Well, I just finished listening to Terry Gross' interview of Republican spin man Frank Luntz--a 45 minute segment that aired on NPR's Fresh Air, yesterday (follow this link to hear the broadcast). I suggest that everyone head over to the...
Well, I just finished listening to Terry Gross' interview of Republican spin man Frank Luntz--a 45 minute segment that aired on NPR's Fresh Air, yesterday (follow this link to hear the broadcast). I suggest that everyone head over to the NPR site and listen to the segment.
Many people ask me the difference between what we do here on Frameshop and what Frank Luntz does--the difference between framing and grifting.
There are many points of divergence, but I want to draw attention to three in particular--three key differences between framing and grifting.
Point #1: Honesty (framing) vs. The Shell Game (grifting)
Gross did a commendable job trying to interview Luntz about his work with Republican spin. Her challenge was similar to interviewing Sasha Cohen about his character Borat. Like Cohen, once Luntz climbs inside his character, he absolutely refuses to do or say anything that would give away the artifice of the act. In the case of Luntz, it's not an Central Asian hapless journalist he is playing, but an impartial "professional listener" deeply concerned with helping politicians understand what is really in the hearts and minds of the American "public."
Keep in mind that Luntz is the man hired by Republicans to sell cigarettes to children, so to speak. Put another way: Luntz is the man Republicans hire to sell parents on the idea of buying cigarettes for their children. In other words, when the Republicans want to pass a policy that they know will be rejected by large segments of the electorate because it is blatantly harmful to them, they call in Frank Luntz to find words that will "work" the public.
When Luntz talks about "words that work," he means the words used in a con game to trick your mark. Like any grifter, Luntz has an objective in mind when he starts, such as to give American heritage lands to oil companies. Obviously, the only people who want to see that objective achieved are the oil companies and the politicians put in office by oil companies. Everybody else in American is opposed to this idea. So, they hire Luntz to find the words that can be used to run a con game on the American public--to convince them to do the very thing they do not want to do by placing the harmful policy inside an elaborate game, a show, a performance.
When you see a con artist running a shell game, for example, they say, "Find the pea under the walnut shell." In reality, the entire game is a hoax. The goal of the game is not to give you a chance to find the pea, but to reach an objective that is against your interests: to give all of your money to the team running the shell game. The "words that work" in the shell game convince you that if you pay attention, you can actually make money, instead of losing it. And how hard can it be? And so you watch the shell game happening for a while before you place your bet. You see that sometimes a player wins and sometimes they lose. "Find the pea" you hear, "find the pea." Over and over again until you start to believe that the game is really about finding the pea.
In fact, the game is rigged. You cannot find the pea. From the moment you walked up, the con began. Everyone in the crowd is in on the scheme except you. The words of the con artist work you until you place your bet, lose your money, and walk away wondering if you could have done better next time.
In Frank Luntz' world, the idea that he begins with an object that is against the interests of the American public is never acknowledged. Instead, he claims that he begins by "listening" to the public. Long before the Terry Gross segment began, Frank Luntz had already made the decision to step run his con game during the interview.
The con game is always the same for Luntz: Find the words that make the Republican grift succeed on the public. It is all an act, Luntz' so called "listening." In his focus groups, his dial sessions, Luntz is not listening at all. He is looking for weakness. What are those words that turn people against themselves, that con people into acting against their own self-interest? What are the words that make greed work and community concern fail? In Luntz' work, the Republican agenda is always the objective, the best interests of the public are always being undermined.
Progressive framing would never for a second begin with this artifice that Luntz cloaks himself in. At no point does anyone claim that progressive framing is about some false concept of impartiality. The Constitution of the United States was not arrived at by focus groups, but by honest conversation and open debate.
Progressive framing is an effort to drive the debate towards progressive principles and to do so in an honest and open way. There is no grift in progressive framing.
Point #2: Bottom Up (framing) vs. Top Down (grifting)
Frank Luntz describes himself not as a pollster, not as a spin doctor, but as a "listener." He must have used that word one hundred times in the Terry Gross interview. But in fact, Luntz main technique is not to "listen" to the public, but to stage moments where key members of the public reveal themselves and then to use that information against the best interest of the public.
The involvement of the public in Luntz work, in other words, is not at the level of participation, but at the level of laboratory observation. The public is a resource of lab rats for Frank Luntz. He gathers up a bunch of people, puts them in his laboratory, pokes them with questions, and then records their reactions. He then pays them (presumably) and send them home. That is the extent of the public's involvement with Luntz.
He then takes the information he gathered from observing his lab rats and gives it to the client who has commissioned the report--the Republican policy makers. His report tells the Republicans that certain words made the rats excitable, while other words put the rats to sleep. And he explains to the Republicans that if they want to excite the public, they should rewrite their policy statements and their political ads using the words that excited the rats. If they do not want the public to get excited, by contrast, then they should use the words that Luntz discovered having put the rats to sleep. The client then pays Luntz, writes their policy statements, then feeds it to the public.
Progressive framing is based on an entirely different premise. It is rooted in the principle of political participation. Progressive framing does not develop words behind closed laboratory doors then spring them on the public. The goal of progressive framing is to involve more and more people in the conversation, to bring more and more people into the political debate.
Progressive framing begins by giving as many people as possible the tools to frame the debate themselves. No lab rats. No high paid clients. Here are the tools, apply them, and drive the debate. For progressives, unlike Luntz, the more people involved in framing the debate the better.
Point #3: History (framing) vs. Marketing (grifting)
When listening to Luntz talk about framing, it is remarkable how little he references anything having to do with America itself. His interest is purely to move the market of ideas towards his clients interests. To do this, Luntz constantly isolates words from their context. And in fact, this isolation serves the interests of the Republicans he works for.
When asked about his use of the phrase "death tax," used to deceive people into thinking that all Americans (not just those Americans with estates worth more than $2million) are taxed for having died, Luntz conveniently omits the historic basis of the estate tax in the American Constitution. Is it fair to tax large estates? The framers of the Constitution seemed to think so, because they envisioned a political system that would not allow the emergence of an American Royalty--a process that they understood as emerging when vast sums of personal wealth are passed through generations. And so the transfer of immense sums of wealth from one generation to the next has become a point in the American system where we intervene for the public good to guarantee that a royal class cannot easily emerge. And despite all this intervention, we still have an American wealthy aristocracy.
But Luntz would like us to just ignore that history. Rather than the context of the idea, Luntz wants the middle class American earning $22,000 a year for a family of four to believe (falsely) that when he or she dies, the government is going to take the family savings. As false as it is, when Luntz urges Republicans to repeat the phrase "death tax," he is giving them the words that cut the idea of estates out of American history and relocate them into the language and logic of tax shelters and estate planning.
Progressive framing, arguably, is just at the beginning of connecting our efforts to the vast stretch of American heritage. But were are there and the difference is striking.
When progressive framers talk about policy, they talk in terms of defending the Constitution, promoting American principles, driving the debate towards history of ideas and policies that have defined this country.
In response to the radical foreign policies of the Bush administration, for example, progressive framers have argued that we must return to American principles of diplomacy and smart security. In response to Luntz' sailing Republican policy away from American history, progressive framers have made every effort to steer policy ideas and actions back home.
Conclusion: Framing vs. Grifting
Has a policy being framed or grifted?
With these three points we can see better the stark contrast between the two. Luntz tries to push the buttons of liberals and progressives, which can make it hard to stay calm when interacting with him. In his Fresh Air interview, Luntz quietly called all progressive positions and ideas "extreme." When asked by Terry Gross why he thought The Sierra Club was "extreme," he replied that "hugging trees" was out of the norm of American behavior--even though the Sierra Club is most famous for selling expensive coffee table books. After listening to Luntz talk about environmentalists, one might think that a group of wealthy donors with homes in Aspen were actually a more radical version of the Animal Liberation Front.
But remember: it's all grift to Luntz.
The objective of calling Sierra Club members "tree hugging extremists" is similar to the objective of the sidewalk con artist running a shell game. Luntz' goal is to convince the public to do the exact opposite of what is in their best interests. For the Sierra Club, that means convincing people that the very groups who take an interest in preserving American's natural heritage are in fact the greatest danger to that heritage, and that the very groups who take interest in raping Americans natural heritage are in fact the greatest force in protecting it.
The grift. When it works, it convinces senior citizens to cash their social security checks and hand the money to a complete stranger.
The grift. When it works, it convinces children that fast food and cigarettes are good for them.
The grift. When it works, it convinces working families to help the rise of the Ameican royalty.
The grift. When it works, it puts American heritage lands into the off-shore accounts of oil companies.
The grift. When it works, it convinces idealistic young people to enlist and die for a war based on lies.
It ain't gonna work much longer.
© 2007 Jeffrey Feldman, Frameshop