this: In political
stories, "moderate" is constructed again and again in positive ways,
extremists in negative ways.
- This reaction to labels is
supported by surveys that show that many people favor liberal approaches
on a range of policy issues, but reject the term liberal.
- In addition to media
narratives that create negative associations with the term
"liberal," the composition of government itself tilts mainstream
political discourse to the right.
- Conservative views and
opinions on issues such as the death penalty and abortion are represented
in government, whereas liberal responses to public opinion surveys reveal
that people are very much to the left of most Democrats in Congress and
the White House.
- On economic issues in
particular, the public are actually further to the left than those elected
to represent them.
3. Economic Forces:
This section focuses on why the actual liberal or left opinions of many
Americans are excluded from mainstream political discourse. Lewis shows that
while there are real differences between Democrats and Republicans on so-called
civil liberty or social issues, there is little difference between the two dominant
parties on economic issues. He argues that Democrats can afford –
literally – to adopt liberal stances on social issues, but cannot afford to
adopt the public’s often liberal stance on economic issues. This leads to a
discussion of the role money plays in politics. While money is not central to
how we think of such issues as the death penalty and abortion – where we see
real differences between the two parties – it is central to issues such as
health care, wages and corporate taxes – issues on which the two major parties
tend to agree. Lewis argues at the close of this section that Democrats and
Republicans are so close on economic issues because both parties rely primarily
on money from corporate and business interests that are, by definition, economically
conservative because they are concerned primarily with maximizing profit.
- The real difference between
mainstream politicians can be found mainly on so-called civil liberty or
- What defines these issues –
for example the death penalty, gay rights, women’s equality, abortion – is
that money isn’t central to how we think about them.
- In contrast, Democrats and
Republicans tend to share a similar stance on those issues that do involve
money, issues such as health care, wages, trade agreements, and the
- Money in politics enters
here: the massive amount of money raised by politicians undermines liberal
policy solutions. The reason for this is that both parties get most of
their money from corporate and business interests, and must therefore heed
these economically conservative interests or risk losing the money that
sustains them as politicians.
- In this political
environment, it is logical that community concerns that threaten business
interests are not given priority.
- Surveys show clearly that
the public is interested in community concerns such as health care,
homelessness and the environment, but politicians tend to ignore radical
solutions to these concerns because they need money to run effectively.
4. Media Coverage
This section, and the two that follow, examine more closely the role media
play in shaping what counts for "public opinion." Having established
that the more liberal views of Americans fail to be represented within the
political spectrum, Lewis shows in this section how media feed, and feed off
of, the artificial perception that public opinion is more moderate or
conservative than it actually is. Key to his argument is that media do not
simply report survey data, do not simply reflect what the public says it wants,
but actually play a central role in constructing public opinion.
- Mainstream media don’t
cover public opinion so much as they construct narratives
about public opinion.
- When media cover polls,
they tell a story about what public opinion is, shaping the very way we
understand it in their choice of questions, what they exclude,
their lack-of follow-up and specificity, and their reliance on mainstream
political stereotypes and labels to tell a good story.
- Media coverage of public
opinion does not recognize the gap between a public that tends to be more
liberal than mainstream politicians, Republicans and Democrats alike.
- Media reports on public
opinion exclude the possibility of left-wing approaches to economic
issues, making the public appear more conservative than it actually is.
- The reasons for these
exclusions, distortions and misrepresentations are systemic, caught up
with the elite-oriented nature of reporting.
- Media have an
"elite" orientation – a built-in bias toward the views of those
in positions of power – because elites have the greatest access to media.
In this way, politicians, who tend to have power, control and money, set
the media stage for what we talk about and how.
- Because politicians are
more conservative than the public, their power and access alter and shape
the media narrative in more conservative directions.
- Polling and the
interpretation of poll results therefore tend to steer away from nuance
and specific measures of ordinary people’s views on issues, focusing
instead on so-called "horse-race," candidate-centered polls.
- Candidate-centered polls
and coverage reduce politics to image, steer people in one predetermined
direction or the other, and in this way set up a narrow range of
artificial choices while excluding alternative views about policy.
- At the same time that media
coverage narrows the ideological spectrum on economic issues, it also
creates the impression that real debate is happening by focusing on the
differences between parties and candidates on civil libertarian and social
issues like gay rights and abortion.
- The excessive coverage of
differences on social issues and not the similarities on economic issues
"masks the degree of elite consensus."
5. The Phantom Liberal
Continuing his look at media’s pivotal role in shaping public opinion by
seeming simply to report it, Lewis looks more closely at how mainstream media
skew political discourse to the right. This section demonstrates how media
narratives create the illusion that a real battle of ideas between left and
right exists in the mainstream, while in reality excluding left-wing ideas
altogether. One of the effects of this narrowing of the spectrum is that what
mainstream media characterize as moderate is in actuality conservative, and
that what’s characterized as liberal is actually closer to moderate. The
section concludes by illustrating the influence on the public mind of this
elimination of liberal opinion, showing that most people believe former
President Clinton, a self-described conservative New Democrat
"moderate," was a liberal.
- Media create the sense that
politics is generally responsive to the people: that they present a broad
range of issues, and that politicians listen to the people through polls.
- In reality, the range of
opinion is skewed to the right in ways that marginalize liberal opinion.
- Bill Clinton was covered by
mainstream media as a liberal, when in fact his stand on most issues – Nafta, the Telecommunications Act -- was conservative,
as indicated by his corporate support and left-wing opposition.
- Polls show that people
incorrectly believe that Bill Clinton voted on the liberal side of a
number of key issues.
- While there was significant
media coverage of Clinton’s
positions on these issues, the general framework and tenor of media
coverage overwhelmed the specifics.
6. Military Omissions
This section develops the idea that media not only cover public opinion, but
also influence it. Lewis argues that media play an "agenda-setting"
role, that what they choose to cover is in turn considered by the public to be
important – rather than the other way around. As an example, he examines media
coverage of military spending in the United
States, showing how the exclusion of
specific detail inspires consensus from people who would otherwise question
- Media play an agenda
setting roll, with public concern about issues tending to follow media
coverage of those issues – rather than any changes in the real world.
- Shifts measured in so-called
"public concern" about problems such as drugs and violence have
nothing to do with the scale of these problems, and everything to do with
the amount the media cover them.
- The power of media to
define what issues are important has to do with what they report, and what
- Polls measure public
response to issues that are often incompletely reported.
- People’s responses to polls
about the specific details involved in such issues as military spending
are often wrong, but at the same time represent a rational response to the
information they’re given.
- The overall effect of media
omissions is "to suppress active public support for changing the
7. Democratic Ideals
This concluding section points out that polling was viewed originally as a
tool capable of enhancing democratic participation. In the beginning,
innovations in the measuring of public opinion had the potential to make elites
more responsive to the concerns of ordinary people. Instead, Lewis concludes,
polls are now used primarily as market research – not to make government and
media more responsive to the public interest, but to help make elite interests
more palatable to the public.