Lynne Sagalyn

“Positioning Politics: Kelo, Eminent Domain, and the Press”

Editors: Timothy N. Castano


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This paper explores the politics of the Kelo backlash by analyzing the content of public opinion published in editorials, op-eds, editorial cartoons, and letters-to-the editor on the pages of the nation's daily papers. Work by Nader, Diamond, and Patton (2006) analyzes public opinion from five polls conducted in fall 2005, after the decision came down. My work analyzes how press editors, elected officials, grass-roots organizations, organized constituencies, and individuals positioned their opinions in response to the controversial ruling, and what these opinions tell us about the character of the backlash. In a political minefield such as Kelo, where the legal and policy — if not emotional — issues are complex, what role does the press play in framing the issues? What coalitions are evident in the way various interests frame the issue? And how might such framing shape the politics of the many efforts to reform government's powers of eminent domain?

To address these issues, I constructed a database on Kelo press commentary (from 272 newspapers) based on search protocols around three newsworthy event episodes in the case: the U.S. Supreme Court's September 2004 decision to accept the case, oral arguments before the justices in February 2005, and the announcement of its ruling in June 2005. The content analysis of headlines, editorials and editorial cartoons revealed the political power of framing. Three salient messages characterized the reporting on Kelo in the month following the Court's ruling. First, the scope of government power has been broadened, bolstered, expanded, extended, strengthened, or widened. Second, homeowners have been shown the door, they are vulnerable, or their homes are up for grabs by government. Third, elected politicians are concerned and ready to take up and fight for property rights. The reporting was more interpretation than fact and relied heavily on inflammatory hyperbole and provocation. Overwhelmingly and unsurprisingly, the editorials voiced dissent with the Court's ruling, which mirrored public opinion data, but as with the reporting, they relied heavily upon a series of myths about Kelo and eminent domain. These myths became powerful framing devices, which have made eminent domain a touchstone social-policy battle with a life of its own. And, as evident in the editorial cartoons, the two previously esoteric Latin words have become household familiar, a political metaphor for excessive use of government power.

Source: Land and Power: The Impact of Eminent Domain in Urban Communities
Exact Citation:
Sagalyn, Lynne. "Positioning Politics: Kelo, Eminent Domain, and the Press." In Land and Power: The Impact of Eminent Domain in Urban Communities, Pages 49-74. Ed. Timothy N. Castano. Princeton, NJ: Policy Research Institute for the Region, 2008.
Pages: Pages 49-74
Place: Princeton, NJ
Date: 2008