A recording of off-the-record comments Republican strategist and 1984 College graduate Frank Luntz made while speaking on campus on Monday was leaked to the liberal news agency Mother Jones on Thursday, prompting scathing criticism from Luntz and the event’s host.
During the speech, members of the audience asked Luntz about his views on political polarization in the United States. Luntz — who also taught at Penn in the 1980s — answered that he was hesitant to speak on the record. When probed by audience members, he asked if anyone was recording the speech. A Daily Pennsylvanian reporter covering the event indicated he was, and he shut his recorder off. When Luntz asked College junior Aakash Abbi if he was recording, he told Luntz he was only taking a picture, but continued filming the speech, according to a guest column by College junior and College Republicans President Arielle Klepach.
Abbi disputed the claim that he was asked directly to stop recording.
In the video, Luntz criticized conservative pundits and talk show hosts — such as Rush Limbaugh — for being too divisive.
“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,” Luntz said in the video.
While national commentators were quick to point out the mildness of Luntz’ comments, he nonetheless expressed extreme disappointment with the fact that they were leaked.
“When I was a student, we honored the requests of our professors and speakers. When I was a professor at Penn, students honored my requests for confidentiality in return for a real insider’s view of what was going on,” Luntz said in an interview with The Daily Pennsylvanian. “I’m very disappointed that at Penn, that trust between students and speaker is gone.”
While Luntz is scheduled to speak on a panel at the University during commencement weekend, he said that he would never return to speak after this incident, and would discourage others from speaking here.
“I can’t imagine a speaker coming to Penn and being so open. I can’t imagine a speaker coming to Penn and being so candid,” he said. “Frankly, I think it’ll have a chilling effect on whether speakers do or don’t come. I wish it didn’t.”
He also added that he would not renew a scholarship in his father’s name for students to travel to Washington, D.C.
The University called the incident “very regrettable” but declined to comment further, citing a policy not to discuss specific gifts.
Abbi defended his actions, saying that Luntz’s role as a political wordsmith justified the recording.
“I felt that was important because he’s made his career as the master of words,” Abbi said. “A man like that should be confident in his beliefs and consistent in his convictions.”
He added that while he agreed some speakers might be more hesitant to come to campus, the leak will not shut down discourse at the University.
“Even … knowing there are people who are apprehensive about speaking in the future, I have over the past few weeks been exposed to people on this campus who are happy to speak their minds regardless of the backlash,” he said, citing the debate surrounding the Wharton India Economic Forum’s decision to disinvite Narendra Modi as its keynote speaker. “I don’t think it’s going to harm our ability to have substantive, important debates.”
Klepach was especially upset over what she viewed as a lack of integrity on Abbi’s part.
“That dishonesty is what’s really shook up about this situation,” Klepach said.
“It tarnishes the reputation of the University and its students,” she added. “What’s special about these big people coming to Penn is it’s more intimate.”
Others, however, were more skeptical that Abbi’s actions breached any code of ethics.
“If it was a group of reporters talking to someone and they agreed to those rules, it would be easy,” Annenberg School for Communication professor and former Bloomberg News executive editor Al Hunt said. Abbi has identified himself as “the furthest thing from a journalist” and stated that he never agreed not to record the remarks.
“I’m not sure how you have a class-action agreement with 70 to 80 people — someone can always say, ‘I didn’t agree to that,’” Hunt added, noting that a public speaker — as Luntz was — does not have the authority to “unilaterally” decide mid-lecture that some comments are off the record.
Dick Polman, a writing professor and former Philadelphia Inquirer columnist, thought Luntz was naive to expect his comments not to get out.
“Because everyone’s so wired now, it’s changed — not that there were hard and fast rules before, but there’s a whole new paradigm,” he said. “Regardless of who’s right and who’s wrong, he wasn’t taking the time to recognize the new reality.”
He added that Abbi’s argument — that Luntz should be willing to stand by what he says — was a “defensible” one.
“[Penn] is about fostering open discussion. In the digital era, all discussions should be presumed to be open,” he said.
Klepach, however, said that argument “makes no sense.”
“There were Democrats there too, and everyone there wanted to know what’s polarizing America today,” she said. “What Luntz was talking about in that scenario was his personal opinions on the future of the Republican party.”
This is the second controversial video that journalist David Corn has published with a Penn connection. During September of the 2012 presidential election, Corn published a video of Mitt Romney during a May 17, 2012, private fundraiser at the home of 1983 Wharton graduate Marc Leder.
The video revealed Romney saying that the “47 percent of the people … who believe they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them” would vote for President Barack Obama “no matter what.”
Romney, however, was unaware that he was being filmed at the time.
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