"The Great Frame Robbery: The Strategic Use of Public Opinion in the Formation of Media Policy." Report to Ford Foundation, 2003.

Oscar H. Gandy, Jr. with the assistance of Francesca Wellings

This research project entitled The Great Frame Robbery was an investigation into the ways in which representations of public opinion have been used strategically in an effort to influence media policy at the national level. The research project focused its attention on a limited number of bills that were passed by the US Congress since 1988. The legislative scope was quite broad, ranging from concerns about the risks to privacy derived from the use of videotape rental records to concerns about the risks to children derived from their unmonitored exploration of the World Wide Web.

Although the primary focus of the research was on the introduction of references to public opinion in congressional hearings, a critical analysis of the use of similar references in the news media was also included. The analysis of congressional hearings and media coverage of the issues explored in those hearings was designed to identify the sources of data, and the dominant policy frameworks that were favored by different classes of policy actors. The primary distinction was between opinions reflecting the interests of consumers, and those reflecting the interests of citizens that are ideally supported by the media in their engagement with the public sphere. The assumption underlying the project and reflected in its name is that talk about the interests of citizens has been displaced by talk about the interests of consumers as part of a move toward a marketplace model of policy formation and assessment.

The first conclusion to be drawn from this research is that public opinion plays a relatively insignificant role in the discursive framing of media policy debates. Only in the case of hearings related to funding for educational technology under the E-rate program did the proportion of those including references to public opinion in their testimony exceed 14%. Out of some 672 presentations from individuals in hearings related to the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, only 30 (4.5%) made any references to the views and concerns of the public. Not a single witness in hearings scheduled in support of the passage of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act made reference to public opinion beyond identifying it as a necessary target of public relations efforts.

Although the balance of references to the views of consumers did outweigh those made to the views of the general public, concerns about the avoidance of harms associated with violence, pornography and invasions of privacy overwhelmed those views. More traditional concerns about the preparation of citizens for informed participation in the public sphere were remarkable in their absence.

The analysis of congressional hearings as well as the media coverage of the central issues debated within these hearings revealed the ways in which polls managed or sponsored by media organizations have come to dominate the policy discourse. The only exception to this pattern can be seen in the framing of the privacy debate by firms in the information intensive industries. Policy activists from the public interest community are forced to pick and choose from among the questions posed by media sponsored polls. Policyrelevant survey data that have been generated with foundation support enjoys 3 considerable visibility within the news media, but is rarely cited in congressional testimony.

The recent public uproar over being ignored by the leadership at the FCC suggests that the public is not willing to stand by in silence while the representatives of business interests transform the policy landscape. A new citizens’ movement may emerge from a host of nascent struggles over the right to understand and to be understood, and the historic linkage between public opinion and the public interest is likely to be reestablished along the way.

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