Frank Luntz, Rush Limbaugh, and the "Secret Tape" Addiction

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
April 25 2013 9:56 AM

Frank Luntz, Rush Limbaugh, and the "Secret Tape" Addiction

The most-dated celebrity profile of 2013 was published just 15 days ago. Mother Jones's D.C. editor David Corn was about to accept several journalism awards, all for his 2012 publication of the "47 percent tape." Paul Farhi, profiling Corn, got an unexpected hook: Corn had just published a "secret tape" of a strategy meeting for Mitch McConnell's re-election campaign. "David Corn says one good scoop may have led to another," wrote Farhi.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

Of course it wasn't that great of a scoop. It was exclusive, sure, but the tape allegedly recorded by Progress Kentucky, the most chuckleheaded Super PAC of recent vintage, revealed only that political staffers laughed at a bunch of on-the-record oppo about Ashley Judd -- all things that the actress/activist had written or said. CREW and Mother Jones attempted to salvage the story by asking whether non-political staffers had violated the law by working for McConnell's re-election. That was another goof, based on a mishearing of the phrase "thank them for their free time" (you can work for your Senate boss's political operation in your downtime, as known by anyone who has watched Capitol Hill empty out in the autumns of even-numbered years) as "thank them three times."

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Even as he praised the scoop, Farhi enlightened readers as to how much of this dross Corn was sent, post-47%. "Corn has received a mini-flood of would-be audio and video leaks about Washington figures," wrote Farhi. "Some of these have looked promising, but none have become public — yet. Corn said he hasn’t been able to vet them to his satisfaction or work out terms for making them public. He has 'passed' on several of the offers for a variety of reasons."

Corn's latest SECRET TAPE is newsier, but I feel like the SECRECY buzz oversells the story. Frank Luntz, the "media-friendly Republican consultant" (unlike McConnell, who does not regularly spill to the press), spoke to University of Pennsylvania students about his career and current politics. "At one point," writes Corn

Luntz was asked about political polarization. He replied that he had something important to say on this matter but was apprehensive about speaking openly; doing so, he explained, could land him in trouble. Members of the audience groaned; some called out for Luntz to continue off the record.

He did so, but a student sent Corn the answer. According to Luntz, "Marco Rubio's getting his ass kicked... by Mark Levin, by Rush Limbaugh, and a few others. He's trying to find a legitimate, long-term effective solution to immigration that isn't the traditional Republican approach, and talk radio is killing him."

How incredible is the quote? Actually, as Corn points out, Luntz has never hidden his position on immigration reform. He's written and talked about the need for a Republican reform plan ever since the end of the election. The Internet is actually surfeited with video of Luntz making fun of Republicans who don't get this. At (of all things) the Commercial Vehicle Outlook Conference last year, Luntz told his audience that he accidentally yelled "What the fuck?" when Mitt Romney endorsed Kris Kobach's "self-deportation" immigration framework. "Imagine telling a Hispanic: This is my solution to illegal immigration. Deport yourself!" said Luntz, incredulously.

Some of the quotes flagged in the UPenn Luntz appearance are actually Luntz standards. Corn reports that "cracked a joke about Nancy Pelosi and face-lifts," and that's actually one of his favorite jokes. "Nancy Pelosi's living proof you get one chance at a facelift," he tells audiences. "If it doesn't work, let it go."

But, okay: Luntz never goes on the record criticizing Limbaugh and Levin. Corn has scored a serious shit-stirring victory today, because Levin and Limbaugh have healthy egos and never, ever miss it when people criticize them. They'll respond today, I'm sure.

I'm just not sure that Luntz was right. Rubio has assiduously courted Limbaugh, Levin, and the rest of talk radio, in full view of the media. In January, during the first Rubio blitz, Limbaugh credited him for doing something "admirable." Last week Rubio's staff let reporters (including me) tag along as the senator did a murderer's row of radio shows, five in one hour, getting accused again and again of backing "amnesty." There's not much evidence that the opposition has slowed down the bill. In a conference call this morning, Grover Norquist pointed out that there's a new beachhead of pro-reform conservative talkers, led by the Salem Radio line-up -- Hugh Hewitt, Dennis Prager, etc. Sean Hannity, who opposed reform in 2007, now tentatively supports it. One of the guests he brings on to test the issue is... Frank Luntz.

So is the story here that Frank Luntz, who is media-friendly and who occasionally lights into other media figures, was worried about criticizing two of them on the record? Not a huge revelation, but good for Corn for exposing it. I just wonder if the "secrecy" sauce, like the over-use of anonymity in D.C. politics stories, leads people to overrate certain information. As my friend Michael Moynihan keeps pointing out, the press has developed a bad habit of overselling whatever Julian Assange releases, even when he's repackaging information that was publicly available.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.