The Axis of Envy or The Overton Window as it applies to blogs

A reader emails some thoughts about media, blogs and the future:

Hi Cam

On holiday now and have some time to ponder the role of Blogs in NZ.

The New Zealand Herald, TV3 and TVNZ (The Main Stream Media or MSM) are not comfortable with the rise of Blogs and especially the rise of Whaleoil.  I have spent some time considering this and believe the major driver for their concern is that they fear the loss of their privileged position as the ordained elite guardians of enlightened thought in New Zealand.

To understand this we first need to understand the Overton Window.  The Overton Window concept comes out of an American Think Tank ( and was created by Joe Overton in the mid 90’s. Joe wrote an essay in which he observed that any collection of public policies within a policy area, such as education, can be arranged in order from more free to less free (or from less government intervention to more).

He also noticed that debates on policy tended to be limited by the boundaries of public acceptance, and ideas outside those boundaries are usually rejected with little examination. If the change you are pushing is outside of those boundaries, your chances for reasoned debate and more importantly changes to public policy or law are very low. Overton called these boundaries a window and hence the term The Overton Window.  

As the Overton Window shifts along the spectrum, a specific policy goes through the following phases of public acceptance:

  • Unthinkable
  • Radical
  • Acceptable
  • Sensible
  • Popular
  • Policy

He argued that the window can be shifted to the left or the right, with the once merely “acceptable” becoming “popular” and eventually “policy”, and the formerly “unthinkable” positions becoming the new “radical” or the new “acceptable”.

In his role as a think tank advisor to political groups he felt the trick was to slide the window of acceptable debate onto your position by focusing attention on a position that is more radical than your own.

The greens are good at this. By introducing radical ideas into the public discourse, what was previously radical within this context becomes moderate by comparison. With the Overton Window winning the centre isn’t as important as you may think.

It is also important to note that Overton felt that politicians have little control over policy, he felt public opinion does.  A politician will only support policies it is feasible to embrace without losing public support and in this sense MSM can move the Overton Window by insidiously changing what the public considers acceptable.  If “radical” ideas are casually dismissed as fringe and “unthinkable” ideas are ignored altogether, the window doesn’t move. If we pause to consider this point we begin to understand the significant hidden power MSM has to lose by the growth of public debate outside of their influence.

Now back to the disdain that NZ Herald, TV3 and TVNZ (Axis of Envy) have toward Whaleoil.  For the last 20 years they have had a privileged position in NZ based on their monopoly of the public debate and opinion.

In the Overton Window theory public debate and opinion change in four ways. (I will explain them with the discussion on Charter Schools)

  • Facts and Logic (Kids are failing, Maori kids do worse than others)
  • Appeals to Morality (children should not be used as experiments for capitalist free market ideals)
  • Appeals to Emotion (would you want an unregistered teacher in charge of your kids?)
  • Events, mistakes, & misinformation (teachers going to jail, bogus reports on charter schools)

Through continued filtering of selected information they can over time shift the window.  Be it Charter Schools, Welfare Reform, Climate Change or Capital Gains Tax they can control the public discussion (even going as far as controlling the comments on their web sites).  I personally believe that they have been nudging the window slowly towards the left for some time.

The NZ Herald leak on rest homes is a clear example of attempting to shift public opinion through the organised release of selectively biased information and we can only speculate as to how often it is organised and co-ordinated in this fashion.  The continued flow of support for Capital Gains Tax is a topic that has obviously been given the Herald treatment and I am sure the journalists believe they will eventually change this policy by sustained attack on property investors.

Blogs can act as a brake on the MSM’s ability to influence public discussion.  By fact checking, and digging deep into stories they tug at the other side of the window and arrest the MSM’s ability to drag it in their direction.

A “mainstream journalist” (let’s remember that Bloggers are also journalists) doesn’t want to just report the facts.  We all know they entered journalism to change the world (generally into their vision) and for a long time they have been able to do just that.  Groups with likeminded philosophies and political views tend to automatically cull out dissenting members, journalist are not immune to this behaviour.  For decades, New Zealand news rooms have been selectively hiring and firing to ensure they have likeminded colleagues that help to re-enforce their “group think” vision for society.

This is why mainstream media cannot be neutral, they are systematically attempting to push the window in favour of their views, while trying not to appear so biased that their audience is alienated.

It is thus inevitable that they will attack a new threat to their power base, unfortunately the horse has already bolted and a select few “mainstream journalists” can no longer have exclusive control over the Overton Window in NZ.

Blogs are now an essential evolution of media in this country.  They are the balancing influence on the attempted centralised control of reasoned thought for New Zealanders.



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