Sorry if that sounds like the beginning of a shaggy dog story. In the study of political communication, one of the most fruitful concepts employed by scholars in the last two decades has been “framing theory,” which concerns the way in which a story, a person, a decision, an institution–even a question–is “framed,” so that we are not only led to consider something worthy of our attention (known as agenda-setting), and not only led to view it in a certain light or think of it when prompted (priming), but are subtly lured into thinking through an issue in a certain way. As a picture is framed, so that a boundary is set around it, or as a window is placed in a wall, to include a view of some things but exclude a view of others, so framing of political subjects leads us to say that an issue concerns this and not that. (For the foregoing I thank my wife the communication scholar, who does not own any distortions on my part.)
So why this brief excursion about framing theory? Well, the notion has been around long enough for it to become second nature even for journalists themselves–the “framers” par excellence–to employ it. Thus we have Gerald Seib of the Wall Street Journal today, writing an article titled “On Contraception, Framing of the Debate Is Key.” Here’s the gist:
If the issue [of the HHS mandate] is defined as a question of birth control in the weeks and months ahead, the Obama administration and Democrats will have the upper hand. If Republicans succeed in defining the issue as a question of religious liberty, the balance will shift in their direction.
You betcha. And so it is quite instructive to see that today, in two other leading national newspapers, the reporters and editors are doing a lot to frame the issue as all about birth control, not religious liberty. Here is a front-page New York Times report by Reed Abelson, “Catholic Hospitals Expand, Religious Strings Attached.” What’s the story? That in some cities, as hospitals run by secular organizations find it hard to stay open, the local Catholic hospitals sometimes effect a merger, buying out the other hospital and “re-branding” it as a Catholic one. Once a formerly secular (or religiously affiliated but non-Catholic) hospital becomes a Catholic one or a branch of a Catholic one, it naturally ceases performing elective abortions, routinely sterilizing female patients, and dispensing contraceptives.
Okay, that’s the story, but what’s the point of the story–especially given the timing and prominent placement of its publication? Why, to frame the narrative about the HHS mandate, of course. This purpose is even telegraphed in the lead: “As Roman Catholic leaders and government officials clash over the proper role of religion and reproductive health, shifts in health care economics are magnifying the tension.” You see? Those mean old Catholic bishops are the enemies of “access” to “women’s health services.” This is clearly how the Times wants us to see the issue. The First Amendment and religious liberty never get a mention.
The other story framing this issue as “about contraception” and not “about religious freedom” is by Ann Gerhart, in the Washington Post today, titled “Birth Control As Election Issue: Why?” (In the print edition, on the front page of the Style section, this has the even better headline “Pill Fight Pops Up Again.”) Silly notions such as “gender warfare” crop up in Gerhart’s piece (she should read this, by Helen Alvaré and Kim Daniels), and she gives pride of place to Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, who is reported as saying “incredulously” that “[s]omehow in this country, in 2012, this election might turn on whether women should have access to birth control.”
Um, no, the HHS mandate issue has nothing to do with “whether women should have access to birth control.” They already have access to it. And the question isn’t whether a President Santorum will seek to outlaw contraception. He won’t, and everyone knows he won’t. The question is whether people with religious and moral objections to birth control (and, lest we forget, abortion tarted up as “birth control”) can be forced to provide their employees with it. And as for Richards’ incredulity, this is the usual pose of the left, to play aggressor in the culture war (gay marriage, anyone?) and then feign aggrieved innocence when there’s a little fighting back from the other side.
Gerhart, to her credit, tries to summarize the Church’s position on the issue in a fair way, and does quote critics of the Obama administration’s aggression against religious freedom (including my friend Patrick Deneen of Georgetown). But whatever her purpose, Gerhart’s article’s effect as a whole, from its headline to its lead to its closing, is to highlight the “it’s about contraception” frame and to downplay the alternative frame of religious liberty.
Framing, I should just add in closing, is something that can be done for good or ill, to highlight the truth or obscure it. Win or lose the “framing wars,” Seib is definitely right that this is the fight we’re in.