In the academic field of political science, the father of pubic opinion research John Zaller explains that mass opinion is largely driven by elite communication. But that opinion, he explains, is influenced by an individual’s level of political awareness, which ultimately determines just how consistent and rigid his opinions are. Zaller explains that individuals maintain a host of conflicting opinions – or considerations. (As one of my professors used to describe it, most people have a messy sock drawer full of opinions, and they simply pick and choose at will.) Often the “winning” opinion is simply determined by the information that is most accessible – those opinions at the top-of-your-head.
So by blocking out the Fox News Channel, the White House is doing itself a tremendous disservice. Not only have they turned down countless invitations by the cable network, but also they’ve recently become openly hostile. White House Communications Director Anita Dunn referred to FNC as a “wing of the Republican Party.” And Obama senior adviser David Axelrod has claimed that Fox is “not a news organization.” (Excuse me, but since when has MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann been a legitimate news show? All the cable networks have their opinions.)
Unfortunately for the White House, this attitude simply reinforces the image of the administration as arrogant and hostile to their ideological opponents. And on top of that, it also makes them look foolish. On an issue like health care, for instance, Zaller would tell us President Obama needs to get his message out – especially to those on the other side of the political aisle. While Fox may attract more Republicans than Democrats, the White House is simply allowing those viewers to have their conservative opinions reinforced without a countervalent – or opposing – opinion.
Perhaps they’re doing this because they don’t really have a message to put out there…other than the fact that they’d like to see the government get into the business of health care. But, then again, they know that Americans aren’t so keen on that idea.
I’m as opposed to Obamacare as the next free-marketer, but I’m also fascinated with public opinion. And if the president really cares about increasing his poll numbers (which I suspect he does) then he might want to reconsider that invitation to go on Fox News Sunday.