A number of people are pointing to this big Pew poll today to argue that it shows that Republicans won the message war over health care reform. I don’t think there’s any doubt that this is true. But one of the reasons Pew cites for this victory seems particularly interesting:
An analysis by PEJ of the language used in the media (PEJ research) reveals that opponents of the reform won the so-called “messaging war” in the coverage. Terms that were closely associated with opposition arguments, such as “government run,” were far more present in media reports than terms associated with arguments supporting the bill, such as “pre-existing conditions.”
To conduct the analysis, researchers examined and identified three of the most common concepts being pushed by opponents of the bill and the three concepts being promoted by supporters and then examined the news coverage for the presence of those concepts and language. The concepts used by opponents were nearly twice as common as those used by supporters.
Pew finds that the press coverage was also more more preoccupied with the political strategies employed by both sides than it was with the policy specifics of the law itself.
The health law remains unpopular, but as Adam Serwer notes, this study also suggests that the press’s failure to inform Americans about the law may be a key reason why:
Pew describes the situation here as the White House having lost the “messaging war.” It’s also possible that most Americans don’t like the Affordable Care Act, and that more favorable coverage wouldn’t have convinced them otherwise. The phrase “messaging war,” however, seems like a deeply shallow way of saying that most Americans, who are neither health care wonks nor constitutional scholars, believed what they were hearing from the media. Journalists are supposed to separate truth from falsehood, but instead spent the bulk of their resources speculating about “politics and strategy.” This is the result.
There’s no denying that Dems did get outplayed in the “message war.” Their talking points simply had no chance against the diabolically perfect “government takeover” of health care line, which is probably a key reason why Republican language did dominate press coverage. But it also happens to be true that falsehoods about the law went widely unrebutted in the media. When Politifact pronounced the “government takeover” line its Lie of the Year at the end of 2010, it also took a look at whether media figures rebutted it with any frequency. Politifact’s conclusion:
In most transcripts we examined, Republican leaders used the phrase without being challenged by interviewers.
One of the results of this messaging win? Only 18 percent of Americans have a very clear sense of what’s in the law. Victory!