The Silliness of a 51-Year-Old Being Cowed by Talk-Radio Hosts

Frank Luntz wanted to criticize Rush Limbaugh, but he didn't want anyone to know.

The political consultant, pollster, and Republican Party strategist Frank Luntz spoke last week to a college class at the University of Pennsylvania, his alma mater. Asked a question about political polarization, "he replied that he had something important to say on this matter but was apprehensive about speaking openly," according to David Corn of Mother Jones, who heard a recording of his remarks. When students groaned in answer, he agreed to proceed if he could do so off-the-record, and instructed a reporter from the college newspaper to turn off his digital recorder.

Another student, Aakash Abbi, used his iPhone to start recording, and captured Luntz's thoughts on talk radio and its polarizing effect on American politics. Here's what Luntz told the students:

They get great ratings, and they drive the message, and it's really problematic. And this is not on the Democratic side. It's only on the Republican side. Democrats have every other source of news on their side. And so that is a lot of what's driving it. If you take -- Marco Rubio's getting his ass kicked*. Who's my Rubio fan here? We talked about it. He's getting destroyed! By Mark Levin, by Rush Limbaugh, and a few others. He's trying to find a legitimate, long-term effective solution to immigration that isn't the traditional Republican approach, and talk radio is killing him. That's what's causing this thing underneath. And too many politicians in Washington are playing coy.

After his words leaked, Luntz expressed anger, predicted the betrayal would have a chilling affect on future speakers, and withdrew a scholarship named for his father that funds trips to D.C. for Penn students.

Others can discuss the student's behavior and Luntz's reaction. What's noteworthy here is the fact that a 51-year-old man who has authored at least two best-selling books wouldn't make a point about Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin that he himself regarded as very important unless he thought it wouldn't spread beyond a small room of college students. If he regards the point as very important, shouldn't he be willing to put his name behind it and restate it for larger audiences? But no. He is unwilling to air relatively mild criticism of two prominent talk-radio hosts, even though the criticism in question is so banal that I've read it before at least a hundred times. It is sad that this would plausibly cost him work, and problematic that he would let that stop him.

I've written variations on the "conservative talk radio is problematic" theme more times than I can recall. Do you want to know a secret? Some prominent conservatives agree with me. I know because of the "not for attribution!" emails I've gotten -- which I will always, always honor. But I still think they're bizarre. They always come from people who'd definitely be fine financially if their remarks were made public. So what's the problem? We're not talking about the sort of courage it took to sign one's name to the Declaration of Independence. Or the kind it takes to be a whistleblower in the Obama Administration. These are just critiques of entertainers. 

Many conservatives think Rush and friends are best ignored, or that criticizing them is counterproductive. That's fine. They should hold their tongues. But if you're someone who thinks criticizing them is important, for God's sake, just speak up. What's the worst that could happen? Does anyone think that Luntz will now be a pariah who is unable to make a living and winds up begging for change outside a Daily Grill in Bethesda? As someone who thinks that criticism is important in general, and that criticizing the wrongheaded statements and behavior of certain talk radio hosts is important too, the silence of so many people who agree vexes and confounds me.

Said the student who recorded Luntz:

Frank Luntz has made a very successful career out of advising Republicans on the content of their message. He was asked one of the most important questions of the day in terms of American politics ("what is causing extreme polarization between the parties?"), and refused to speak freely. Why? Because doing so may harm his commercial interest. And this attitude is at the root of the problem. If influential GOP figures like Frank Luntz truly believe that the party's media kingmakers harm the national interest but refuse to say so for fear of backlash, they knowingly work against the spirit of open and honest debate.

The Penn environment should be one in which people are encouraged and expected to speak unencumbered by self-interest. These discussions are of vital importance, and students should be able to expect members of the political community to speak freely. If those speakers cannot do so, it should be only for the most pressing of reasons.

In a previous item, I noted that, while Jonah Goldberg believes the right has an unhealthy share of hucksters who pretend to care deeply about principles but are actually motivated by money, and while John Podhoretz thinks essentially the same thing, neither will tell us who the hucksters are. Their assessment would carry weight among conservatives, warning some of them away from men whose professional work Goldberg and Podhoretz themselves find pernicious.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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