Newt Gingrich and the fine art of press-bashing
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