Agenda setting

One of the many useful theories taught in journalism school is the theory of agenda setting, first articulated by Dr. Donald Shaw at UNC Chapel Hill.

The agenda-setting theory is the theory that the mass news media have a large influence on audiences by their choice of what stories to consider newsworthy and how much prominence and space to give them.

Like most social science theories, agenda setting leaves plenty of wiggle room for bi-directionality. That is, news media can certainly set the agenda on one hand, but they also respond to special interest agendas on the other. For example, Art Pope has been able to drive the political agenda in North Carolina by investing tens of millions in manufactured opinions. In the face of the weekly drip-drip-drip of free market punditry from the Puppetshow, North Carolina reporters, even the good ones, are being played by Pope's minions like a cheap piano.

Against the crush of Pope's anti-government, anti-planning, anti-tax, anti-progress agenda, the left in North Carolina has been outspent and out-maneuvered. Political reporters, especially those at McClatchy, seek quotes from Pope's opinionators at Civitas, AFP, and JLF at least three times more frequently than they do from pundits representing left-leaning think tanks and blogs.

To make matters worse, Pope's machine has mastered the dark art of blurring the lines between selected non-profit organizations, Republican political operatives, and campaign influence. Their policy agenda is indistinguishable from their political agenda, with all players wearing multiple hats in service of the Puppetmaster.

With all this collusion, you'd think that mainstream investigative reporters would see Pope's Empire as an institution worthy of skepticism, but such is not the case. Pope's ability to subsidize content for talent-starved news organizations is remarkable in both its breadth and depth of influence.

What can be done in the face of this avalanche of manufactured opinions? Not much, I'm afraid. The left in North Carolina is too splintered to push back with significant power and impact. Whereas the Pope machine can serve up one or two "experts" to opine on almost anything a mainstream reporter wants to hear, the siloed left rarely reaches the critical mass necessary to really shape the agenda. With wide-ranging interests in abortion rights, social justice, equality, capital punishment, environment, poverty, hunger, healthcare, and more, we have no unifying narrative that can go head-to-head with John Hood's two-word storyline: "government sucks."

Being an institutional outsider, I have no idea what progressive organizations (such as NC Policy Watch, the Justice Center, the Institute for Southern Studies, the Conservation Network, etc.) in North Carolina have planned for the year ahead. If the past is any predictor of the future, they'll mostly continue doing what they've been doing, fighting to hold onto whatever gains have been made while scrambling to raise money to keep their staffs and programs intact - herds of cats in every sense of the word.

Whether BlueNC can play a role in helping to coalesce progressives against the corporatization of politics in North Carolina remains to be seen. For my part, the agenda I'll be working on involves five main threads.

Supporting selected litigation and related policy initiatives. I am a big fan of non-profits that engage in legal confrontations to stop corporate creep. One especially effective organization is the Southern Environmental Law Center, which is in out front in the fight against Titan Cement. Here's some background on the story. If you'd like to contribute to the cause, you can do that here. Also, if anyone is interested in being our go-to source for all things Titan, please let me know. Finally, be prepared to get sick and tired of hearing about Titan this year.

Electing progressives. Whether it's a race for city council, the NC House, or the US Senate, I'll be putting my time and money behind the few progressive candidates I can find worth supporting. I also look forward to the day when the North Carolina Democratic Party gets its progressive shit together so I can rejoin its ranks.

Tax reform. North Carolina politicians will be proven cowards when it comes to tax reform, especially in an election year. Expect little of substance to happen on this front in 2010, though the groundwork for action in 2011 will start to take shape. My going-in principles are to (1) use tax policy to promote environmental sustainability, (2) increase the tax burden on the wealthiest among us, (3) reduce the tax burden on those least able to pay, and (4) treat all sources of income equally.

Community building. BlueNC currently sees between 1000 and 2000 unique visitors each week, down from a high of 12,000 in the last election cycle. If there's another statewide forum for progressive politics and culture, I don't know about it. Which leads me to this request: Please help us strengthen our traffic and influence. Please join in the discussions, make comments, invite friends, cross-post from other blogs, link to our content, whatever.

Two critical causes. For the record, whatever little money gets generated from advertising at BlueNC goes to support effective non-profits involved in environmental causes and abortion rights.


Health care agenda

After being all over the board on health reform, I have come down steadfastly opposed to the abomination of a bill that passed in the Senate. Sure there are some great things included, but there are also some poison pills that simply should not be swallowed. It's all up to progressives in the House.

Public financing

It would be nice if public financing for legislative campaigns got more attention. It's going to be a big jump to go from public financing of the non-headliner council of state races (sorry, Wayne) to the general assembly, but if I were anywhere near the places where Democrats strategize I would be pushing public financing for house and senate races - at least some pilot programs - as a way of a) owning a popular issue, and b) taking a serious stand against corruption.

Beyond that, I'm curious about folks' take on the HKonJ agenda. How has it fared?

And what's up with the Greendogs these days?