Luntz and Words: Winning Combo to Return to Indiana

The mission of Columbia Journalism Review is to encourage and stimulate excellence in journalism in the service of a free society. But, like quite a few individual members of the media today, there appears to be a strong — make that overwhelming — liberal lean.

CJR takes pollster and communicator Frank Luntz to task for his role in advising health care reform opponents. Luntz apparently coined "government option," which was less popular than the "public option" terminology preferred by reform supporters. CJR notes that Luntz "has had a long career fashioning language that helps his Republican clients."

Sure, Luntz has been more closely associated with GOP interests, but he’s also angered Republicans with some of his work on environmental language. The bottom line: don’t take shots at Luntz; just credit him for what he brings to the table. An excerpt of the CJR article is below.

We interviewed Luntz for BizVoice magazine in 2008; he was the special guest at the Indiana Chamber’s Legislative Reception/Dinner in 2010 and will return with new information and insights on March 16, 2011. Whether you agree or disagree with his take, you won’t want to miss what he has to say.

Back to the CJR and its unbalanced report:

Word came that Fox News Washington managing editor Bill Sammon had directed his staff to avoid using the phrase “public option” to describe a proposal hotly debated during the health reform debate. That option, proposed by Yale political science professor Jacob Hacker and embraced by some—but not all—of the progressive advocates, would have injected a real element of competition into the insurance industry. 

The public option was not to be. After months of equivocation, the president threw it under the bus in his efforts to placate the insurance industry, the hospitals, and the doctors, who were hardly fans of something that could lower their profits and incomes.

Now we learn that Frank Luntz, the Republican wordsmith extraordinaire, was at work behind the scenes to craft the language that public plan opponents could exploit.

Last year, Campaign Desk pointed out that Luntz was busy selecting the “right” language months before it looked like the public option had legs. In a twenty-eight page document called “The Language of Healthcare 2009” that became public in the spring of that year, Luntz advised making government the bogeyman. He told Republicans to use words like “politicians,” "bureaucrats,” and “Washington” to fight health reform. He suggested that they use the phrase “government takeover” rather than “government run” or “government controlled.” … We advised journalists to describe what the public option would do, rather than just pass along Luntz-tested terminology.

It’s hard to say whether Luntz’s focus group-tested language succeeded in fomenting the dislike for health reform now registered by the pollsters. For months, polls showed that large segments of the public liked the idea of a public option, and still do.