Can Media Move The Overton Window?

I fear that somewhere along the line, mainstream media has forgotten its obligation to society.

It was 63 years ago, (on May 9, 1961) that new Federal Communications Commission Chair Newton Minow gave his famous speech, “Television and the Public Interest,” to the convention of the National Association of Broadcasters.

In that speech, he issued a challenge: “I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.”

Minow was saying that media has an obligation to set the cultural and informational boundaries for society. The higher you set them, the more we will strive to reach them. That point was a callback to the Fairness Doctrine, established by the FCC in 1949. The policy required that “holders of broadcast licenses to present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that fairly reflected differing viewpoints.” The Fairness Doctrine was abolished by the FCC in 1987.



What Minow realized, presciently, was that mainstream media is critically important in building the frame for what would come to be called, three decades later, the Overton Window. First identified by policy analyst Joseph Overton at the Mackinaw Center for Public Policy, the term would posthumously be named after Overton by his colleague Joseph Lehman.

The term is typically used to describe the range of topics suitable for public discourse in the political arena. But, as Lehman explained in an interview, the boundaries are not set by politicians: “The most common misconception is that lawmakers themselves are in the business of shifting the Overton Window. That is absolutely false. Lawmakers are actually in the business of detecting where the window is, and then moving to be in accordance with it.

I think the concept of the Overton Window is more broadly applicable than just within politics. In almost any aspect of our society where there are ideas shaped and defined by public discourse, there is a frame that sets the boundaries for what the majority of society understands to be acceptable -- and this frame is in constant motion.

Again, according to Lehman,  “It just explains how ideas come in and out of fashion, the same way that gravity explains why something falls to the earth. I can use gravity to drop an anvil on your head, but that would be wrong. I could also use gravity to throw you a life preserver; that would be good.”

Typically, the frame drifts over time to the right or left of the ideological spectrum. What came as a bit of a shock in November of 2016 was just how quickly the frame pivoted and started heading to the hard right. What was unimaginable just a few years earlier suddenly seemed open to being discussed in the public forum.

Social media was held to blame. In a New York Timesop-ed written just after Trump was elected president (a result that stunned mainstream media) columnist Farhad Manjoo said,  “The election of Donald J. Trump is perhaps the starkest illustration yet that across the planet, social networks are helping to fundamentally rewire human society.”

In other words, social media can now shift the Overton Window -- suddenly, and in unexpected directions. This is demonstrably true, and the nuances of this realization go far beyond the limits of this one post to discuss.

But we can’t be too quick to lay all the blame for the erratic movements of the Overton Window on social media’s doorstep.

I think social media, if anything, has expanded the window in both directions -- right and left. It has redefined the concept of public discourse, moving both ends out from the middle. But it’s still the middle that determines the overall position of the window. And that middle is determined, in large part, by mainstream media.

It’s a mistake to suppose that social media has completely supplanted mainstream media. I think all of us understand that the two work together. We use what is discussed in mainstream media to get our bearings for what we discuss on social media. We may move right or left, but most of us realize there is still a boundary to what is acceptable to say.

The red flags start to go up when this goes into reverse and mainstream media starts using social media to get its bearings. If you have the mainstream chasing outliers on the right or left, you start getting some dangerous feedback loops where the Overton Window has difficulty defining its middle, risking being torn in two, with one window for the right and one for the left, each moving further and further apart.

Those who work in the media have a responsibility to society. It can’t be abdicated for the pursuit of profit or by saying they’re just following their audience. Media determines the boundaries of public discourse. It sets the tone.

Newton Minow was warning us about this six decades ago.

1 comment about "Can Media Move The Overton Window?".
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  1. Ben B from Retired, May 21, 2024 at 10:21 p.m.

    Is cable news just as bad as the cable news in the US Gord as it is more about porfit with cable news, local news plays down the middle should chanllege the politicans a bit more and not let them spin. I don't believe in The Fairness Docrine it is outdated glad that went bye bye bye in the 80s. As there is more choice than when TV first came out in the late 40s early 50s when their was only 3 channels over the air at the time. The Fairness Docrine was needed but once cable started to come into homes in the 80s it became outdated. 

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