Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Geoffrey Nunberg vs. Frank Luntz

For the next month or so I will be blogging about two books: Talking Right, by linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, and Words that Work, by pollster Frank Luntz. Nunberg's book, as its subtitle explains, is his analysis of "How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show." Luntz's book is a how-to for would-be spinners, subtitled "It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear."

They're required texts for a course I'm teaching on "spin," and they make for an interesting pair. Nunberg, an academic and commentator on language for NPR's "Fresh Air," sets out to explain the reasons that liberals have been playing defense for the last quarter-century when it comes to explaining themselves and their ideas to the public. Luntz, a high-profile conservative pollster for political and business clients, is more interested in the practical business of message-making. But the books were written about the same time last year, touch on many of the same issues, and help explain each other.

Taken together, they offer a pretty good look at how spin works—what makes it different from plain old prevarication, and why we should care. They're particularly useful if you want to try to decode the noise surrounding the long run-up to the 2008 elections. I'll use chapters from these books as a jumping-off place as I try to work out my own take on the subject. Let me know what you think.

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