Guest Column | Frank Luntz’s disservice to America

Why accountability matters, and honesty should be priority number one

· April 26, 2013, 12:56 am

Before discussing my decision to record Frank Luntz on Monday, it’s important to me that two things be clarified in no uncertain terms.

First: the account of my interaction with Frank Luntz, during which he saw me using my phone, is mostly accurate. However, it didn’t occur during the portion of the conversation that I recorded. He saw me taking a photo of his PowerPoint slide, and those in attendance will remember that this happened well after the DP reporter in attendance was given the green-light to go back on the record. I was taking a photo, and those sitting around me watched as I deleted it. I did not lie when I said I was taking a photograph. I also took no further record of the presentation after Luntz pointed me out, because that was the moment when I entered into an agreement with him to put away my phone.

Second: I did not allow Mother Jones to publish my name in their piece in order to garner recognition. For me to hide my identity after writing specifically that one should be willing to stand by his actions would have been wildly hypocritical. If I am to stand for open discourse, I must be willing to accept the criticism that accompanies my choices. I don’t wish for 15 minutes and, as of this writing, I have neither received nor sought out any form of “fame.”

I made the choice to share my recording with Mother Jones because Luntz’s comments are important. They illustrate one of the largest schisms within the GOP and expose the hypocrisy of Luntz’s willingness to place blame for his party’s division upon a media establishment he has helped build. Further, his request to be taken off the record was never one to which I acquiesced. The reporter who was present was right to oblige Luntz, but in a room filled with scores of independent students, off the record is not a Patronus charm, to use a phrase from Daily Kos. Luntz may have felt that he was invited to speak candidly by acclimation, but I disagreed entirely.

Arielle Klepach, in her op-ed, made a valid point when she observed that “conservative speakers continuously refuse to speak at [Penn] for fear” of being attacked in one way or another. I agree, especially on the point that we should not condone public acts of mean-spirited disrespect like what we saw during Newt Gingrich’s visit to Penn in 2011. It is without a doubt a disappointment that fear of attack for one’s public speech is a deterrent on this campus.

What I believe is a greater deterrent to discourse though, both on Penn’s campus and across America, is the all-too-common practice of protecting one’s personal interests at the expense of the national conversation. Just as the College Republicans do, I welcome the free flow of expression and ideas at Penn regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum. But the best debate is an open and honest one. The best debate is one in which people speak freely and do not actively obscure their true beliefs.

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.

Writing on behalf of the College Republicans, Arielle took multiple opportunities to laud the “healthy political dialogue” and “strong sense of bipartisanship on this campus” before acknowledging that her piece’s true intention was to expose the “true political atmosphere at Penn … [in which] there is no voice for the conservative here at Penn.” This contradiction cannot be ignored, and is indicative of the attitude of victimization that so often accompanies calls for accountability in politics.

As a politically active member of the Penn community with no party affiliation, I am disappointed by how much of the reaction to this story has surrounded the assumption that I was politically motivated to share the recording. As a passionate moderate with a strong conception of what is wrong in politics today, I appreciate that I am not the only member of the Penn community who can acknowledge the importance of frank discussion on our campus.

Luntz told the audience on Monday that he would “rather lie than duck a tough question.” By asking to go off the record in order to speak frankly during a public engagement, he proved that he is willing to do both. This is an approach to politics which I cannot support, and I stand by my choice to expose it.

This article has been updated to reflect that “‘Off the record’ is not a patronus charm” is a line from a post on Daily Kos.

Aakash Abbi is a College junior studying PPE. His email address is aabbi@sas.upenn.edu.

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