Frank Luntz's Fox News Focus Group -- From the Inside

by Colin Sweeney


You’d never expect a guy like Republican message-man Frank Luntz to really have to work hard at anything. After all, this is the very fellow who successfully advised Republicans to cast consumer protection as government interference. That’s an easy paycheck! But that’s not Luntz’s bread butter. That would be the Fox News Focus Group, into which I happened to stumble into yesterday. And it’s hard work.

My current job mostly involves driving around Los Angeles from bar to bar and dropping off my resume hoping for the off chance that there might be an opening and that they’d be impressed enough to give me a gig, cause I got none. But fate had other plans, as I walked dejected through the (fully staffed) Beverly Hilton. At the entry to the International Ballroom, I saw a sign, and that sign said Frank Luntz Focus Group. And so I went in.

I quickly moved to a dark, distant table to avoid the guy in the red sweater with a list I knew I wasn’t on. Who should find me hiding in the shadows other than, of course, Frank Luntz himself.

“Are you participating in the focus group?” he asked.

“Well, no, I just saw the sign and I’ve seen you on Bill Maher and-”

“So you’re from the left.”

“You can say that,” I whimpered. Then, offering a truce, I said, “It looks like you two have fun together.”

“It’s fun for him. It’s a pain in the ass for me,” he said.

To be fair, it can’t be easy hocking books with Republican talking points on Bill Maher’s show. I’m impressed that he pulls it off without a sweat.

“I tell you what,” he said. “If we have space you can sit in on the focus group.”

The next thing I know, I’m front center being broadcast live to four million+ Fox News viewers on Hannity’s America, twisting my reaction dial hard while viewing Christine O’ Donnell’s “I’m Not a Witch” spot. But once we were set to talking about our opinions, the experience wasn’t like what was later shown on TV, which was: every-day Americans spouting boilerplate and me rocking like a mute Rain Man from my hyperactivity and Hannity-hathos.

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Also, I realize I need a haircut.

The real show, though, was just off camera, in the form of Frank Luntz conducting this orchestra of ideas.

This is the Frank Luntz no one gets to see. This is the man at work. With the camera turned away, silhouetted by the TV lights in his suit and tennis shoes, he would hop, dance and thrust his arms about. As the group got rowdy, he settled his hands to silence the mob so the camera could zero in on a speaker. As the energy died, he would plead, point and coax the crowd until someone picked up the ball. This is what it takes to fill six minutes of television with an untrained, uncoached focus group. At the end of his symphony, there was no applause for Dr. Luntz.

As the beads of sweat formed on his brow, the only send-off he received was a “See you next time,” from Hannity and the flashing of a red light. At least there’s a paycheck two weeks down the line for all his hustle. Even those of us in the focus group walked out with a crisp hundred-dollar bill in our pocket.

As I left, rich enough to afford two more tanks of gas, I took one last look at Frank. I wondered what he must be scheming next as the crew packed up the cameras and hardware. Or was he just exhausted? How many more memos? How many more dials? How many more dances?

Colin Sweeney is figuring out how to set up his website.