January 11, 2007

Frank Luntz: Words that Work

Terry Gross is a fabulous interviewer because she is so good at doing her homework before interviewing someone. Yet, listening to her interview with Frank Luntz on Tuesday made me wish that I could have been asking the questions, because he got off way too easy.

Luntz had come on Fresh Air to talk about his new book, Words that Work. Here's how Terry introduced his work.

Although he works on one side of the aisle, he says that what he does is essentially nonpartisan, seeking clarity and simplicity in language.

During Luntz' discussion with Terry he talked about how he only uses words to "clarify", not to confuse. I wished I was there to help because Terry didn't have much of an answer for that statement. I would have liked to have him explain how it clarified things with his advice to the Republicans on how to talk about global warming.

In the area of global warming, Luntz tells his clients to keep repeating that not everyone believes there is a problem today and that the scientific question is still open. He advises them: “…, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainly a primary issue in the debate, ….” And he tells them to find scientists and engineers that back up this claim and to say: “We must not rush to judgment before all the facts are in. ” I found it telling that in this memo he also said, “The scientific debate is closing [against us] but is not yet closed. There is still an opportunity to challenge the science.” (Emphasis in original document.) So while more and more scientific evidence says global warming is an urgent problem, Frank Luntz’ advice is: find scientists that will deny this and who will keep the argument open for as long as possible. The ultimate goal of his advice is to make the problem of global warming someone else’s concern while the problem gets worse.

(Here is the full Luntz report on how to talk about the environment. The section on global warming starts on page 7 in this pdf file.)

Luntz then talked about how he is someone who believes in clarity of language, and he recommends that people to go back and read Orwell's discussion on language. Because Orwell's goal, which he asserts is the same as his own, was to be honest and clear in the use of language. Well, I've read Orwell's paper and this is how I interpreted it:

As George Orwell said in his excellent essay on this topic, the tendency to use unclear language can be a flaw found in any political persuasion. Humans tend to generalize and stereotype which leads to faulty conclusions. For example, it is wrong to say that the poor are lazy. While it might be true that some poor people are lazy, many of the poor work extremely hard for very little gain. Clear and precise language leads to a better understanding of reality and provides a better basis for devising policies regarding the poor. But the real danger according to Orwell comes when people purposely pervert language, because their goal is to mislead people and deny them the ability to make decisions based on accurate information.

What was astonishing to me about Frank Luntz is he asserts he doesn't use any perjoriatives whatsoever. He says he only uses words to increase clear communication. In that case, I wonder how he can defend this:

This year Luntz has produced a document (pdf) that tells Republicans how to talk about the “War on Terror”. His goal was to show Republicans how to explain the policies of “preemption” and the “War in Iraq”. His first point in this document was to tell Republicans that they should never use these words to discuss these policies.

“However, you will not find any instance in which we suggest that you use the actual word “preemption”, or the phrase “The War in Iraq” to communicate your policies to the American public. To do so is to undermine your message from the start. Preemption may be the right policy, and Iraq the right place to start. But those are not the right words to use.

Your efforts are about “the principles of prevention and protection” in the greater “War on Terror”.”

As you see, Luntz once again tells the Republicans to use imprecise and deceitful language to disguise their real policies.

One very strange part of the Fresh Air interview was how he started to talk about how terrible the liberals and the media were in their totally unjustified demonization of Newt Gingrich.

[Gingrich,] ... one of the brightest political people who entered into politics in the past twenty years. And here is a guy who actually engaged the media and the American people in a discussion over social security, medicare, budgets, taxes, education, and perhaps most importantly welfare and how to bring people back into a productive life into American society. And yet Gingrich was demonized! From the very first moment that he became speaker, the so-called talking points, the effort against him -- even when he was put on covers of magazines the pictures were as unflattering as possible -- and when people spoke about him, they used the most extreme language about him as possible and you know what, it did have an impact.

Here I think that Luntz should have had to explain whether the words that Gingrich used to describe his political opponents (betray, cheat, greedy, incompetent, radical, self-serving, selfish, traitors, and so on), might have had just a little bit to do with the extreme language he got in return.

And as I reflect more on how he conducted himself in this interview, I realized that he had come loaded for bear. And he was quite adept in the art of accusing his opponents of using the tactics that he and the right are using. Quote: "What about Democrats that want to portray all business people as evil?"

In addition to the bizarre discussion about how poor innocent Gingrich was being demonized, he accused environmentalists of being extremists. In fact, it was the extremism of the environmentalists that made Americans less inclined to worry about the environment and in Luntz' mind this was a terrible thing because he cares about the environment. (Doesn't that remind you of this?)

Frank Luntz says that his job is to get what people actually feel and not just what they want you to think they feel. So he mines people for their most base and "intense" reactions when trying to figure out what words to use. So on Terry Gross, he could assert that the phrase "death tax" is more honest than using the phrase "inheritance tax" because it provides the "clear" information people need to support eliminating the tax. What he sells is how to tap the lizard brain and then asks people to decide their position based on what their gut tells them.

You can find out more from this Frontline documentary where Luntz explains how he goes about finding the "words that work."

Back to his advice to the Republicans on how to talk about global warming to dilute the demand for action:

Language That Works

"We must not rush to judgement before all the facts are in. We need to ask more questions. We deserve more answers. And until we learn more, we should not commit America to any international document that handcuffs us either now or into the future."

Funny how this advice was not at all what he gave when discussing selling a war.

During his interview with Terry Gross, he repeated several times that he is simply using neutral language to give people clear information that allows them to make an informed decision. However, when you look at the advice and the way it is used to inflame or defuse passions based on an emotional response it is not too pejorative to say he is truly using language just as Orwell warned the propagandists use language: to suppress logical and rational decision making by triggering the irrational, fearful lizard brain to call forth emotional reactions.

Needless to say, it is a very lucrative business.

Posted by Mary at January 11, 2007 01:03 AM | Media | Technorati links |

Global warming: we're nearly positive that it's going to be a problem, but we don't know where will be hit badly and in what way. The Administrative position: let's dither and deny it's an issue. Terrorism: we're nearly positive that it's going to be a problem, but we don't know where will be hit badly and in what way. The Administrative position: OMG!!! Throw billions of dollars and human lives at ill-thought-out strategies while undermining international relations while probably making the situation worse! Spin and repeat as needed! "The principles of prevention and protection" indeed.

Posted by: tjewell at January 11, 2007 03:39 PM

I heard that interview, and had a similar reaction. In spite of his rhetoric he was entirely a GOP hack up to his eyebrows in the political mud-slinging and distortion that the Republicans use instead of rational discourse.

Posted by: stefan at January 11, 2007 04:24 PM

Here's some words :
The top Republican prez candidates, Guiliani, McCain, and Gingrich have flip/flopped through so many wives/mistresses/divorces that of course there’s room for a Mormon.

Posted by: Richard W. Crews at January 12, 2007 12:14 AM

I'm sure Terry Gross would appreciate your information on this subject. It may well help her with other interviews in the future.

Posted by: 11 dogs at January 12, 2007 05:30 AM