Opinion

Jack Shafer

Newt Gingrich and the fine art of press-bashing

By Jack Shafer
January 31, 2012

After being bruised by tough questions in the primary debates, Newt Gingrich pouted yesterday that if nominated, he would not participate in any reporter-moderated presidential debates with Barack Obama.

“We should be able to talk to the American people without reporters playing gotcha, being clever or having 60-second rules like, ‘What would you do about Nigeria in 60 seconds?,’” the Georgia doughboy said, complaining that reporters serve as a “second Obama person” in debates.

Gingrich went on to propose a fall schedule of seven three-hour, Lincoln-Douglas style debates with Obama, ignoring the fact that three presidential campaign debates and one “town hall” meeting have already been set by the Commission on Presidential Debates. At the rate Gingrich is going, he will soon demand the right to choose the color of the debate set’s curtains, limit the number of close-up shots used on TV and stipulate that the bowls of candy in the debate green rooms contain no brown M&Ms.

Perhaps Gingrich really regards presidential campaign debates as execution by journalists. If so, he’s well within his rights to petition for something different in the fall. After all, nobody ever elected the press to police presidential campaign debates in perpetuity. Perhaps a historian, a retired judge or even John Edwards could perform better interrogations of the candidates than did Jim Lehrer, Tom Brokaw and Bob Schieffer in 2008.

But I doubt that Gingrich really blames journalists for the shortcomings of the debates, which anthropologist James R. McLeod calls elements of the lengthy “ritual sociodrama” that is a presidential campaign. More than any politician since Richard Nixon, Gingrich needs the press to demonize so he can change the subject whenever asked a tough question, as Juan Williams of Fox News and John King of CNN recently dared. If historians or retired judges were asking the questions, no matter how benign, I’m sure they’d earn a powerful Gingriching, too.

Journalists are easy to vilify because they’re eminently vilifiable. Their job is to intrude, to ignore decorum and to sow chaos where harmony presides. Show me a journalist and I’ll show you something not to like. Put me in front of a mirror and I’ll show you something to despise. It’s that sort of profession.

But for Gingrich to complain about intrusive questions at a debate is a little like a patient who complains that his doctor touched his private parts during a scheduled physical exam: Hey, buddy, the probes come with the appointment! Boiled to their essence, Gingrich’s fulminations against the press are really just variations on the theme “who are you to question?!” Somebody needs to remind Gingrich that he volunteered to be questioned. If he wants to swing at softball pitches, he should step into a batting cage, not an auditorium lit up for a debate.

Gingrich has routinely tried to rough up Obama by comparing him to radical community organizer Saul Alinsky. But as Washington Examiner columnist Philip Klein noted last week, it’s Gingrich who regularly avails himself of the Alinsky playbook to score points — against the press and other “elites.” Recounting Gingrich’s attacks on Fox’s Williams and CNN’s King in the debates, Klein accuses Gingrich of following Alinsky’s 13th rule to the letter: “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.” In these examples, Gingrich made Williams and King the face of the entire press corps and froze them into place as pushy know-it-alls and insensitive jerks. The move wasn’t for me, nor was it for you unless you’re part of the Gingrich and Palin base, which loves this sort of high-sticking of the press. If Gingrich were a man of principle, which he isn’t, he’d be equally outraged when the press asks his opponents equally aggressive questions. Instead, he’s silent.

The questions only get tougher when a candidate finally makes his way to the White House, as I attempted to show in a 2010 column. Obama — and nearly every president — hates the press. My favorite president-hates-the-press story is told by the late Charles Mohr, who spent a quarter of a century reporting for the New York Times.

In January 1965, shortly after President Lyndon B. Johnson gave the State of the Union address, Johnson invited Mohr to walk with him on the White House grounds. The talk, on “background,” lasted about an hour, during which Johnson berated Mohr’s paper for publishing an alleged error. The president then offered to make himself available to the paper to check such flawed stories. “Well, can I check something now?” Mohr asked Johnson. Johnson said yes, and Mohr asked him about some recent government raises. Mohr continues:

From mid-stride, the President came to a halt, glowered at me … and said:

“Here you are, alone with the President of the United States and the Leader of the Free World, and you ask a chicken-shit question like that.” He then added, “Yes, yes, that’s right. You want to run that, you go ahead.” Which I did.

The campaign sociodrama template allows Gingrich either to score points with his supporters and would-be supporters directly by currying favor with the press corps to get flattering coverage, or to score points against the press with his petty, petulant and peeved outbursts. As the campaign underdog, Gingrich needs the press more than the press needs him, if only so he can deride them as purveyors of barnyard dirt. If he makes it to the fall contest, he’ll be hoping for rematches with both Juan Williams and John King.

******

Imagine the umbrage against the press if Sarah Palin were running. But don’t do it in email and send it to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. See my Twitter feed, which is now written by a reverend whom I’ve assigned to the task. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns and subscribe to this hand-built RSS feed for corrections to my column.

PHOTO: U.S. Republican presidential candidate and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich stands during a rally in Jacksonville, Florida, January 30, 2012. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Comments
8 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

All so true, but moot. The amphibian can’t even fool the party of make believe with his re-direction and offense as a defense.

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive
 

Jack Shafer misses the whole point. The problem is not the press asking “gotcha” questions of candidates in general. It’s that they do that to a far greater degree to Republicans than they do to Democrats. Yes, Fox News and the Wall Street Journal are tougher on Democrats than Republicans, but most of the media (CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS, PBS, MSNBC, NY Times, Washington Post, LA Times…) slants left and does all they can to frame the topic of conversation towards what Democrats would like to be talking about and not what they wouldn’t. OK, Gingrich got asked about one of his ex wives the first question in a debate. Did a reporter ever start a 2008 Presidential debate by asking Senator Obama why Tony Rezko’s wife bought a lot adjacent to the house he and Michelle had bought on the very same day and then later sold him a strip of that lot? (Tony Rezko was convicted on several counts of fraud and bribery in 2008.) Of course not. The press is generally in the tank for Democrats.

Posted by Realist99 | Report as abusive
 

Jack,
From Boston scribe Bob Angle some years back: “Show me a reporter with a respect for authority and I’ll show you a lousy reporter.”

As for the Lincoln-Douglas debates, pseudo-historian Gingrich forgets two pesky details, the debates were in reference to the Illinois senate race, not a presidential election, and second, Lincoln lost the election to the demagogue, Douglas.

Dan
PS Realist99, you might be getting the wrong impression from the debates. There are no tough questions for Democrats because all the candidates are Republicans.

Posted by dbuck | Report as abusive
 

The press doesn’t have a liberal bias. They have a bias towards the sensational. They are most likely to report on a story that will generate the most interest from their readers, no matter how newsworthy it may be.

Even the outwardly biased exceptions (Fox, MSNBC, etc) only exhibit this bias because they have a niche to cater to; their readers/viewers are more likely to be interested in hearing about the other side being the bad guys.

The Gingrich ex-wife scandals get lots of play because it includes many elements that make it a compelling story. It’s a simple and easy to understand narrative, it involves sex and it demonstrates hipocrisy on an obvious and epic scale. Larry Craig was a great story for all the same reasons. The Anthony Weiner story was probably the most reported sex scandal of 2011 even though there was no alleged sex (and he was a democrat OMG!), simply because it was hilarious (the pics and his name).

You can’t honestly think many media sources are going to run less interesting or compelling stories that are going to sell fewer copies/generate less advertising income to further a political agenda that doesn’t help their bottom line. They are out to make money.

Posted by spall78 | Report as abusive
 

Jack, good, article but overall incomplete in several instances. I believe the ‘MSM’ was appointed by default post the LWW withdrawing in ’87, PDC emerging as organizer and News Anchors assuming questioner/moderator roles.
Yes, grouchy Gingrich’s outbursts is base pandering and abusive counter-punching; both being debate tactical diversion and and overall campaign strategy. He can’t win on his real record, can’t allow morality questions, must not allow his honesty, integrity, truthfulness or DC insider actions questions; i.e. duck and dodge as you briefly mentioned.
My over-riding belief is that these debates are essentially ‘beauty contests’ platforms for candidates to espouse their [non] differences while lying through their teeth about their real record, denying the litany of their misdeeds, and answering moderator questions with per-prepared and scripted responses. They’re a charade, a disgrace and FAIL every reasonable test of usefulness. The moderator can’t challenge their truthfulness or contradict their statements and other candidates are only trying to score ‘hits’ while evading challenges to their falsehoods.
The on-line fact-checker sites respond quickly – after the ‘dog and pony show is over and candidate quickly depart. Is it possible to use their capabilities, live? I know, if that occurs, no candidate will play, which it itself is all the more reason to push for fact-checker participation. Oh Well, “Move along citizen, nothing to see here”, unidentified storm trooper, Los Eisling spaceport in a galaxy far, far away

Posted by JBltn | Report as abusive
 

I think the more insidious aspect of Gingrich’s whining about the liberal media, which the right has been whining about since before I’ve been born, is the urge to “work the refs”, i.e. complain about the non-call on an early play so you guilt them into giving you the call later.

To some extent this is justified, the press should be equally hard on all candidates of all parties and shouldn’t pretend that these people are their friends, an attitude which leads to, as a counterpoint to the partisan leanings of Fox and MSNBC, the complete sterility of CNN’s useless false equivalence of competing press releases. It also turns the debates into “Politician A points out major problem, Politician B calls him a jerk. Let’s debate whether Politician A is a jerk”.

But there is a line between pushing the press to give equal consideration when you feel they aren’t, and bullying/cajoling them into accepting a certain narrative as a gateway to access.

“Realist”99 brings up a good point in Tony Reszko, the difference of course is that this story died because a)despite some intense shadiness there was no solid evidence of wrongdoing on the President’s part and b) despite that lack of legal wrongdoing, Obama frankly and publicly admitted poor judgment in those dealings. As another example, after initially wavering, and being HOUNDED by the media 24/7, Anthony Weiner resigned from his seat. Newt Gingrich on the other hand claims his multiple affairs makes him a better patriot or something, and I am still waiting for David Vitter’s resignation letter.

The best way to defuse a mini-scandal is to air it out yourself, as Obama has done effectively with each of his, whereas his Republican opponents seem to double-down, obfuscate and otherwise evade, leading journalists to smell blood in the water. Add that to being abusive and trying to score points off a journalist doing their job, will make them twice as eager to dig deeper.

Ron Paul’s newsletters is another great example. Instead of using it to pivot into a Jeremiah Wright moment to speak about race and his own conversion on these issues, he continued to come up with ridiculous explanations that had no credibility outside of his screeching cult-like fanbase.

Posted by ChevalierMalFet | Report as abusive
 

Republicans don’t want to have to run for president; they feel entitled to simply being anointed. Thus they don’t want to have to answer any stinkin’ questions.

Posted by borisjimbo | Report as abusive
 

When Ross Perot was asked about Bill Clinton’s experience as governor of Arkansas in the 1992 Presidential debates, and how that would help Clinton in the White House, he said simply: “It’s irrelevant. It’s like a guy running a mom and pop shop trying to be CEO of Wal-Mart.”

We think the same can be safely said for what Gingrich thinks about the format of fall debates. It’s irrelevant.

Posted by WeWereWallSt | Report as abusive
 

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