Setting the Agenda

Frames: Don't Think of an Elephant book by George Lakoff

Setting the agenda (or "framing the issue") means setting up the discussion so that it is done on your terms and on your schedule.

ex. "Why do you beat your wife?"... this question sets the agenda by assuming you beat your wife...

ex. "Do you support our troops?" ... this assumes that if you do not agree with the person asking, then you are unpatriotic, even a traitor.

"Ever wonder how the radical right has been able to convince average Americans to repeatedly vote against their own interests? It's the framing, stupid! [The book] Don't Think of an Elephant! is a pithy and powerful primer on the language of American politics" (Advertisement. The Progressive, January, 2005: 15).

"In the first of his three debates with George W. Bush, 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry argued against the war in Iraq not by directly condemning it but by citing the various ways in which airport and commercial shipping security had been jeopardized due to the war's sizable price tag. In so doing, he re-framed the war issue to his advantage while avoiding discussing it in the global terrorism terms favored by President Bush" (Book review for Don't Think of an Elephant! on

"Language always comes with what is called "framing." Every word is defined relative to a conceptual framework. If you have something like "revolt," that implies a population that is being ruled unfairly, or assumes it is being ruled unfairly, and that they are throwing off their rulers, which would be considered a good thing. That's a frame.

"If you then add the word "voter" in front of "revolt," you get a metaphorical meaning saying that the voters are the oppressed people, the governor is the oppressive ruler, that they have ousted him and this is a good thing and all things are good now. All of that comes up when you see a headline like "voter revolt" something that most people read and never notice. But these things can be affected by reporters and very often, by the campaign people themselves.

"Here's another example of how powerful framing is. In Arnold Schwarzenegger's acceptance speech, he said, "When the people win, politics as usual loses." What's that about? Well, he knows that he's going to face a Democratic legislature, so what he has done is frame himself and also Republican politicians as the people, while framing Democratic politicians as politics as usual in advance. The Democratic legislators won't know what hit them. They're automatically framed as enemies of the people" (Bonnie Azab Powel. "Framing the issues." UC Berkeley News, Mar. 11, 2004).

The news media and the government (the "bully pulpet") are the two largest and strongest agenda setters. They basically define how issues will be discussed, making some things important and other things unmentionable. This amounts to limiting how we think.

"The news may not succeed in telling us what to think, but it does succeed in telling us what to think about: This is called agenda setting" (Jennifer Niesslein. "Labor Pains." The Nation, March 29, 2004, 32).


Bush and his supporters often silence opposition and dissent by encoding in their arguments a worldview that implies that even to challenge Bush's ideas is immoral and damaging to the social order, and even to the survival of the nation and of Western Civilization. Linguists call this device the lost performative. The speaker purposely leaves out the authority behind far-reaching statements in order to pass off controversial viewpoints as the absolute truth. When Bush says "Our cause is just," he purposely leaves out the "according to whom?"... The underlying message from the authoritarian leader is, Do exactly as I say, or catastrophe follows... persistent suggestions that anyone who expressed reservations about detentions, say, or military tribunals, was at some level 'against' America... absolutist language overloads people with information and leaves them confused and unable to judge for themselves. They crave simplicity and fall back on the character myth" (Renana Brooks. "The Character Myth." The Nation, Dec. 29, 2003: 25-28).

"...another successful Republican frame, the false idea that the "market" is a force of nature... In reality, the market is a social institution with rules and regulating mechanisms that have been put in place by human beings. This reality is hidden by the force-of-nature framing" ("Got Frame?" Texas Observer, 7/30/04: 3).

"ARE YOU FOR OR AGAINST GAY MARRIAGE? Once one agrees to answer the question, one is already trapped. By answering, one loses the chance to ask, why has this become the question?" (Judith Butler. "Can Marriage Be Saved?" The Nation, July 5, 2004: 20).

"Democrats are fearful of being branded "class warriors" in a war the other side started and is determined to win. I don't get why conceding your opponent's premises and fighting on his turf isn't a surefire prescription for irrelevance and ultimately obsolescence" (Bill Moyers. "This is Your Story. Pass It On." Texas Observer, 8/13/04: 4-9, 38).

"We should not underestimate the importance of the presidency as a megaphone for shaping public opinion and redirecting political priorities" (Dan Carter. "For 2008." The Nation, Dec. 20, 2004: 26).

Our consensus now maintains social equilibrium by the more refined method of suppressing forms of thought. Pick up a copy of USA Today--I dare you--and you will see this work done in plain sight, on the editorial page, by means of the term "left" and "right." No matter how preposterously ill matched, the positions that are so labeled are presented as equivalent choices..." (Stuart Klawans. "War Games." The Nation, Nov. 15, 2004: 43).

One way of setting the agenda is having the "bully pulpit." Here is one example:

"We're forced into this posture because Bush & Co. control the cameras and the microphones, and write the daily scripts, and therefore get to speak out first, and have the last word, too. But it is not just through such institutional advantage that Team Bush keeps its would-be prosecutors up against the wall. The Busheviks forever cloud the issue, and try to sieze the high ground, by projecting onto everybody else the raging evil that they feel within themselves.

"This is, on the one hand, an exquisitely disorienting ploy: the criminals imputing their own criminality to those whom they have robbed and beaten and would surely kill if they could get away with it" (Mark Crispin Miller. "Reality Always Wins." AlterNet. Posted November 1, 2004).

Excerpts from book: Mickey Z. The Seven Deadly Sins: Exposing the Lies Behind War Propaganda. Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 2004.

EXAMPLE: Gulf War I -- "The media are completely unabashed in allying themselves with the administration, being a mouthpiece for the war machine...

"What the media do nationally is to imperceptibly create an amnesia-like feeling... There's no context for actions, there's no background; there's no history. Things just happen (78)...

"One would never be able to guess from public discourse that for every American veteran of combat in Vietnam, there must be twenty veterans of the antiwar movement. One reason for this is the media distortion of who opposes war...

"Schechter says, "Hawks rule the TV studios even as doves line the streets"... It's difficult to discover much of anything about the peace movement from a corporate media that relies almost entirely on retired military men as wartime commentators (81)...

"Joseph Campbell warns us to beware of those who take our deeply held symbols and turn them into signs of intolerance" (David Kupfer. "Terry Tempest Williams." The Progressive, Feb, 2005: 37).

Colby Glass, MLIS