College Kids Do the Darndest Things

Frank Luntz gets a modern media lesson at Penn.

If you have something to say that’s newsworthy, but you don’t want it in the news, it’s probably wise not to say it in front of a large audience of people, at a speech that’s open to the public.

That’s the lesson learned recently by Frank Luntz, the longtime Republican pollster and Fox News regular, when he spoke to an audience of College Republicans at his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, and made some relatively innocuous comments that were critical of Rush Limbaugh and other talk-radio personalities.

Luntz, according to the account in Mother Jonesby David Corn, the same reporter who broke the Mitt Romney “47 percent” story—had said that the event was off the record. Prior to the section in which he ripped conservative talk radio, Luntz specifically asked the Daily Pennsylvanian reporter in attendance to turn off his tape recorder. But another student present recorded the statement, and provided it to Mother Jones, later explaining himself in an op-ed in the Daily Pennsylvanian.

What Luntz actually said isn’t all that important or compelling. It’s far from unheard of for Republican media figures to criticize Rush Limbaugh, and the fissures between the Republican establishment—whose primary goal is to win elections—and the ratings-driven world of talk radio have been well-documented now for several years, most notably by David Frum and Conor Friedersdorf. “Luntz vs. Limbaugh” is much more a cable news-bait story than it is something that’s actually important.

Luntz appears to have accidentally proven his own point—clearly, he’s just as afraid of the wrath of Limbaugh and Levin as the pro-immigration senators are. And yes, the conservative knives are already out. Luntz reacted by pulling a scholarship for Penn students.

Rules can be murky in a collegiate context as opposed to a professional one, but in the journalistic world,  off-the-record pledges are only valid if all parties have agreed to them. An off-the-record agreement is one thing when it’s a one-on-one discussion between a source and a reporter, or even a source and a group of reporters. It’s another entirely when it’s someone giving a public speech to dozens of college students, many of whom undoubtedly have smartphones with access to recording software, not to mention Facebook and Twitter. And it’s not like every single person at the talk agreed, verbally or in writing, to keep the proceedings off the record.

When I was in college and writing for my student newspaper, I covered a speech by a prominent professional sports team owner who was also a major financial supporter of the university. The speech had been closed to the local press—due to a then ongoing controversy involving the team he owned—but I entered as a student, and when the speaker asked if anyone in the room was a reporter, I raised my hand, and was told repeatedly throughout the speech to “put your pen down” every time the controversial topic came up. I would have loved to report his comments and scoop everyone in town, but because I had agreed not to, I did not.

If the DP reporter who agreed verbally to not record Luntz’s comments had gone back on his word, that would be another matter entirely. But that didn’t happen.

I consider Frank Luntz to be a less-than-sympathetic figure—he’s the spin master responsible for turning “tax relief” into “death tax”—and he has spent his entire career working against the values of honesty and authenticity in politics, and in favor of smoke, mirrors and underhanded emotional appeals.

But even if a political figure I liked were speaking at a university, I would advise them to avoid saying anything to a group of college students that I wouldn’t be comfortable popping up almost immediately on Facebook, Twitter or in Mother Jones.