To Catch a Wolf: How to Stop Conservative Frames in Their Tracks

Wolf Blitzer often pretends to be a neutral broadcaster while framing his questions and his news using conservative frames. During the second Democratic debate on June 3, he was caught, and Barack Obama caught him. Wolf's "question" was:

BLITZER: I want you to raise your hand if you believe English should be the official language of the United States.

Obama refused to take the bait:

OBAMA: This is the kind of question that is designed precisely to divide us. You know, you're right. Everybody is going to learn to speak English if they live in this country. The issue is not whether or not future generations of immigrants are going to learn English. The question is: How can we come up with both a legal, sensible immigration policy? And when we get distracted by those kinds of questions, I think we do a disservice to the American people.

We applaud Senator Obama. Every progressive should refuse to answer such "when-did-you-stop-beating-your-wife" questions. Obama's words: "This is the kind of question that is designed precisely to divide us" could be a polite but effective mantra.

Why, exactly, does Blitzer's question evoke a conservative frame? The "official language" movement is jingoistic, discriminatory, and sometimes downright racist. As Hillary Clinton pointed out, there is a difference between a national language -- the language mostly spoken in a country (which English is) -- and an "official language," (which would disallow public funds to be used for ballots in other languages and hence deny citizens the right to vote). An "official language" would also not permit funding for translators in hospitals, thus denying health care (and possibly creating public health risks). And it would rule out funds for bilingual education classes, often necessary as immigrants learn English, thus denying education to those who need and deserve it.

At the same time, it seems innocent on the surface, as if it were asking whether immigrants should learn English, a very different question. To accept the question and say yes is to accept the implicit racism, but to say no sounds like you don't think immigrants should learn English. The only response is to reject the question and tell the questioner what a reasonable question should be, just as Obama did.

Rockridge has already talked about the numerous facets of the immigration debate - the least important is whether or not English will be the official language of the U.S.

There were many further examples of CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer and WMUR radio host Scott Spradling's use of conservative frames in their questions to candidates. The debate hosts, operating within a conservative worldview, consistently repeated conservative frames in their questions - often obscuring other considerations and progressive alternatives. Blitzer and Spradling's questions made implications and led the audience to certain conclusions before the candidates even had a chance to answer. Progressives are constantly put in positions where they are expected to respond to conservative arguments. Since conservatives have commandeered so much of the language, progressives are often put on the defensive - and this happened at the Democratic debate. Unfortunately, Democratic candidates largely bought into the frames offered.

The Question of Terrorism

As expected, the occupation of Iraq tended to dominate the debate. Blitzer first inquired as to whether the President deserved credit for a lack of terrorist attacks in the U.S. since 9/11. Here, Blitzer was establishing a preliminary counter-claim to what he believed would be Democratic attacks on the President's war policy. By framing the question in a way that gave President Bush "credit," Blitzer was placing the burden of proof on the candidates. Later, Blitzer linked terrorism to the Patriot Act:

BLITZER: Congressman Kucinich, you voted against the Patriot Act when it was first introduced. You've since voted again against it. But some would say yesterday's plot that was described by the FBI underscores the need for precisely that kind of tough measure to deal with potential terrorists out there.

Here is the framing evoked by the question:

First, and perhaps most importantly, the question assumed that the plot was indeed serious and was not, as Arianna Huffington has suggested, disorganized and disgruntled citizens who were hapless and harmless. Second, the question assumed that the plot was only foiled due to the provisions of the Patriot Act - not community cooperation or police work. Third, the question lumped all Patriot Act provisions together under the banner of necessity. Many provisions in the Patriot Act are indeed beneficial and needed. However, many more are a clear violation of civil rights - Blitzer's question did not reveal these disparities. Fourth, the language "tough measure" and "terrorists out there" represented the Bush administration exactly as the President wanted: The Republicans are tough (hence the Democrats are weak), and there is real evil immediately threatening us (and the Democrats are too weak to protect us).

Finally, the question suggested that the trampling of civil rights through this "tough measure to deal with potential terrorists" is virtuous and worthy of being commended. Since the plot was foiled -- Blitzer's question implied that the Patriot Act is an effective measure to fight terrorists -- and is therefore worth the destruction of civil rights.

All those false framings were hidden in the question. However, there is a larger point. Conservatives sold the entire Patriot Act package, with subterfuge and without adequate time for reflection and discussion, in exactly the way Blitzer portrayed them. The question -- no matter how it was "answered" -- was an endorsement for the Bush administration.

Though Kucinich made a valiant attempt to point out the Patriot Act's unconstitutionality, he and the other candidates never questioned the fundamental assumptions embedded in the actual question. That was a fatal mistake. When Blitzer or any other right-wing apologist asks such a question, there is a teachable moment for the public and the press itself. The candidate should reply in roughly the same way we have - educating the audience in two ways: giving the right framing of the issues and; pointing out the bias in the question itself.

Blitzer was operating within the War on Terror frame that has been outlined by Rockridge. The phrase "war on terror" frames the issue as an open-ended military action against a vague, indeterminate enemy, with open-ended war powers given to the President for an indefinite period. The War on Terror frame was informing Blitzer's thinking, so his question about the Patriot Act appeared to follow naturally. Those who are afraid of an indeterminate enemy will tolerate the sacrifice of civil liberties caused by the Patriot Act.

The Question of Health Care

The next instance of a conservative frame in a question was by co-host Scott Spradling:

SPRADLING: Thanks, Wolf. Senator Edwards, question for you, sir. I was struck by your conversation that you had a moment ago about dishonesty in politics, and wanting to make things clear. This is a health care question for you, and really focusing on price tags here. Governor Richardson, for example, says that you can fund health care meaningfully without raising taxes. Senator Clinton has said that she's not prepared to say she will raises taxes to reform health care. Your plan does raise some taxes to fund your universal health care program. So I am wondering: From your perspective, are they being honest about the true costs of universal health care in America?

This question was framed as if the "true costs" of health care mean only taxes! As Spradling hinted, the implementation of universal health care will require taxes to be raised. Operating within the conservative worldview, Spradling implied that taxes are always bad. Rockridge has previously discussed the conservative view of taxes. In the conservative worldview, taxes are interpreted as a burden that the government must lighten (as opposed to the progressive view that taxes contribute to infrastructure, protection, and citizen empowerment). In any direct "answer" to the question, the conservative framing is accepted.

The question also suggested that taxes are the only "costs" of a national health care system, effectively ignoring the progressive notion that there are similar costs to society for not implementing universal health care. There are costs to the labor market, costs to doctors and nurses, costs to rural communities, and human costs. The U.S. has the highest infant mortality rate in the developed world due to our lack of pre and post-natal care. We rank 33rd in life expectancy for males and 32nd in life expectancy for females. These statistics should have been presented as the "costs" of not implementing a wide-reaching health care policy for U.S. citizens.

Again, the moral: Don't accept that framing. Call him on it. And reframe now!

The Question of Gas Prices

Finally, Spradling asked candidates about gas prices:

SPRADLING: Gas prices are at record high levels. Granite Staters are frustrated. Americans are frustrated. What would you do to reduce gas prices?

Here, the key issue became the necessary reduction of gas prices - which automatically assumed that gas prices can and should be lowered (think about the conservative view of taxes as burdensome - the same concept is at work here). Rather, the underlying pattern of rampant American consumption of oil is left ignored. The question did not recognize the possibility that Americans could be discouraged from consuming large amounts of gasoline. Rather, candidates were forced to describe their approach to maintaining current consumption patterns at lower prices.

The candidates should have raised the issue of "true costs" here - as did Spradling in the above question on health care. There are many elements that contribute to the "true cost" of gasoline. Military occupation of foreign countries to ensure the safe production of oil is occurring across the globe (not including Iraq). The corporate subsidies given to oil and gasoline conglomerates come at the expense of U.S. citizens. The costs of keeping shipping lanes open for gasoline importation are billions of dollars every year. In addition are the enormous carbon emissions that are taking place across the world.

Nevertheless, the candidates all bought into this conservative worldview. Not a single candidate raised the above issues, instead preferring to identify legislative measures meant to provide short-term price reductions.


Summing up, Democratic debate co-hosts Wolf Blitzer and Scott Spradling used conservative frames in addressing the Democratic candidates during the debate. On questions that used conservative frames, Democratic candidates largely bought into those offered instead of challenging the view implicit in such questions. In future debates, Democratic candidates must point out the conservative biases present in questions. Only repetitive countering of the conservative worldview will allow voters to see the Democratic candidates as a true alternative.

Christina M. Smith is a doctoral student in Rhetoric in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at Arizona State University and a summer research intern at the Rockridge Institute.

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