It really isn't any news to our readers that Frank Luntz is one of the most ethics-challenged "pollsters" out there, particularly since he really has had so much influence on our national discourse by his significant role in shaping right-wing talking points.
But as Ellen at NewsHounds observed the other day, he really reached new depths with his dog-and-pony "focus group" on Fox News with Sean Hannity that followed President Obama's State of the Union address -- because it was so obviously larded up with Obama-haters:
Given that 53% of the country voted for Barack Obama, 15 or 16 people should have been Obama voters to make it a representative sample of Americans. Furthermore, given their level of hostility to Obama, especially when he is enjoying a resurgence in the polls, you have to wonder how many of those 13 were Obama-voting Republicans or Tea Partiers. Luntz also repeatedly asked his group questions designed to elicit negative comments about Obama.
Today, the L.A. Times' James Rainey lowered the boom with a devastating critique:
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.
Indeed. As you can see from the video above, Hannity sets the tone from the outset, clearly advising the "focus group" on what the tenor of their remarks should be -- though Luntz lamely tries to tell them not to pay Hannity any mind:
HANNITY: First of all, I thought a lot of this was flat, surprisingly so, inasmuch as we've heard a lot of this before -- earmark reform, transparency, for example. It almost seemed like the "Yes, we can" magic disappeared a little, maybe because we've heard it before.
But the thing that struck me Frank, and I'm dying to find out what your group says, is the disconnect. I did not feel the president had the sense of urgency, how bad unemployment, the debt, the deficit is, when he called for $400 billion in savings, when he accumulated $3.4 trillion in new debt since he's been president. It seems like he's trying to sell the same policies.
FRANK LUNTZ, POLLSTER: Let's fan out what our 29 people in Atlanta had to say. And I don't want you to feel under pressure because of what Sean Hannity just said. I want a word or phrase to describe what you thought of the speech.
And it just goes quickly downhill from there.
Nice schtick you've got there, Frank. It's obvious you're addressing those concerns about not getting as much airtime on Fox as you used to, as Rainey notes:
He has suggested that his airtime has previously been cut on Fox because his findings didn't comport with the outlet's orthodoxy.
All "fixed" now, eh?