Frank Luntz and the “so-called government option”

by Michael Erard on December 22, 2010

in Framer Reads the News

We don’t expect Frank Luntz, GOP pollster and message maven, to do our work for us — in fact, he’s often working in the opposite direction, and for political clients (which we don’t do). But he inadvertently confirmed some of our findings on government and budgets and taxes, that talking about “public structures” and “public goods” plants in people’s minds that government, through governing, is the positive steward of things that affect everyone.

How did Luntz stumble into confirming our work? Media Matters recently got a hold of a 2009 email sent by Bill Sammon, Fox News’ managing editor, to Fox reporters, telling them how to preserve the ideological content of GOP talking points about the health care reform. Among the tips: don’t use the phrase “public option” by itself, but modify it by saying the “so-called public option” or “the public option, which is the government-run plan.”

The original advice to avoid “public” came, of course, from Luntz (see clip below), who told Fox political pundit Sean Hannity to avoid the term “public option. “If you call it a ‘public option,’ the American people are split,” Luntz counseled, but “if you call it the ‘government option,’ the public is overwhelmingly against it.”

We suspect that “public option” didn’t produce a “split” as much as it proved to be a powerfully productive way of describing the fruits of governance. If it weren’t so powerful, why go to such lengths to modifying it or avoid using it? Sammon himself recently admitted as much to media reporter Howard Kurtz. You don’t use the word “public” because “who would be against a public park?”

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