On the Media: Fox News ‘pollster’ Frank Luntz’s sleight of phrase
We all know by now that cable TV news provides cozy destinations for the two political poles: Liberals go to MSNBC for aid and comfort. Conservatives flock to Fox to be told what they want to hear.
What’s offensive is when the people hawking these highly branded properties pretend they’re doing something else, like playing it down the middle. You see it during big news events when MSNBC’s lefty commentators suddenly try to morph into “news” anchors.
You saw it after this week’s State of the Union address, when Fox offered up a famously partisan political operative as an unbiased pollster, just wanting to help us understand the American people. Surprise, surprise — GOP consultant Frank Luntz spoon-fed Fox viewers a focus group chock-full of Obama haters.
Bogus public opinion sampling is nothing new. Neither is cable television’s insistence on rolling it out, flogging it and regurgitating it at every opportunity. So why not fill those hours after the State of the Union with a little faux science?
CNN kicked off the misdirection play Tuesday night with a “flash” poll. The instant survey of 475 Americans told us that the public overwhelmingly liked President Obama’s speech. The fact that Democrats made up the “vast majority” of the sample, unfortunately, rendered the poll meaningless to anyone trying to figure out where the country really stands.
So why present the information at all? Because it fills. And, maybe, because it confirms your own predispositions. At least CNN’s Joe Johns acknowledged that the sample tilted toward one party. (He explained that when any president speaks, more citizens of his own party tend to watch.) Knowing that, we could make up our own minds about its value.
Next up came Luntz and his focus group — starring on Fox’s “The Sean Hannity Show” following the speech. That meant a typically biting commentary from Hannity, leading questions by Luntz and plenty of airtime for a panel laughably tilted against the president.
The kangaroo court convened with Chief Justice Hannity declaring Obama “flat,” redundant and out of touch. Luntz didn’t even bother to stifle a smile when he told the 29 members of the focus group, “I don’t want you to feel under pressure because of what Sean Hannity just said.”
Luntz asked those seated in the front row to give a word or two to assess Obama’s performance. Seven of 10 let him have it. “Platitudes,” said one, followed by “empty, redundant, political, not connected with America, hyperbole and Obama conflicting....”
Never mind trying to find neutral language — the goal of any truly nonpartisan pollster — so as not to taint the subjects. In one question, Luntz allowed the panel to say only that the speech had exceeded or fell short of expectations. No chance for the panelists to stake out the likely middle ground. Lo and behold! Most of them said the speech fell short.
Perhaps the slipperiest of Luntz’s tricks played on the most important question of all: how Obama has handled the economy. First noting that the president called the “worst” of the recession over, Luntz later said: “How many of you believe the recession is over, raise your hands?” He then relayed the result: “Three of you. So obviously that must have undercut credibility when he said it?”
Of course, when you misstate what a politician says — in this case taking out the all-important qualifier that Obama referred to the worst of the recession ending — it’s not hard to make that politician look woefully out of touch.
In an exchange of e-mails the next day, Luntz defended his claim. He said his panel had “dialed downward” (with hand-held devices for keeping running tabs on the speech) at the moment Obama spoke about the recession. “It’s what they heard,” Luntz said. “I realize Obama said the worst of the recession is over, but they heard the recession is over.”
The day after our little e-mail chat, Luntz clearly intended to keep mangling Obama’s message. “The president said the recession is over,” he said on the Fox Business Network’s “Imus in the Morning.” Naturally, people are too “angry” and “agitated” to hear that kind of talk, he said.
Yes, people should be really angry and agitated. But about this kind of “polling” flim-flammery — dial devices and allegedly scientific samples made out to represent more than 200 million American grown-ups.
Luntz announced the night of his little show trial that 13 of the 29 participants voted for Obama in 2008. When I asked, he initially claimed he knew nothing about their party loyalties, but later told me via e-mail that eight were Democrats, 10 Republicans and 11 independents. That’s hardly representative of America, but Luntz seemed to forgive himself. He told me in an e-mail that “four invited Obama participants still didn’t show.”
A little more context might have forgiven these, er, missteps. Instead of introducing Luntz as a pollster, what if Hannity had clarified who his guest really was: The political consultant who helped Republicans frame their arguments against Obama’s healthcare reform. Never call it the “public option,” Luntz urged. Call reform a “government” program or “government takeover,” a Luntz memo urged. Surely that would drive up opposition.
Similarly, with Democratic-backed financial reform legislation, Luntz advised Republicans how to parry. A leaked memo had him advising the GOP: “The single best way to kill any legislation is to link it to the big bank bailout.”
Never mind if that, as the lawyers like to say, was “at variance with the truth.”
Luntz defends himself by saying that he has conducted focus groups before that favored Obama, including during the 2008 campaign. He has suggested that his airtime has previously been cut on Fox because his findings didn’t comport with the outlet’s orthodoxy.
The set piece he delivered this week had a rank smell for another reason, though. It didn’t jibe with what we all know. A broad sampling from real public opinion surveys showed Obama’s approval rating in a long swoon, which has begun to lift slightly in recent weeks.
A composite of surveys at Pollster.com shows 49.8% of Americans approving of Obama’s performance and 45.1% disapproving. That’s not a ringing endorsement. It’s not a beat down.
It’s also not good showbiz. So don’t expect it to get as much airtime from our friends on cable TV.
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