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David Swanson: Don't Write of an Elephant

Don't Write of an Elephant

By David Swanson

Remarks prepared for workshop at the 50th Anniversary Convention of the American Federation of Teachers Communications Association. To follow viewing of a George Lakoff film and discussion of the fight to save Social Security.

I didn't think too much of George Lakoff until I'd read enough of him myself. I was scared off by his praise for Clinton's stealing right-wing language on welfare, and by his asking Howard Dean to write a forward to one of his books. Lakoff last week wrote a terrific column praising the Democrats for forming an Out of Iraq Caucus and talking about the Downing Street Minutes, and lamenting their swallowing Karl Rove's bait and changing the topic back to the attacks of 9-11. But it was the progressive Democrats who were opposing the war and it was a popular protest that forced Downing Street into the news. Meanwhile, it was the Democratic leadership swallowing Rove's bait. Howard Dean's association with Lakoff put me off, not because Dean is the radical the media tell us he is, but because Dean, like Clinton, goes with the flow, and usually the flow is rightward. It wasn't until I'd read enough Lakoff myself that I saw that he didn't actually advocate that – at least not usually.

I think the problem was largely that I kept hearing about Lakoff from PR people, rather than writers. I think that it is writers (as well as politicians) who stand to gain the most from him.

Certainly it is possible to learn a good deal from him as a PR person and have it do you very little good. Lakoff counsels progressives to change the topic and propose their own positive visions that are not reactions to right-wing initiatives, as well as to talk about right-wing initiatives in completely different terms from those used by right wingers. The problem, of course, is that such statements are usually ignored by the media. Those trying to make news know that the biggest problem with our public discourse is not the terms of the debates, but the fact that most of the stories are completely shut out.

And in large part they're not shut out because progressives aren't good at talking about them, or because – as Chris Matthews recently told his viewers – labor has no spokespeople with an ounce of wit.

OK, he didn't actually say "an ounce of wit," but it came to the same thing. He said:

"I can't think right now of a labor leader that could match wits with a Dick Cheney on television. They don't want to get out there and debate like they used to."

Well, it's either that or the fact that our stories conflict with the agenda of GE and Disney and Clear Channel.

By the same token, progressive issue ads aren't rejected because progressives' dollars don't spend as well as corporatists' dollars.

Many working in PR seem to adapt to the necessities of the situation and to try to feed the corporate media the types of stories that it will accept, but stories that are ever so slightly better than the stories it would have done without our prodding. One of the "hooks" that we teach each other to use is the technique of tying our story to a story that's already in the news. But how do you tie an ambitious plan for alternative energy or publicly funded preschool and college or a Department of Peace into stories that are already in the news? Those stories simply are not related to what's already in the news.

But we can force them into the news by creating and using our own media. Labor publications can cover stories that are not in the corporate media, and work with friendly organizations and websites and blogs and radio shows and progressive magazines to not just get the word out to the public directly, but to turn readers into media activists who write letters to editors, phone talk shows, and flood corporate media gatekeepers with Emails and phone calls. Labor can reach internet activists by posting stories on the ILCA website, from which they show up in Google News.

The right has a hugely funded operation generating and promoting its messages, and for the most part the corporate media is on its side. And the left's framing skills are not to blame for the fact that the moneyed interests have more money and that our media are so undemocratically structured. The right also has a political party whose leadership promotes its ideas. The left does not.

But the right also badgers the media constantly to move further to the right. We fail to do our share of media activism, on top of failing horribly at investing in our own media – and for those things we CAN be blamed. We should support the work of groups like FAIR and projects like Independent World Television. And we do indeed often fail to even try to reframe the issues.

I've recently been working on a website and coalition called which has had some success in forcing into the U.S. media the idea that there is solid evidence that Bush lied about the reasons for war.

I think we've been helped by the fact that many in labor communications, on the left in general, and in the leadership of the Democratic Party have done an unusually good job on the Social Security fight – specifically by making it a story about Bush lying.

But we've failed, I think, to connect Social Security in a useful way to the war. Lakoff recommended, wisely I think, pointing out that Bush needs hundreds of billions of dollars for the war and apparently wants to take that money out of Social Security. That's a point we're afraid to make because we instinctively think that wars are popular, even when polls show that the majority of Americans oppose the war.

And we've failed, I think, to properly change the subject to a positive proposal. Some, particularly in labor, have tried to change the subject from the phony crisis in Social Security to a real crisis in pensions. That's a good start.

And we haven't yet won anything. The Republicans are proposing new plans to "reform" Social Security, and the media is painting the Democrats as unreasonable not to consider such compromises.

But I think that we and the Democrats should be loudly claiming victory for having protected Social Security from Bush's original plan, and we should be learning the lesson of how it was done, in order to steel our resolve to oppose the so-called compromises that may now be pushed harder than the original.

Last winter at a meeting of labor communicators at the AFL-CIO, Richard Trumka advised us to listen to the advice of a pollster, who then instructed us to go along with the pretense that there were serious problems in Social Security and focus on telling people that Bush's proposal would make the problems worse. Unlike Republicans, we had not done polling in order to find out which public opinions we needed to change. We'd done polling in order to determine which of our positions the public would accept without any persuasion needed and which of our positions we should self-censor.

This sounds strategic, but we knew that if the Dems managed to block Bush's plan, the Republicans would be able to say that the Democrats had gotten in the way of reform while proposing no ideas of their own. Meanwhile, the Democrats would be able to claim that they had saved a program that had serious problems -- and to secretly feel good about the fact that it really doesn't.

We're in a better position than that because neither labor communicators nor the Democratic leadership followed the pollsters' advice. And we didn't quite follow Lakoff's advice either. We thought of an elephant. We negated the other guys' frame by saying "There is no Social Security crisis," thereby, in Lakoff's theory, supposedly calling to mind the idea that there IS or MIGHT BE a Social Security crisis. But we did this in order to make the more important point that Bush is an habitual liar. We changed the frame from HOW DO WE FIX SOCIAL SECURITY to THERE GOES BUSH INVENTING ANOTHER PHONY CRISIS.

The West Virginia AFL-CIO sent out an Email alert in January that hit the nail on the head.


"For generations, social security has provided families income they can rely on when their breadwinners die, become disabled or retire.

"Now the people who hustled America into a tax cut to eliminate an imaginary budget surplus and a war to eliminate imaginary weapons, are trying to dismantle Social Security. They want to replace Social Security's guaranteed, lifetime, inflation-adjusted benefits with privatized individual investment accounts."

And after a few more paragraphs, the Email said:

"The long-term cost of the Bush tax cuts is five times the budget office's estimate of Social Security's deficit over the next 75 years."

This does a good job of giving the media the conflict it loves to cover. Politeness is not considered newsworthy. And it does a good job of beginning to change the subject.

We should be changing the subject from a phony crisis to real ones: a bloated Pentagon, an ongoing illegal war, massive irresponsible tax cuts for millionaires, a broken health care system, a plummeting minimum wage, skyrocketing costs of housing, crumbling schools, corrupt election financing, unverifiable voting machines, an overly concentrated media, no right to organize, a limited right to vote, limitations on the right to talk to a lawyer before they lock you away for good, etc., etc. When someone asks you about the Social Security crisis, ask them about these crises. Ask them if they can name an area other than Social Security that is NOT in crisis.

We can do this in articles that we write, and then work with allies to drive our issues into other media outlets. But we have to agree on a limited focus, organize our allies to join in a common cause, and make part of the story the media's failure to cover the story.

And we need to remember that we won on Social Security up to now, because we ignored the pollster. Instead, we fought for a principle and a program we actually cared about, from our heart.


David Swanson is one of the co-founders of the Coalition, a board member of Progressive Democrats of America, the Washington Director of, an Executive Council Member of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild, CWA, AFL-CIO, a former Media Coordinator of the International Labor Communications Association, former Press Secretary of Dennis Kucinich for President, former Communications Coordinator for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), former labor writer at the Bureau of National Affairs, and generally mad as hell. His website is

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