Sunday, November 3, 2013

Research Report: Nicholas Lemann, Frank Luntz, & 'The Word Lab'

Nicholas Lemann is a Harvard - educated, well-respected journalist. He recently stepped down from his position as the Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia, and in his journalistic career, was formerly editor of several publications, including The Crimson (while at Harvard),  The Washington Monthly and The Texas Monthly. He was a writer for The Atlantic Monthly, where he wrote about socio-economic topics such as the travails of the lower class and War on Poverty in the United States. He has also published five books, all focusing on American society. These include Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War, which focuses on the civil rights movement after the Civil War; The Promised Land, which details the great migration of blacks in the South to Northern cities in post 1940's America; and The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy, which details the dangers of standardized testing. And of course, he has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1999, and still regularly contributes to the magazine. We have previously read another New Yorker article by Lemann for this class - The Murrow Doctrine, in Week Two of class.

Lemann, then, is no stranger to examining the functions of American society and has proven his journalistic capability throughout his career.

The subject of Lemann's article, 'The Word Lab', is Frank Luntz. Luntz is characterized as a linguistic guru consulted by many in the conservative political sphere. And indeed, Luntz has been influential in crafting Republican rhetoric for several decades, achieving success by focusing on the effectiveness of the emotional appeal (pathos) of words and political ideas, as opposed to their logic or ethics. He is responsible for creating Newt Gingrich's 'Contract with America', and encouraged Republicans to use word frames that characterized Democrats as typical politicians -- slick and corrupt. More recently, Luntz seems to have capitalized on the American people's fear of big government, by encouraging politicians to use 'death tax' instead of 'estate tax' and renaming Obama's healthcare reform as 'a Washington takeover'. In a 2007 interview on Fresh Air, Luntz explains his encouragement of the use of 'energy exploration' as opposed to 'oil drilling'. He has dreamed up and conducted over a thousand public opinion focus group sessions, not just in the United States but also for the United Kingdom and Australia. He has consulted for many Forbes companies such as American Express, Disney, McDonald's, and GM. And while Luntz seems to have a fascination with clarity in language (especially with the succinctness of Orwellian newspeak), his job seems to rely on the ambiguity and imprecise emotional evocation of words, phrases, and language schemas. Recently, Luntz is working on 'spinning' the name the Washington Redskins, who have been criticized for refusing to change their offensive-to-many name.

 Luntz received his BA in History and Political Science from UPenn, and went on to receive a doctorate in politics from Oxford. Luntz is also the author of several popular books on the emotional appeal of language, including Words that Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear; What Americans Really Want... Really, the Truth About Our Hopes, Dreams, and Futures; and Win: The Key Principles to Take Your Business From Ordinary to Extraordinary. 

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