Why This Shutdown Is Different

In covering the effects of the partial government shutdown, the mainstream media are behaving as expected. Those who watched events leading up to the government closure understand that a major responsibility for the 17th government shutdown in American history rests on Senate Democrats led by Harry Reid, and especially Barack Obama, but of course the mainstream media are blaming the Republicans.

Democrats' intransigence over funding the central government, especially Obamacare, and soon over raising the nation's debt limit, should have made "headlines" in print and electronic media.

But, no, the MSM -- shilling for Obama -- lambaste Republicans of all stripes, but especially conservatives. Every Left-wing canard aimed at conservatives generally, and Tea Partiers in particular, gets repeated by the MSM.

Bad press is always problematic, and since there is a segment of the public that is entirely dependent on the MSM for political information, conservatives should expect these people to buy into the MSM template on the government shutdown question.

Even though many of the MSM-dependent people are the "low-information voters" we've heard about lately, and the MSM's audience is much smaller than it was 40-50 years ago, there are still enough of them to register in public opinion polls. Hence, it should not surprise if future polls show a shift away from a recent (9/19-22/13) poll for the Pew Research Center that revealed the public was almost evenly balanced in assigning responsibility for the then-impending government closure. One must expect polls in the next few days or so will indicate Jane and John Q. Public place more blame (for the shutdown) on Republicans than on Democrats.

That was certainly the case during the last government shut down (1995), when a poll for Pew found 46% of the public blamed the GOP, 27% blamed the Clinton Administration, and 20% blamed both sides.

Having seemed to lose the battle for public opinion, the Republicans caved.

Today, however, MSM shilling for the Democrats and Obama carries far less weight, and the GOP (and their supporters) should appreciate just how political communication processes have changed in 17+ years, and take that change into account.

Now we come to why Republicans and conservatives should discount MSM braying about who's to blame for the government's closure.

An obvious reason is that the audience for the MSM is considerably smaller than it was in the mid-1990s. A poll conducted for Pew in 1996, just months after the short-lived government shutdown of the previous fall, found that 71% of those interviewed claimed they "regularly" read a daily newspaper, 81% said they "regularly" watched TV newscasts, and 51% reported they "regularly" listened to the news on radio.

(These are probably generous estimates, since poll respondents frequently misreport how often they follow the news. Even so, the answers are "good enough for government work.")

Pew's midsummer 2012 "Media Consumption" poll, using identical questions, found that reports of "regularly" reading daily newspapers had sagged to 49%, "only" 71% of the poll's respondents claimed "regularly" to watch TV newscasts, and "only" 42% said they "regularly" listened to radio news broadcasts. (Once again, we're probably looking at generous estimates.)

These are useful figures (to those seeking reasons to discount MSM reporting), but they are only part, and not the most important at that, of the story that Republicans, and especially conservatives, need to appreciate.

Bluntly put, polls show significant erosion in the public's reported trust and confidence in the news. Gallup polls from the early 1990s to mid-2012, for example, show that the percentage of the public expressing "a great deal of" or "quite a lot" of confidence in television newscasts fell from 46% in the early 1990s to just 21% in early June, 2012. A year later, the percentage was 23%. A recent (6/1-4/13) Gallup poll reported that the percentage of the public who have "a great deal of" or "quite a lot" of confidence in newspapers has fallen to 23%, down 28 percentage points since 1980 and down 14% points since 2000. Another Gallup poll found that 60% of the public in early September, 2012, distrusted the MSM, while only 40% expressed "a great deal" or "a fair amount" of trust in the media. (As recently as 2004, a majority [55%] of Americans had trusted the media.)

One could point to polls from other survey agencies, such as the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center's "General Social Survey," which show the same, or similar, trends, but it would amount to gilding the lily.

So what? People who don't trust a news source don't believe that source. They probably don't listen to (or read) it.

In short, the government closure of 2013 is not the same as the one in 1995 or the eight government shutdowns engineered by Tip O'Neill when Ronald Reagan was president. 2013's government closure is not the same as the one in 1979, which occurred after Congress voted a pay raise for its members.

Consequently, don't expect future polls to show massive public opprobrium attached to the GOP for government's closure. Furthermore, keep in mind that most of the time, public opinion tends to be short-lived.

The MSM's declining audience, and especially their waning public trust, mean that Republicans and conservatives are on good ground in contesting Senate Democrats and especially the paper tiger in the White House.

Much as I shrink from disagreeing with Charles Krauthammer, the government's closure this time around need not be a boon to Obama.

To get maximum benefit from what they've done so far, Republicans need to do several things. First, they've got to stop the in-fighting. (Democrats don't do this, and the GOP needs to learn not to as well.)

Were they to do so, nervous Republicans would observe three things. First, the MSM very likely have negative influence. Second, the antics of Harry Reid and President Obama offer a variety of opportunities to be used as fodder for a smart GOP public-relations strategy.

The House succeeded in getting its bill funding the military passed by the Senate and signed by the president. This is a good beginning, and should be followed by other bills, such as funding national parks, veterans' affairs, as well as a new farm bill.

After World War II vets tore down barriers so they could visit the World War II Memorial, passing bills to reopen national parks and fund veterans' affairs ought to be good politics. One also wonders if Senate Democrats, especially those from so-called "Red" states who will be up for re-election in 2014, would want their vote against such legislation on the record.

Finally, weak-kneed Republicans need to see how the American public is reacting thus far. Press reports indicate that the predominant public reaction to the news about the government closure is a loud yawn.

Why is that? Many reasons, I suspect, but one is that the MSM can't shape public opinion like it once might have.

There's a lesson here for the GOP: Stick to your guns!

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