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Jay Rosen

jay-rosen.jpgAs a longtime fan and sometimes reader of LA Observed, I wanted to put to the users of this site a question about journalistic practice--which to me is a case of shoddy practice--and see what you think. Possibly my judgment is off. Possibly I am making too much of a small thing. We'll see.

In April of last year, The Wrap ran this story about Frank Luntz, the Republican political consultant, giving up the political game for Hollywood. It was written by Sharon Waxman, a very experienced entertainment industry reporter and founder of the site. Touted as an "exclusive," the article informed us that Luntz wants to "take over research for the entertainment industry." He was going Hollywood.

"Why would he give up pollstering in American politics -- where he has been so successful -- for the movies?" According to Waxman, the explanation was a change of heart. "I'm tired of selling reality," Luntz told her. "Reality sucks. It's mean. Divisive. Negative. What Hollywood offers is a chance to create a new reality, in two hours time."

I remembered being surprised by this news... and a little skeptical. Luntz struck me as hard core, a player in the political game who loved the action, behind the scenes--in advising Republicans on how to beat up on the Democrats--and in front of the camera (frequent analyst for Fox news.) He was going to give all that up? Yep. "I'm not as partisan as I once was," he said. "I don't like what politics has become."

Well, Waxman's report was wrong-- way wrong. Luntz gave up nothing.

A month later he was back in the news when Mike Allen of The Politico got hold of a confidential 26-page report from Capitol Hill Republicans. It was about how to frame the language of the health care debate.

In October Luntz turned up as pollster and adviser to Former Colorado state Sen. Tom Wiens, a Republican who is running for the U.S. Senate.

And this week Sam Stein of the Huffington Post reported that "Republican message guru Frank Luntz has put together a playbook to help derail financial regulatory reform." His memo to Congressional Republicans tells them how to "frame the final product as filled with bank bailouts, lobbyist loopholes, and additional layers of complicated government bureaucracy."

Clearly the man who told The Wrap that he didn't like what politics had become had become disenchanted with his change of heart and changed it back almost instantly. And completely, since he is doing today exactly what's he always done, making his savvy contribution to a divisive political climate. Which raises the question of whether he ever changed a thing. But this is not a question that interests The Wrap, which I think is weird... and bad practice for a news site.

Now I don't know this, but it certainly appears to me that Sharon Waxman got punked by Frank Luntz, who used her to market himself to potential clients in Hollywood not known for their sympathy with his political achievements. What might make him more palatable to Hollywood liberals? A story about giving up politics, just to get him in the door. A change of heart about contributing to a "divisive" political climate. From there his natural gifts would shine. Waxman was the vehicle for this little charade, it seems to me.

So I told her that, on Twitter, where The Wrap has an account, updated throughout the day, with 2,650 followers:

Listen to me @TheWrap. You were punked by Frank Luntz when you published this It's time for a follow up.

There was no reply. I waited til the next day and posted again on it. No reply. So I sent in a tip via the tip form. It said pretty much what I've said here, with the relevant links. This time I did get a reply from Sharon Waxman. She forbade me to quote from it, though there was nothing remotely controversial in what she said. (This happens 90 percent of the time with journalists who email me.) So I can't tell you what she said.

But I can tell you this: based on what I know The Wrap thinks there's no story in Luntz's return to politics one month after quitting politics for Hollywood, and no reason to do a follow-up, even though it appears that The Wrap was used to get Luntz's Hollywood career off the ground.

I think this is bad practice. For if the exclusive story of Frank Luntz quitting politics for Hollywood was big news in The Wrap by what logic is it not news when this move turns out to be a fake? Or let's take the most charitable reading-- implausible but not impossible. Luntz intended to quit, but he found it rough going in Hollywood, so he had to go back to politics, even though his changed heart wasn't in it any more. How is that not a story The Wrap should jump on? It's squarely within the site's beat. And it's connected to an earlier story The Wrap did. Journalism 101! But not for Waxman, who thinks she doesn't even have to address it.

And what's with broadcasting one way on Twitter-- a sound practice? I say no. And how about maintaining radio silence when your story turns out to wrong-- way, way wrong. Is that a sustainable way to operate these days? I say it isn't.

Angelenos, LA Journalists: please advise. Is there a story here?

To comment, go here.

Jay Rosen is a journalism professor at New York University and the author of PressThink, a weblog about journalism and its ordeals, which he introduced in September 2003.

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