No Peace for Obama: How the Prize Might Harm His Image

The collective groan you heard Friday morning came from the West Wing of the White House. As it was announced that President Obama had won the Nobel Peace Prize, his advisers scrambled to figure out, ironically, how they could possibly spin the news to minimize the negative effects. For his part, the president was appropriately reserved, noting essentially that he did not deserve the award. That may be an accurate assessment, but what is more important than the decision of the prize committee are the potential negative political effects. In our assessment, President Obama is in deep trouble on this one.

We are certainly not unique in this assessment, of course. Several thoughtful ideas have been put forth in the past two days about the negative side of this honor (see here and here for just two examples). From our perspective, though, the trouble is not about whether the award was "deserved" or "earned," and it does not really stem from the attacks of folks like Rush Limbaugh or Michelle Malkin (both of whom thumped the president for his award on Friday). The trouble is not with the AM talk radio/Fox News crowd. There is no political ground to be lost to those folks because there is likely nothing that the president could do to win those folks over. David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel do not lose any sleep over the direct effect of what those folks think or say.

The trouble is with the indirect effects of such attacks, and the president's advisers know it. Specifically, there must be concern about the degree to which winning this award plays into the frame of Barack Obama as "other."

We have written about framing in this space before (see here and here and here, for example). Along with agenda setting and priming, it is is one of the most notable theoretical advancement in media effects research in the past two decades. At its most basic level, framing involves putting information into context (and recognizing that information is processed contextually). And while much time has been spent arguing over what frames have been employed in given political contexts, one need not get hung up on the intent of persons to construct frames to understand their effects.

Even though dozens (hundreds?) of framing studies have been published in the last 25 years, perhaps the most clear examples of framing effects comes from one of the earlier studies. Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman reported results of some framing studies in a 1981 issue of the journal Science. They presented alternate versions of a problem to participants who were randomly assigned to one of two the groups. The exact factual elements of the choices presented to participants was the same, but the way that the choices were framed differed. The results were striking (well beyond conventional levels of statistical significance).
Imagine that the U.S. is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual Asian disease, which is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative programs to combat the disease have been proposed. Assume that the exact scientific estimates of the consequences of the programs are as follows:

If Program A is adopted, 200 people will be saved.

If Program B is adopted, there is a 1/3 probability that 600 people will be saved, and 2/3 probability that no people will be saved.

Which of the two programs would you favor?
Nearly three-quarters of the participants who were presented with this program (72%) chose Program A.

The other group got the problem with the same description, but the program response options were as follows:
If Program [A] is adopted 400 people will die.

If Program [B] is adopted, there is 1/3 probability that nobody will die, and 2/3 probability that 600 people will die.
Participants who got this formulation had a near reversal of the other group: 22% of them chose Program A, while 78% chose program B.

The only difference between the options, of course, is the way that they were presented. For both, Program B is the riskier choice, so when folks first read that they can "save" 200 people (a positively framed certainty), they are more likely to avoid the risk, but when the first option is worded as a certain negative ("400 people will die"), there is a greater likelihood to gamble and try to save everyone, even if the odds are poor.

So what does this have to do with Barack Obama and the Nobel Peace Prize?

Much (certainly not all) of the persistent criticism of President Obama over the last two years (beginning in the Democratic primaries, lest you think Republicans invented this) has centered on his "otherness." As we have noted a number of times in this space, this certainly cannot be considered to be race neutral. But even if the intent is rooted in bigotry or racial resentment, it is easier for Americans to accept a theme of "otherness" about a person of color or a White woman than a White man because of the way we were (and are) socialized.

So while Limbaugh, Beck and the rest of the president's most vocal opponents are largely irrelevant to the base of support that the president and his Democratic allies need to govern and win reelection, their language and imagery depicting Obama as "not one of us" has a great potential to take hold tacitly and shape the way that subsequent information about him is processed.

Because President George W. Bush was often depicted as not being very bright, every verbal gaffe, no matter how small, became exaggerated in the American imagination and served to reinforce that image of him in a way that such a mistake would not function with, for instance, this president, who is almost universally recognized as very bright, even by his opponents. Similar characteristics are true of other notable public figures: John Kerry as flip-flopper, Al Gore as boring, Bill Clinton as manipulative, John McCain as out-of-touch, etc. When Richard Nixon went to China in 1972, he was not widely criticized or suspected of pandering to the communists because there was no existing frame in place that would facilitate such a "reading" of the event. A president who was not such a staunch anti-communist would likely not have fared nearly as well.

So when Barack Obama is honored by "foreigners," particularly those rooted in democratic socialist nations like those in Scandinavia, it provides additional "evidence" of his otherness to those who are predisposed to believe that he "hates America" or, at least, is not proud to be American. While there are only a minority of Americans who consciously hold those attitudes, there is a real potential for the frame to take hold subconsciously because it is so often and persistently employed.

Worse for Obama and his supporters is the fact that the president is planning to go to the ceremony to accept the award in December. The video and still imagery that will emerge from that event also has the potential to contribute to the reinforcement of the "otherness" frame.

Supporters of the president will understandably argue that this is not "fair," or that it is a function of an overly simplistic binary model of "patriotism" that holds that anything Europeans like must be bad for America. But the power of framing lies in the fact that it is not at all reliant upon "logic" or meaningful empirical evidence to function. Quite to the contrary -- frames may be developed intentionally, but their effects wholly rely on subconscious processing of information within their parameters.

Think about it this way: If Tversky and Kahneman would have presented participants with both types of response options, there would have been no framing effects. It is likely that the results would have been closer to 50% because then participants would reason through the more objective options (i.e., Is it worth taking a risk to try to save everyone, or should we go with the definite plan that saves 200, even though 400 will still die?). Since each participant was only presented with one pairing, though, the framing mattered (a lot).

Much like racist messages, when frames are exposed and brought to consciousness they lose much of their potential for effectiveness. But so long as the connections between the attacks on President Obama as having a fake birth certificate, refusing to wear a lapel pin, being a socialist (or fascist or Muslim or Black liberation theology Christian), preferring "czars," paling around with terrorists, etc. are not connected as being part of an "otherness" frame, seemingly benign or even positive events like receiving an international award for peace can very much work to reinforce and perpetuate negative attitudes about the president.

In this context, it is likely that the president would have preferred to have gotten out of bed Friday morning to find that he had to make a choice about possible responses to combat an unusual Asian disease.

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Framing the Ricci Decision

Even though we had a really nice blog about images of Michelle Obama almost finished, we switched gears at the last minute to provide an analysis of the United States Supreme Court's decision in the Ricci v. DeStefano case yesterday morning. We apologize for the tardiness of THIS WEEK's entry.

The case (which involves White firefighters in New Haven, Connecticut suing because the results of an exam designed to lead to promotion were tossed out because the results would have led to disproportionate promotions of Whites over applicants of color) is quite compelling for a number of reasons. TWIR readers might suspect that we would side with the four dissenters, who, anchored by Justice Ginsburg, who authored the dissent, noted that the majority of the Court failed to take historical context into consideration. While it is true that we would have voted with Justices Ginsburg, Souter, Stevens and Breyer, we do not dismiss the claims made by Justice Kennedy in his majority opinion. Specifically, Kennedy argues that a problem with this case (the facts of which we have discussed previously) is that the city of New Haven determined that the test was racially biased solely based on the output (i.e., that candidates for promotion based on the test would be overwhelmingly and disproportionately White).

From our perspective, such disproportionate results should be a red flag that something is wrong with the test, but there should be a thorough analysis of the test to determine why and to what extent there was inherent bias in the questions, tasks assigned, etc. The justices in the majority believe that there was not enough proof of bias, while the dissenters believe that there is. We strongly suspect that the test was biased, but we cannot ignore the fact that, with such a small sample of test takers, it is possible that the White candidates were simply the best.

IF that is the case (and it is a big "if"), it is important to ask the next question: Why were the White test takers "the best?" Is there something about the socialization process in the fire department that cultivates White firefighters toward management more effectively than firefighters of color? Is the test predicated on other educational characteristics that, in New Haven like everywhere else in America, unfairly benefit Whites? If so, are those characteristics essential to the tasks associated with management? Should New Haven adopt an affirmative action program to level that playing field?

These are all important issues that strike at the heart of what it means to be a person of color competing for jobs, promotions, and access to education, housing etc. in a context where Whites have decided advantages at almost every turn. But while it is appropriate for the Court to take those issues into consideration (as Justice Ginsburg notes), they are charged only with deciding the case that is before them.

In short, while New Haven officials had the right idea (that is, they understand that biases exist, appreciate the value of a diverse workplace, etc.), they goofed it this time. Particularly in this climate where Whites are sensitive (we think overly sensitive) about discrimination against them), we must be very careful to document carefully findings of bias where they are found to exist. But, like the landmark affirmative action decisions in 1978 and 2003, this means only that folks committed to social justice and equality of opportunity need to be more thoughtful about how to achieve those goals. In the Bakke decision in 1978, for instance, the Court (correctly, we believe) suggested, in effect, that the Regents of the University of California were trying to kill an ant with a sledgehammer, and so ruled quotas to be unconstitutional (this will come as a shock to folks who have been listening to opponents of affirmative action incorrectly assert that quotas are still in effect). What is needed now is a process by which scholars are routinely asked to evaluate tests where the results produce outputs that suggest potential bias. We see nothing in the Court's opinion THIS WEEK to suggest such an effort would not be permitted and, as suggested by Justice O'Connor's majority opinion in one of the 2003 cases, welcomed (at least for now).

But what of the press's reaction to the decision?

Stephen is in the midst of his annual course for the Junior State of America summer school at Princeton University, where he had just finished explaining the concept of framing to the students in his Political Communication course. In short, framing is the act of putting information into context. Whether intentional or not, the frame changes the way information is perceived by the reader/viewer by focusing on some aspects of the story over others. In fact, in her dissent in this case, Justice Ginsburg suggests that the Court's majority in this decision has selected a particular frame: "The Court’s recitation of the facts leaves out important parts of the story."

Just hours after the decision was announced (and before much reaction was available), he asked the students to come up with a number of possible frames for the Ricci decision by way of predicting headlines; some of those frames appear below with elaboration and examples from today's blogs and press stories that confirm the existence (or, in one case, absence) of those frames.

Frame 1: Racial Conflict

Perhaps the most likely of frames, this was the most common amongst the primary news outlets in the past 24 hours (see below). Headlines that indicate that Whites prevailed over discrimination are alternatives to those that would indicate that people of color have suffered a setback. In either case (and we see none of the latter among the primary news outlets), the suggestion is that there is an ongoing competition between Whites and non-Whites in America for jobs. In many respects, of course, this is true. Just as frames do not have to be intentional, they certainly do not have to be misleading or incorrect. The point is that by highlighting some aspects of a story at the expense of others, readers or viewers are encouraged to think about the story in some ways but not others.

Frame 2: Reverse Discrimination

This frame presupposes that Whites have been taking it on the chin in recent years and that yesterday's ruling was a line in the sand and a victory for those who are "fair minded" and/or "race neutral." After all, if one believes that everyone in America has an equal chance of making it, that so long as we are not bigoted we are not racist, and that minorities want that which they do not rightfully deserve (because they are lazy), affirmative action in general and the act of overturning such an ostensibly objective test because results were not of the government's liking are signs of "reverse discrimination." This frame highlights the fairness of the Court's decision by implying that such a decision is overdue.

The Wall Street Journal's headline (Ruling Upends Race's Role in Hiring), which features this frame, is actually quite misleading. The suggestion here is that race can no longer be taken into account in hiring practices. The first paragraph of the story reinforces this notion (scholars often look at headlines and lead paragraphs to determine frames): "The Supreme Court set a new standard for employers' use of race in hiring decisions, ruling that New Haven, Conn., wrongly discriminated against a group of mostly white firefighters who lost out when a promotion exam was scrapped because no blacks scored well enough to advance." After that, the authors quote from Justice Kennedy's opinion, which makes it clear that race can, in fact, be taken into account, but that there must be strong evidence of bias. One can understand, though, how a reader encountering that information after being presented with a headline and lead paragraph such as this would not view the quote from the opinion as it was clearly intended, but rather as a minor adjustment to the stronger sentiment implied by the frame.

Frame 3: Ideological Struggle

Because Justice Souter is stepping down, it is understandable that there would be some interest in the ideological composition of the Court. USA Today's headline indicates as much (High court curves in conservative direction), though the frame leads readers to ignore the fact that Souter sided with the dissenters, which means that his replacement would not change the balance of ideology, at least with respect to this issue. In other words, Souter's replacement, if he or she were on the Court instead of him during this decision, would not have made a difference in the outcome. (The only possibility would have been a larger win for the petitioners.)

Frame 4: Sotomayor Overturned

Because Judge Sonia Sotomayor was part of the three-judge panel that issued the un-authored appeals court decision in favor of the city of New Haven, many have looked at this case as a referendum on her judicial temperament. Such a claim is absurd, of course, as many former and current justices have had their opinions reversed before being appointed to the Supreme Court. Further, conservative commentators latched onto Justice Ginsburg's point that the Circuit Court should not have granted summary judgment, such that many of them -- in language that appears to lend additional credibility to Cappella and Jamieson's finding that conservatives operate in an "echo chamber" -- claimed a 9-0 vote against Sotomayor.

Frame 5: Activist Supreme Court Overturns Decision by Elected Officials

Despite the fact that conservatives are generally on the side of "judicial restraint," they are clear that they would like to see Courts "act" to overturn policies that violate their ideological predispositions (such as legal access to abortion and affirmative action). In this case, the elected officials of the city made a decision that was upheld (not "actively" reversed) by the appeals court, so one could imagine a frame whereby the Supreme Court was chastised as interfering in the workings of democratically elected officials.

We have seen no such frame in primary press.

At the end of the day, Justice Ginsburg provides compelling reasons -- reasons we did not rehash here -- that the test was, indeed, flawed and that it should have been replaced. Since Whites are never systemically disadvantaged -- any perceived "disadvantages" come as a result of programs designed to rectify systemic advantages that they have -- they have no schema available to understand how an ostensibly "objective" test could possibly be unfair. TWIR readers understand, of course, that built-in privilege is, as Peggy Macintosh has famously said, invisible. Eventually, more and more folks will understand how systemic racism works. But, at least for now, to paraphrase the legendary Cubs chant: "White guys win! White guys win! White guys win!"

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