Pollster Frank Luntz concealed his work for GOP in 2020 L.A. Times op-ed: Will media ever learn?

Luntz embarrasses another media outlet by not revealing who's paying him. Why do they keep falling for his act?

Published May 28, 2021 6:10AM (EDT)

Frank Luntz (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Frank Luntz (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Pollster Frank Luntz wrote in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times on Sept. 27, 2020, "As a pollster, I am ethically and professionally required to interpret public opinion accurately, factually and without bias." That article served to preview three Luntz-managed "focus groups" live-streamed by the West Coast's largest newspaper after last year's presidential and vice-presidential debates.

In that op-ed and again on Sept. 29, when the first focus group streamed, the Times wrote, "Luntz has conducted televised focus groups for major news outlets since 1996. He is not working for any presidential candidate or political party in the 2020 election." By Oct. 28, that description had been updated with a final sentence reading, "His political work was primarily for Republicans in the past," although the next two Times focus groups did not include that caveat.

What neither Luntz nor the Los Angeles Times disclosed at the time was that Luntz's work for Republicans was not in the past. In fact, he was working contemporaneously with the top Republican in the House of Representatives. Just two days before his op-ed was published ran and a week before the first focus group, Luntz's firm, FIL, Inc., had been paid $16,850 by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy's leadership PAC. A few weeks after the final post-debate focus group, McCarthy's PAC made another payment to Luntz for $21,500. A few weeks after that, McCarthy was living with Luntz in the latter's luxury Washington penthouse.

After inquiries from Salon, Hillary Manning, vice president of communications at the Los Angeles Times, told Salon on Wednesday night that editor's notes had been added to Luntz's op-ed as well as to the focus-group videos he produced on the newspaper's behalf.

In Manning's statement, the Times appeared eager to distance itself from Luntz's work.

"The focus groups were not conducted by the Los Angeles Times," Manning wrote. "Frank Luntz conducted the focus groups, we provided production support, and hosted the video on our platforms. While we regret that Luntz did not originally disclose his work for a political action committee led by Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), the House minority leader, at the time the focus groups were conducted, we believe that the discussion with voters during the campaign was valuable. We have added the disclosure where the videos are published."

At some point on Tuesday, somewhat lengthy editor's notes were attached to Luntz's work, which was originally done in collaboration with the Times, and presumably with some degree of approval from top editors:

A biographical note accompanying this video of a focus group incorrectly stated that the public opinion expert who convened the panel, Frank Luntz, did not work for a political party in the 2020 election cycle. It has emerged that Luntz's company did paid work for a political action committee led by Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), the House minority leader, in 2020.

Earlier this month, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the notorious Georgia Republican, told Tucker Carlson of Fox News about what she described as her only meeting with Luntz. 

"I've only listened to him one time," Greene said. "I was invited for this one messaging session, and it was before I won my general election, before Nov. 3, and it was Kevin McCarthy and Tom Emmer, and they had Frank Luntz on there to talk to us about what we should be saying on the campaign trail to win our elections, and this is what Republican voters want to hear, and this is what Republican voters want."

Greene won a primary runoff to become the Republican nominee in her district on Aug. 11, 2020, so the messaging session with Luntz evidently occurred in roughly the same timeframe as Luntz's L.A. Times focus groups.  

Los Angeles Times editorial page editor Sewell Chan, who participated in the live-streamed focus groups, defended the paper's involvement with Luntz in a Twitter post last October, writing, "We're just featuring his focus groups on our opinion section because we think his methodology is interesting. No money involved."

That came in response to a tweet from New Yorker reporter Isaac Chotiner, who wrote an extensive 2007 feature story for The New Republic called "Frank Luntz's Tarnished Legacy."

The Times' choice of Luntz to lead 2020 focus groups based on his "interesting" methodology was itself striking, considering Luntz's history of strange and off-color comments, perceived racial insensitivity, and formal censures for fraudulent polling and erroneous focus group conclusions, along with his multiple previous failures to disclose his political affiliations during focus groups and media appearances.

During previous focus groups, Luntz has asked participants if they wanted to see Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton "make love to each other," and once said that "Jimmy Carter was the first female president." In other appearances, Luntz has made cavalier remarks about Native American languages, joked about running over Obama with his car, and made remarks about the appearance of Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton that struck many observers as sexist and ageist

After his comment about "Indian" languages, Luntz was hired by the NFL team then called the Washington Redskins for advice on how to defend the team's racially offensive name.

Luntz told The Washington Journal in 2011 that he didn't understand the argument that voting was more difficult for people of color, since his white, affluent parents had brought him into the voting booth as a child. When the host, who was Black, responded, "There are thousands of people that go through their daily lives in the United States that don't need any kind of ID," Luntz responded contemptuously: "It's a driver's license, and they're trying to find any way to detach the individual from the picture." 

There are also more substantive concerns about Luntz's work. He has been censured twice by polling organizations, and on numerous occasions, over the last two decades, media outlets have aired or published Luntz focus groups, op-eds, or political analysis without disclosing his concurrent work for the candidates or party at the center of the discussion. This happened on MSNBC in 2000 and 2004, on CBS and in the New York Times in 2014, on Vice News/HBO in 2018 and now in the Los Angeles Times last fall.

When Chotiner, in his tweet directed at L.A. Times editor Chan, described the paper's partnership with Luntz as "deeply embarrassing," he may have been referring to Luntz's past ethical lapses. In 1994 Luntz was formally censured by the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) for violating its ethics code in his reporting on the popularity of Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America."

As the Atlantic reported in 1998, "Republican polling, done by Frank Luntz, had been fraudulently presented to the public as showing that the contract commanded 60 percent support in all its particulars. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, in fact, found that people disagreed, by 45 to 35 percent, 'with most of what the GOP House is proposing to do.'"

In 2000, Luntz was again censured by the National Council on Public Polls for allegedly mischaracterizing on MSNBC the results of focus groups he conducted during that year's party conventions. According to Media Matters for America, three of Luntz's four focus groups displayed an institutional bias toward President George W. Bush. 

Also in 2000, the AAPOR criticized Luntz for a focus group analysis on MSNBC in which he declared George Bush the "clear winner" of a debate" with Al Gore based on the group's response to the question "Who thought George Bush did better than you expected he would?" As the AAPOR pointed out, Luntz had not asked the straightforward question, "Who do you think won the debate?" It was entirely possible that focus group participants who thought Gore won the debate also felt that Bush did better than they thought he would. Complicating that lapse, MSNBC failed to disclose Luntz's ties to Republicans, describing him only as a "political pollster."

In September 2004, MSNBC dropped Luntz from its planned coverage of that year's presidential debates, following a letter to the network from Media Matters that outlined Luntz's GOP ties and questionable polling methodology. That didn't last: Luntz was back on MSNBC by October, at the same time as he was providing reduced-rate housing to disgraced and indicted former Connecticut Gov. John Rowland, who had been forced to resign and lived for several months in Luntz's West Hartford home before beginning a federal prison sentence for depriving the public of honest service. 

Luntz said in 2011 that an ABC News senior producer reprimanded him after expressing too much enthusiasm for his onetime mentor, Newt Gingrich, while Luntz moderated an Iowa Thanksgiving Family Forum with six Republican presidential candidates. Luntz said of Gingrich after the forum, "He's always the star of these debates and comes in first or second of everyone," adding admiringly that in Gingrich's "key moments" he "smacks the moderator [i.e., Luntz] around and the audience loves it." 

In 2014 CBS News came under fire when it failed to disclose to viewers that Frank Luntz's firm had worked for Rep. Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican who was House Majority Leader at the time, while defending Cantor as a "pipeline to Americans who just wanted people to get things done." CBS identified Luntz only as a "Republican strategist," although Cantor was a client of Luntz Global during that election cycle. After Cantor's surprise primary defeat that year, Luntz wrote an op-ed about that race for the New York Times which characterized him as "a communications adviser and Republican pollster" and "president of Luntz Global Partners, a consulting firm," with no mention of his ties to Cantor.

Luntz is a strong supporter of Israel who helped elect right-wing prime minister Yitzhak Shamir in 1988 and wrote a 117-page study in 2009 for The Israel Project, a Washington lobby group, on how to sway American opinion in favor of Jewish settlements on the occupied West Bank. In 2015 he was accused of selectively editing a CBS focus group of American Muslims, which ostensibly concerned then-candidate Donald Trump's rhetoric about a potential Muslim ban. Luntz instead challenged participants about whether they were willing to recognize Israel's existence as a Jewish state. One of the participants wrote a long Facebook post, alleging that Luntz "asked us the most demeaning questions like "Are you an American or a Muslim first? … I felt that as a Muslim-American participant in the focus group, he tried to put all of us into boxes to fit their narrative. … It could also be a reason why the only three Muslim women who didn't wear the headscarf was seated outside of the camera shot or why the two black men in the panel barely got speaking time."

Weeks before the 2018 election, HBO aired a VICE News focus group convened by Luntz focused on the U.S. Senate race in Texas between Ted Cruz and Beto O'Rourke. Luntz chose the group participants and decided what questions he would ask them. What was never mentioned was that Luntz was also working for the Ted Cruz for Senate campaign at the time: A week after the show aired, the campaign paid Luntz's company, FIL, Inc., just over $51,000 for "survey research/travel." After Salon's initial report on that event, VICE News said in a statement that it had been "unaware of this affiliation, and Luntz did not disclose this information at the time of these productions." 

Luntz's focus groups for the Los Angeles Times were anomalous even by his standards, and did not appear to employ a consistent or logical methodology. Luntz invited a number of celebrities from sports, entertainment, and the media to moderate the panels; they sometimes offered their own opinions, corrected participants, and asked seemingly random questions. Those guest moderators included TV journalist Katie Couric, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, former New York Yankees manager Joe Torre (once the boss of Dan Scavino, Donald Trump's social media guru), actor Richard Dreyfuss (Luntz sits on the board of his nonprofit), Kate Powling of "Good Morning Britain," Byron York of the Washington Examiner and George Condon of the National Journal.

Frank Luntz has known Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, the billionaire surgeon and businessman who is executive chairman of the Los Angeles Times, since about 2014 and has occasionally worked with him. A few weeks after Luntz's final focus group for the Times, Soon-Shiong joined Luntz and Kevin McCarthy for a "#FridayswithFrank" interview on Nov. 27, 2020. During that conversation, both Luntz and McCarthy volunteered to be part of Soon-Shiong's clinical trial for a pill-based COVID vaccine.

By Zachary Petrizzo

Zachary Petrizzo was an investigative reporter at Salon. Follow him on Twitter @ZTPetrizzo.

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