Yesterday, my twitter feed exploded with links to Beck and Sharpton rally videos on the National Mall.
Neither event highlighted specific concerns that the midterm elections might address. However, both events claimed to commemorate MLK’s I Have a Dream speech and together they received probably the most press coverage total in the run-up to the elections.
The partisan rhetoric of each rally provided an excellent opportunity for news media to further position great swathes of the nation into two polarized camps.
The Washington Post is just one example of how media have successfully used these events as an opportunity for further shaping the political climate. The methods of agenda setting and climate control are main tenets Prof. Doris Graber explores in her book, Mass Media and American Politics, published in association with Poynter Institute. Graber explains that these methods expand the media’s role, allowing them to have a say in policy-making.
In The Washington Post example below, two events are placed into an interpretive framework which structures the current U.S. political climate, including the 2010 midterm elections.
The simultaneous rallies rendered the country’s political and racial divisions in stark relief. Sharpton drew a mostly black crowd of union members, church-goers, college students and civil rights activists […] the Beck crowd, meanwhile, was overwhelmingly white, and many in the crowd described themselves as conservatives with deep concern about the country’s political leadership and its direction […] despite the potential for tension, the events appeared to produce none of the politically damaging imagery that emerged from some earlier tea party rallies.
The journalist starts by placing the rallies within an already well-established “divisive” framework. He tells the reader what the framework will be before sharing details of the events. After giving some general information about the demographics of the event, he does dive into more specifics about the event and its purposes. It becomes clear to the reader who gets to the end of the article that the events were indeed muddled in their purposes. Beck claimed that the rally was be nonpartisan, rather religious in nature. While his rhetoric was subdued, attendees seemed to have the midterm on the mind according to the article. However, there were no quotes from either the Beck nor Sharpton rallies to support the claim that “the simultaneous rallies rendered the country’s political and racial divisions in stark relief.”
It seems as though the article was imposing a frame that didn’t necessarily fit the events on the National Mall. Like Beck, some outlets seem to be overestimating the weight and legitimacy of the rallies. It is telling to hear that the President himself did not “pay much attention to the rally” but rather respected the gathering as a “exercise of their constitutional rights”. He was unsurprised that the rally took place, “given the multitude of problems facing the country”.
Perhaps it would have been best to report and the frame the events in their proper nature– as legitimate, concerned reactions to the country and its policies, rather than speculate about its potential to turn into an uprising or give it disproportionate credit for shaping the midterm climate.