Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Frank Luntz: The Devil In Disguising Language

Words used to have meaning. We had the dictionary that we all agreed provided the definition of words and by a social contract, we all agreed to use them properly when trying to convey an idea. If we used them incorrectly we were either wrong or we were lying. But that was then and this is now. Words mean nothing since Frank Luntz came along. For those of you who don’t know who this sinister man is, he is the founder of Luntz Research Companies and as it states on his website, he provides “Strategic Consulting and Message Development” as well as “Surveys, Focus Groups and Instant Response”. His group of companies are some of the most powerful in Washington DC. You may have seen him on television during the Presidential campaigns providing instant viewer response to the Presidential debates. He’s a harmless looking fellow with sandy blond hair and a cherubic round face with an excitable demeanor that makes him seem almost childlike. But he is not as harmless as he appears. In fact he is one of the most ruthless political operatives in the Republican camp. Not ruthless in the way that Karl Rove is, willing to destroy political opponents by any means and at any cost. No, Luntz is ruthless simply in his pursuit of the perfect tool of manipulation. In some ways Frank Luntz is more dangerous than Karl Rove, because Luntz has found the key to duping a huge segment of the population. And he’s found it with their help.

When Luntz does one of his televised focus groups, he provides the viewers with handy little buttons that they can push when whatever is being said makes them look favorably or unfavorably on the candidate in question. His little demonstrations are featured on news shows after the debates and they are pretty interesting. You can see the graph line move up and down in real time as the viewers react to what they are hearing. I can see the value in studying the response of the citizenry to what politicians say they will do or what they believe in. The problem is not the research, but what Luntz does with the knowledge that he gains from these little focus groups.

If you have ever wondered why a bill that allows more pollution into the air is called the Clean Skies Initiative, the answer is Frank Luntz. How can a bill named Leave No Child Behind, be leaving so many of our children in the dust? You can thank Frank Luntz for that too. He has made his life’s work studying words or more importantly how words make average American’s feel when they hear them. In the 80’s Ronald Reagan figured out that what you say is less important that what the viewer sees on his television screen when you say it. Peggy Noonan, one of Reagan’s speechwriters, has talked about this often. She would advise him not to say something and he would tell her it didn’t matter because he’d be smiling in front of a happy crowd when he said it. Frank Luntz has taken that idea a step further and promoted the idea that you can say whatever you want as far as content when you use his pre-tested words to convey the message.

This manipulation of language has freed the Republican Party. They can promote all of their favorite causes as long as they use Luntz’s words to do it. If you want to repeal the Estate Tax, rename it the Death Tax. If you want to cut taxes on high-income earners, call it abolition of the marriage penalty. If you want to open up public lands to timber companies, call it the Healthy Forests Act. And on and on it goes. The one time they forgot to ask Luntz for the magic words, their proposal to privatize Social Security went down in flames. He tried to help, but switching from “private accounts” to “personal accounts” so late in the game failed to take hold and convinced no one. I shudder to think what would have happened if Frankie boy had been on the case from the start. If he had, we would all be looking at pretty bleak twilight years I’m sure.


Blogger manonfyre said...

The Frank Luntz Republican Playbook:

Source Watch entry, with further links:

11:06 AM  
Anonymous yeldarbkram said...

This suggests a variant on the name of a well-known 80's British Pop group: "Frankie goes to hollow words"

This is very sharp analysis indeed. For at least two centuries now, the shriveled heart in the concave chest of ruling class con-games aimed at us hapless serfs has been the hunting down, killing, skinning and gutting of the English language. The vile and disingenuous Luntz is a soft-bellied but blood-thirsty Davy Crockett in this regard. Come to think of it, he ought to wear a red dictionary-skin hat on his bloated head...

7:02 PM  

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