Ahh the joys of half-remembered college courses! This week’s video is about Syria, but it’s also about the concept of agenda-setting, something I barely remember from my Political Science classes, back in Ann Arbor around the turn of the century. I couldn’t track down the book, or even the exact concept I was remembering, and I fear I may have made a bit of a hash of it. The video communicates what I wanted to say, but I think I mixed the concepts of agenda-setting and attention in a way that may not fit the model I learned back then.
Attention, what we pay attention to, individually and as a country is a very important concept, and one that I play with a lot on this channel. Agenda-setting, as I remember, is a good deal drier. There are a number of stakeholders in government and society that compete to bring about legislative action. Social media and our great orange president change the calculus. It may actually make sense to include the attention span of the individual voter, and that voter’s media consumption habits in any discussion of agenda-setting today.
I’m not sure that clarified anything, but I wanted to at least mention that the version of “agenda-setting” here may not fit what my professor was talking about. I remain very proud of today’s video however.
Video Transcript after the jump…
Hey there. Over the past two weeks we have gone through yet another massive Syria freak out. I haven’t made videos about it because I had a hunch it would turn out exactly like our Syria freak out last year. I was right about that. World War 3 isn’t going to start in Syria, and Trump’s actions there are essentially meaningless. I have made those videos already, and unlike most players in media I do not like repeating myself.
But this little episode illustrates a concept from political science that is worth talking about. It’s called agenda setting.
I don’t remember much from college but I do remember this idea. It’s pretty vital. Everybody’s got an agenda, or plan. In a given day you may have things to focus on. Some of it is things to do, but a lot of it is things to pay attention to. Work, Family, Life, what to eat for dinner. How much attention are you going to pay to anything today? How much time do you have to follow the news today? Should you even open Twitter? Oh god you wish you hadn’t. Everybody’s got an agenda, and there’s limited time for anything on it.
It works this way for media and government as well. Each media outlet has its own agenda and things that they want to focus on. Government has an agenda too. It’s filled with stuff that has to get done, but it also reacts to the agenda of news organizations, individual congress people, lobbyists and an almost infinite range of other actors as well. All of these different agendas interact in ways that can only be described as chaotic. All of these agendas react to other people’s agendas. People and organizations pour a lot of money into getting things on to the government agenda. Once upon a time, when things were slower, the broader agenda was set in a more orderly fashion, by people in government and media who did a better job of pretending they knew what they were doing.
Over the past couple years, the man occupying the most powerful position in the world has used Twitter to present his own Agenda. Trump claims that this provides a powerful tool of communication to his supporters and he’s absolutely right about that. As to what he’s communicating. Well… It’s pretty horrifying. And it’s done an excellent job of turning everybody else’s agenda into a non-stop dumpster fire.
And I think this agenda-setting problem is why Syria got bombed last week. There are two narratives that have gotten a lot of play. The official story, pushed by government and Media, is that there is now some kind of Trump doctrine that means the US and its allies spend a couple hundred million dollars bombing buildings in Syria whenever Assad gasses his people.
I don’t buy it. There’s the inconvenient fact that there have been plenty of gas incidents in Syria since Trump’s last missile tantrum last year. Folks seem to be arguing that the possibility of Sarin makes things different somehow but this week is the first time I’ve heard of this new Sarin red line. Maybe it’s because there was better video this time around, but A lot of folks in media and policy circles who like bombing are just coming up with reasons to justify more bombing. The official story is garbage, and it’s really sad to see everybody just adopt it.
There’s also the conspiracy theory approach. Over the past month or so Assad has finally succeeded in wiping out a rebel pocket in the Damascus suburbs that has been intermittently shelling his capital city for years now. The rebels faked the chemical attack in a last ditch effort to bring in the United States, and deep state elements in Western government and media are using this to start the war they’ve always wanted! Now I’ll admit I find the idea that Assad would choose to use chemical weapons at this point a bit mystifying as well, but at the end of the day I don’t buy this approach either.
Let me be clear. Assad is a bad man. While I’d like to see a much more thorough investigation, I have no problem believing that Assad is capable of this. And as with all conspiracy theories this story assumes that people are a lot more clever, and that sinister elements are a lot more powerful than they actually are.
What really happened is so much dumber, and it’s all about Agenda-setting.
When Trump said this on March 29th, he might have just been bloviating, or he might have known he’d hijack a the news agenda and distract from his Russia investigation troubles. If that was his intention it was completely successful.
Everybody with an interest in Syrian destruction, from the Military and Humanitarian industrial complexes to the resistance neocons, to congress and the media was put on notice. Syria was placed back on the agenda, big time. This made what happened in Syria over the next week much more likely to make the news. So when this particular chemical attack took place on April 7th we were all primed to pay attention. The Media sold this attack as disrespecting Trump somehow, so he of course over-reacted massively with the peerless agenda-setting tool that is his twitter feed. This forced poor Jim Mattis, our secretary of Defense, to come up with last Friday’s 200 million dollar nothing burger of an attack.
To be clear, I am very glad that the attack was a nothing burger, and that Syria will be allowed to continue to stabilize. Trump’s suggestion that we get out of Syria was one of his stopped clock moments. Getting out is absolutely the right thing to do. But if Trump hadn’t mentioned it two weeks ago, I really don’t think we’d have ended up bombing Syria last Friday. That’s how stupid things are today. That’s how broken our system of agenda setting is.
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