06/26/2007 12:14 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

PBS Hires GOP Shill To Give Dem Forum 'Feedback'


In their upcoming Democratic Presidential Candidate Forum (June 28) PBS has chosen well-known Republican propagandist Frank Luntz to offer solo follow-up analysis, calling him a 'noted pollster' without any reference to his decade of work on partisan Republican campaigns that, among other things, re-branded the Democratic Party as dangerous, angry and anti-American. To help boost his credentials for the show, PBS even booked a long interview with Luntz and Tavis Smiley just days after the initial press release.

Not only does Luntz have a history of misrepresenting the facts of his research -- for which he has been censured by -- he has a documented track record of posing as an impartial expert on public broadcasting in order to launch partisan attacks on Democrats.

Claiming to be a researcher who just "listens" to people to bring "clarity" to public debate, Luntz is in fact a strategic political framer who launches deceptive PR campaigns for Republican clients using broadcast media to advance their agenda. If Luntz is on TV, he is working for his top client: the Republican Party.

For those who remember, Luntz used to work for MSNBC who also billed him initially as an impartial analyst. When the American public complained to MSNBC about Luntz's obvious partisan Republican agenda, he was replaced.

Despite being a well-known, highly-partisan and highly-paid Republican operative -- famous for his role in branding liberals as "angry" and hated by Americans -- Luntz continues to represent himself and his work to PBS, and to the American people, as nothing more than an ordinary researcher who 'listens' to the public.

In fact, the truth behind Luntz is that all his work is in the interest of those who pay for his services: the radical wing of the Republican Party. Any commentary Luntz offers on PBS after the Democratic candidate forum will not be in the interest of PBS viewers, but in the interest of the radical wing of the Republican Party.

Not only will Luntz offer deceptive commentary framed by a radical GOP agenda, but he will alienate the vast majority of PBS viewers -- Americans of all political leanings who are tired of turning on their televisions to engage the civic debate, only to be slapped in the face by cynical consultants masquerading as impartial analysts.

Despite the fancy focus group technology at his disposal, Luntz is a dishonest choice for PBS' post-debate analysis. The executive producers of the PBS forum would be wise to replace Luntz with another expert whose professional work and political agenda is not so blatantly at odds with the candidates he or she is charged with analyzing.

Luntz Record: Post As Impartial Expert on Public Media, Then Smear Democrats

The real problem with any media outlet hiring Luntz to analyze Democrats can be seen in transcripts from prior Luntz interviews on NPR and PBS.

For example, consider this exchange between Luntz and Tavis Smiley during a February 7, 2007 interview--note carefully how Luntz represents himself as an impartial researcher without any particular clients or agenda or even someone who is a fan of Bill Clinton:

Tavis: Good to see you. "Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear." What's the trick?

Luntz: The trick is to imagine what your audience wants to get out of it, and then put yourself into their shoes. I always hear these stories, try to imagine your audience in their underwear when you're speaking to them, it makes you feel comfortable? Baloney. You wanna imagine what's going on in their heads. What they expect, what they want.

When they walk out of there, what's the message you wanna get into their minds? And that's why I wrote the book. It was to basically say to CEOs, to senators, to even people like yourself, there is a way to communicate more effectively using the right words, the right visuals, the right tone, even the hand gestures.

Bill Clinton's always like this. His thumb is always up. Not the fist, but he's got the thumb? It's a more positive presentation. When I hold my hands like this, wider, I'm inviting the audience to come in. If I'm doing this, I'm basically pushing them away.

The deception in this answer from Luntz is subtle and calculated. It begins by omitting a key fact that changes everything the listener would hear in Luntz words: his clients.

Luntz works for Republicans, so his "words that work" in politics are always Republican words. His technique is not simply to go out and listen to the American people, but to run focus groups that search for trigger words to advance a Republican agenda. "Words that work," for Luntz are actually the words that get people to accept ideas -- to buy -- that they would otherwise not accept. And why find those words? Because his clients -- the Republicans -- hire him to advance Republican policies that have been rejected by the American public when expressed in other words.

All of this is strategically left out of the response by Luntz. There is no mention of his record as a highly-partisan Republican strategist. Instead, he mentions that his work is of general interest to "CEOs, to senators and even people like" Tavis Smiley (e.g., PBS television hosts). Luntz then adds to the deception by suggesting that as a researcher, he is actually a supporter of Democrats -- tossing out a seemingly off-the-cuff comment about Bill Clinton's effective use of hand gestures.

This is the technique Luntz uses when he lands an interview on NPR or PBS: he tries to cover up his ongoing and deep, professional commitment to advancing radical Republican goals by posing as an impartial researcher with the interests of the Democrat Party at heart.

Consider one more example from the Tavis Smiley interview where Luntz advances his deception one step further by suggestion that the "right words" to advance radical Republican tax policy are just a product of "listening" to what the public really wants. Once again, note what is missing from Luntz' answer:

Tavis: How do you know what words are right on any given occasion?

Luntz: It's all based on research. I've now done polling and focus groups in 46 different states. I was on the road 281 days last year, I did 270,000 miles. I'm actually qualified to land planes in about five different cities, (laugh) based on how much flying that I've done. And it's listening. And what we will do is we will test different phrases.

I'll throw out one that's very controversial. Death tax. I found that if you call something an estate tax, about half of Americans wanna get rid of it. If you call that tax an inheritance tax, you can raise it up to 55 or 60 percent that wanna get rid of it. Call it the death tax, 70 percent want to eliminate it. It's the same tax, but what you call it determines how people react through it.

And so through polling and focus groups and instant response (unintelligible) sessions, where they use meters to react on a second-by-second basis, it's all based on how the public responds. You and I have a certain lexicon, doesn't matter, my lexicon is the American people's lexicon.

That all seems to make sense -- except for one crucial missing element: the client. Again, when asked how he finds the right words for a given occasion, Luntz makes no mention of the money or needs of the Republican Party who hired him to find the trigger words that would convince people to support a tax policy that they would otherwise oppose. The problem Luntz was hired to solve is cleverly concealed by his strategic answer. He was hired to find the words that would convince the public to abolish the estate tax because, up to that point, the public was in favor of an estate tax. Moreover, the challenge presented to Luntz by his Republican clients was not just a job of selling a hated loathsome idea to the public, but of convincing the public to turn against an idea clearly defined as in America's best interest by the framers of the United States Constitution.

If we return to Smiley's question, we can see how much was left out of Luntz' response. He does not just go out and "listen" to people, for example -- did not just fly around the country out of pure interest in learning what words people use. He flew around the country, paying people to join focus groups, so that he could find the words that would sell a Republican tax policy that the majority of Americans saw as their civic duty to oppose. And that's how he found the phrase "death tax," which turns the Constitutional principle of preventing the rise of landed aristocracy in America into a set of trigger words that undermine the interests of our founders.

Posing as an expert, advancing a Republican agenda.

When Impartiality Is Challenged: Luntz Attacks Democrats

In light of the Smiley interview, it is worth nothing that not all public media figures give Luntz free reign to work his strategy -- to sell his wares. On occasion, public media figures challenge him directly. Unfortunately, while these challenges serve to frame his work as deceptive, they also reveal how committed Luntz is to the strategy of posing as an impartial expert while attacking Democrats.

Just a few weeks prior to his appearance on the Tavis Smiley show, for example, Luntz appeared on Terry Gross' NPR show Fresh Air. Unlike's Smiley's uncritical approach to Luntz, Gross chose to ask questions that would tease out what she called the "controversial" aspect of his work -- the fact that he is deeply committed to smearing the Democratic party as angry and un-American, and that his own PR efforts seem to be the cause for most, if not all, of the anti-Democratic attitudes he supposedly discovers in impartial focus groups. In other words, Gross tried to call out Luntz as a partisan operative using the disguise of an impartial expert to get his foot in the door at NPR. In the following transcript, we pick up the exact same point discussed with Smiley--the 'death tax' phrase. This time, however, note how Gross brings the idea of Luntz' deceptions into the interview and how Luntz evades the question by launching his own attack:

GROSS: Now, let's get to what makes some of your work very controversial, and that is the words that you recommend or that you promote in promoting certain policies or legislation. So let's, for instance, look at the expression "death tax" as a substitute for "estate tax" or "inheritance tax." Now, did you coin death tax, or just recommend that Republicans use it?

Mr. LUNTZ:There's really not much I've coined. I'm basically the Johnny Appleseed of language. I take the things that I find out that work from other people, and then I promote it. Because of my relationships in the corporate community and the political community, I've got a fair, large group of friends that are interested in explaining themselves as effectively as they can to the audience that they wish to reach, and so it's pretty easy for me to get language into the public lexicon.

But an example like death tax, that came from polling. And what we found was, if you call it the estate tax, about 50 percent of Americans want to get rid of it. If you call it the inheritance tax, it goes up to about 60 percent. If you call it the death tax, about 70 percent want to eliminate it. And the reason why is, when you think of an estate, you think of the TV show "Dallas" or "Dynasty." You think of Donald Trump or Ross Perot, and that's not something that as many Americans have sympathy for as the idea that if you die, your beneficiaries, your heirs, end up having to pay a tax. More and more Americans believe that a family being taxed at death is something wrong, and my company and myself was involved in that process for the last 10 years, to explain that the death tax was wrong.

(transcript courtesy of LexisNexis)

Notice, so far, how Luntz' answer follows the same pattern as the Smiley interview. He is saying, in so many words, that he does not actually create anything, but just goes out and listens honestly and openly to what the American people are saying. Thus, when he finds finds "words that work" -- he explains -- it is really just a matter of finding what the American people really want to talk about. No mention of his Republican clients. No mention of the goal of turning the American people against a Constitutional principle. Just a guy, listening to people talk. So far, it is the same ruse.

But watch, now, as Gross follows in on this to try to push Luntz off his mark and get him to admit that his so-called "research" is actually a technique for finding trigger words that dupe people into embracing policies they would otherwise reject:

GROSS: Now, you know, your critics say that death tax misrepresents what the tax is in the sense that death tax makes it sounds like, that everybody who dies is taxed, when it's really a tax on people who have an estate worth more than $2 million, which isn't, like, your average American, by any means. So do you think that by calling it a death tax instead of an inheritance tax, that instead of clarity you were actually misrepresenting what the tax is? Because that's what your critics would say you were doing.

Mr. LUNTZ: All right, well, Terry, let me ask you: What is the death tax -- what is the event that causes the death tax to be applied?

GROSS: No, but what your critics would say is that...

Mr.LUNTZ: I understand, but I'm -- I understand.

GROSS: I understand it only happens when you die, but it also happens...

Mr. LUNTZ: Exactly.

GROSS: ...when you're passing on $2 million.

Mr. LUNTZ: Exactly, but it...

GROSS:So in that sense, what's wrong with inheritance tax in the sense inheritance implies that you're dying and other people are inheriting your money?

Mr. LUNTZ: Again, I go back to -- I have to go back to the same answer. It may not be interesting to listeners, but it is accurate, and that's the key to what I do. Everything I do in terms of language has to be accurate.
It's -- to those who believe in clarity -- and one of the things I would very much encourage listeners is to read George Orwell's essay on language. The average American assumes that being Orwellian is a negative, that being Orwellian means that you mislead. If you read "On Language," to be Orwellian is to speak with absolute clarity, to be succinct, to explain what the event is, to talk about what triggers something happening and to do so without any kind of pejorative whatsoever.

Notice how effectively Luntz keeps the ruse alive, here. When asked if using the phrase 'death tax' or 'inheritance tax' instead of 'estate tax' is just a form of deception, he resists admitting that there is a political and financial context for all of his work, arguing instead that his answers are just objective truth. He then closes the discussion by suggesting that his own propagandistic search for trigger words to support Republican policies and deceive the public -- that it is in fact a process of bringing "clarity" to the situation.

In this exchange between Gross and Luntz, we begin to see what is missing from the Smiley interview: any attempt to help the reader see the massive and constant Republican agenda behind everything Luntz says in an interview -- how his TV appearances are themselves part of his "work."

What we begin to see the Gross interview is that Luntz is not a "researcher" who "listens" to people and "finds" the words that people are using. He is a strategic framer who launches deceptive PR campaigns for Republican clients using broadcast media to advance their agenda.

Ultimately, when Luntz is pushed by Gross to admit that he is advancing a Republican agenda even while claiming to describe impartial research, he turns on the attack.

Consider this long exchange between Gross and Luntz on the subject of environmentalism. Gross asks Luntz about his advice to Republicans, but when she calls him out on his agenda, he attacks -- making outlandish claims about environmentalists not wanting to build new buildings. And when that does not work, he tries to change the subject and attack Democrats again:

GROSS: You used the word "environmentalists" before. You've recommended that Republicans not use the word environmentalists, but rather conservationists. What's the difference in the way those two

Mr. LUNTZ: It's actually kind of sad because the environmental community has developed, over the years, an image of being extreme in how they promote their efforts. I myself care considerably about the quality of air and the quality of water, and I believe in open space. I worked very hard for an initiative to set aside open space in urban and suburban areas that I know some people on the Republican side would not appreciate. And I've taken a role for the nature conservancy, as an example, in some of the
efforts that they do. But the environmental groups, the ones that are best known, because of their language and the way they carry out their politics, have developed a very extreme image to them that has an impact of undermining exactly what they're trying to do. A conservationist is seen as someone in the mainstream; an environmentalist, more often, is seen as someone who is more extreme.

GROSS: But could you argue that the reason why environmentalists are seen as extreme is because some conservatives have described them as extreme for so long that they started to be seen that way? In other words, you
said that environmentalists developed an image of being extreme. You could argue that it's not that environmentalists, like the Sierra Club, are extreme, but rather they were smeared as being extreme.

Mr. LUNTZ: I got to ask you again: Is tying yourself to a tree mainstream or extreme?

GROSS: But that's not in the mainstream of the environmental movement.

Mr. LUNTZ: But those things happen, and people see that because it's visual and
they're trying to make a statement. OK, let's do something a little more mainstream.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LUNTZ: If you are opposed to any kind of building -- I just bought a place in
California. I happen to like the weather out there. The environmental community basically stands up and opposes every opportunity, every program, to try to build affordable housing. To them, any kind of additional construction, they will oppose. The American people don't support that. They're looking for a balanced approach, where we can maintain open spaces and still provide for a population that's growing.
And what's the impact of that? Everyone knows that you can barely afford to live anywhere in San Francisco or Los Angeles because there isn't affordable housing, and everyone who would develop, everyone who would create affordable housing, they know that it's going to take 10 years of battles with environmental groups before they can build
anything, so it's almost not worth it. And the public looks at the environmental community and feels like it doesn't make any effort to reach that mainstream approach.

GROSS: But again, do you think that the public reached -- that the public that did reach that conclusion perhaps reached it because that's what they were told by Republicans who wanted to portray environmentalists as extreme?

Mr. LUNTZ: What about Democrats who want to portray all businesspeople as evil?

What we see here is a well-thought out attempt to transform an interview about his book on NPR host into a smear campaign against Democrats. When asked if people's attitudes towards environmentalists are not just out there, but are the products of his own covert propaganda campaigns--as bought and paid for by the Republican Party -- Luntz attacks. Environmentalists fail because they are "angry," he tells us. They tie themselves to trees. They are against building new buildings.

In the face of this attack from her interviewee, Gross offers an exasperated "mm-hmmm." But in calm of the transcript, it is easy to see how strategic this effort is by Luntz -- how he walked into an interview on a liberal, public media talk show with pre-mediated plan to attack the host as "angry" and "extreme." And then when that strategy did not work, he launched a second pre-meditated attack with the obviously constructed PR talking point that Democrats think all businesspeople are "evil."

Given Airtime on PBS, Luntz Will Attack Democrats

The bottom line is that given airtime on PBS, Luntz' track record shows that he will show up for the spot with premeditated strategies for attacking Democrats -- thereby using the airtime he has been given in good faith to advance the agenda of his top client: the Republican Party.

Now, given the increasingly partisan nature of today's media -- having a partisan Republican consultant as a guest on a political talk show is not wrong in the abstract -- assuming that partisan consultant's credentials and history are clearly presented to the public.

But to pass Luntz off as an impartial analyst brought in to discuss Democratic Presidential candidates, when his record shows he is so clearly the opposite of impartial -- that he has a history of using NPR and PBS to advance the interests of the Republican Party -- that is bad programming that runs directly counter to the good faith of PBS members and viewers.

The solution, then, is to do what is right for PBS: leave Luntz to provide his analysis for his paying clients, but replace him with another analyst who can speak with greater balance and honesty about the performances of the Democratic presidential hopefuls.

(cross posted at Frameshop)