04/19/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Heisenberg Effect of Televising Political Negotiations

I'm going to start off today's column with a chart. I'm doing this for several reasons, not least of which is the fact that it's a really good chart. It is simple, easy to read, and involves very little mathematics (meaning it is accessible to a very wide spectrum of the American public). And it is a very effective way of presenting the facts, free of media spin. The chart comes from the White House, and shows the monthly number of jobs lost for approximately the past two years. It also uses color very well, to separate George W. Bush's term in office from Barack Obama's. Without further introduction, here is the chart:

Job Loss Chart

[A much bigger version of this chart can be found at, big enough to read the fine print.]

I led off today's column with a chart, not only because it's such a dandy chart, but also to prove a point. Visuals draw people in. If I had written this article in a different way, the chart would have appeared further down in the article, or even at the bottom. But then, fewer people would have seen the chart, because a certain percentage of busy folks only read the first few paragraphs of any article, before losing interest and moving on to other news. By putting it up front, more people will see it, simple as that.

Which is a good thing, because this chart is worth 1,000 soundbites on "the stimulus" or "the recovery act" or "jobs jobs jobs" or the "jobless recovery" or the "economy" or the "jobless situation." It paints a pretty clear picture: Things got bad, but they are getting better -- they're not great yet, but things are headed in the right direction. Which, on the anniversary of the stimulus bill's passage, is exactly the message the White House is trying to send. Not rosy-colored optimism, exactly, but a sense that things are indeed heading towards a better place, and away from a very bad place.

But, the excellent political savvy of this chart aside, my larger point is on how people perceive the way things work in Washington. Perception, in politics especially, quickly gels into political reality. Which is why the entire concept of "framing" issues correctly is a very big deal in the political world.

Anyone who doubts this is true need only look as far as a recent poll on allowing gays in the military. Or, should I say, "homosexuals in the military"? No, I should not. Here's why.

CBS News and the New York Times released a poll last week on the issue. They asked Americans: "Do you favor or oppose gay men and lesbians being allowed to serve openly in the military?" The responses were pretty positive:

Strongly favor -- 51%

Somewhat favor -- 19%

Somewhat oppose -- 7%

Strongly oppose -- 12%

And then, in the very same poll, they asked the same question but substituted the word "homosexuals" for the phrase "gay men and lesbians." These are the results they got:

Strongly favor -- 34%

Somewhat favor -- 25%

Somewhat oppose -- 10%

Strongly oppose -- 19%

The favorable/unfavorable numbers went from 70/19 to 59/29 just on the wording of the question. "Strongly favor" went down by 17 points. This is the most obvious proof I've ever seen of the importance of framing issues politically. You cannot even argue that the disparate results were because of methodology problems with the surveys, because it was the same survey (it's not a matter of Gallup versus Rasmussen, in other words). What it proves is obvious -- Americans, in general, are more comfortable with the idea of "gays and lesbians" than they are of "homosexuals" -- even though there is no difference between the two.

The skill of framing things correctly is about to hit center stage in the American political scene, which is my real reason for writing today. President Obama is convening a health reform "summit" meeting in about a week's time. And it will be televised live on C-SPAN.

In the dawn of C-SPAN's existence, the advisability of televising the proceedings from the floors of both houses of Congress was fervently debated. There was a fear that having cameras in the room would "change the debate," and make it more partisan. Now, I would hesitate to draw too many conclusions from the introduction of the cameras (such as "we're more partisan now, therefore it must be as a result of the cameras"), I have to say that the debate has indeed changed in at least one tangible way -- call it the Kinko's Effect. Members of Congress soon realized that to achieve their main goal (getting their faces on the evening news), it helped to bring props with a visual impact. Big charts and graphs, that sort of thing.

This "playing to the cameras" is exactly what the folks who didn't want C-SPAN cameras in Congress were worried about -- the fact that because they were being observed by cameras, it changed how elected officials presented their case.

Which, as I said, is about to be on full display. Obama will sit down next week with the leaders of both political parties in both houses of Congress, as well as technical and budgetary experts, in a last-ditch effort to hash out a health reform bill. Republicans, not to be outdone, have just proposed a similar meeting with Democrats on the issue of jobs, also with the C-SPAN cameras rolling. Meaning we could be in for a period where these types of televised events are staged regularly (especially since it's an election year).

Now, cynics on both sides decry this as a "cheap political tactic" or "political theater" which won't get anything actually accomplished. My response to such critics is: So what? If it's good political theater (from either side) then perhaps it will have the effect of moving the debate among the public at large -- which, at this point, would actually be an accomplishment. My only suggestion for Democrats is that if they take the Republicans up on their invitation to a televised "jobs summit," then they really should bring along a giant blowup of the chart I started this column off with, and hang it up prominently behind them (at a convenient angle for the cameras to pick up). Because Democrats would benefit if more people saw that chart.

Televising legislative negotiations is, perhaps, an idea whose time has come. It's easy to sell the idea as "letting in some sunshine to backroom Washington deals," but it carries with it certain risks. It's risky for both sides, because it will indeed be a competition between different ideologies and nobody can predict who will wind up looking better in such a clash of ideas. Or, at the very least (and most cynical): "clash of soundbites."

Another way to put it is: uncertainty itself is a function of being observed. This was postulated long ago on the subatomic level by the scientist Werner Heisenberg. His theory, now known as the "Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle," or the "Heisenberg Effect," is fairly easy to understand, even though it is a core basis for the entire field of quantum physics -- you can measure where a subatomic particle is, or you can measure how fast it is moving; but you cannot measure both at the same time. Momentum or position can be accurately measured, but not both simultaneously. This is because the very act of observing the particles actually influences the particles themselves. For the first time, in science, the scientific observer became not a detached presence, but one who influenced what he or she was observing. In the simplest of terms, watching something changes what it is you're watching.

On the macroscopic political level, this still rings true. Because C-SPAN will be in the room while Obama sits down with the leaders of Congress, it will influence what is said and how it is said. "Closed door" and "open door" discussions are different. But just because this is true doesn't mean the experiment isn't worth trying. Maybe it'll be a failure for one side or the other. Maybe it'll just be a failure altogether, influencing no one and changing nothing. But how is that any different than if the experiment weren't tried?

I started off this column by presenting a great visual way to recap the last two years of unemployment, just because it was a great chart and I wanted as many people as possible to see it. I am finishing it by discussing quantum physics and uncertainty. Neither "quantum physics" or "uncertainty" would likely poll well as being subjects of wide interest to most Americans, I should point out. Even among those of you who clicked on the article knowing who Heisenberg was in the first place, most likely.

If I were writing this article to be read by a select audience in a small and very targeted publication, I might have reversed the order in which I presented things. Because I wanted as wide an audience as possible, I wrote it the way I did. I'm not immune to the Heisenberg Effect either, in other words. Because I know in advance that I'm "being observed," I changed my presentation.

But, to close, I maintain that my main theme ("just because C-SPAN will be in the room does not mean televised political meetings are a bad thing") would have likely been the same no matter how I chose to structure the actual writing. You do what you can to get your message across. Which means I will be very interested in seeing the results of Obama's summit next week (if there even are any, whether tangible or intangible), and also seeing whether the idea of televised summitry will indeed catch on in Washington or not in the near future. Whether I, as one individual, will change the experiment by watching is highly doubtful, but whether a whole bunch of people pay attention or not will indeed influence both how the first summit goes, and whether there will be more of them or not.

Of this, I am certain -- Heisenberg or no Heisenberg (actually, that's more of a question for Schrödinger, now, isn't it?).


Chris Weigant blogs at:

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


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