Why the press always loses hypocrisy debate with Newt Gingrich: We need audience to like us too
How is it that a guy who twice left his wives for younger mistresses and was fined $300,000 for lying to Congress won a GOP primary in a state filled with religious voters running against a guy married to the same woman for 40 years?
Welcome to the new political world of Newt Gingrich.
In fact, some blame the media for for the surge in support from conservative voters which swept Gingrich past rival Mitt Romney in South Carolina, saying the ABC News story featuring Gingrich's ex-wife criticizing him, combined with CNN anchor John King's decision to lead last week's debate with the question, sealed the former House Speaker's image as the Guy Liberal Media Doesn't Want to Win.
As a critic, I was surprised King chose to start the debate with that question -- kinda like dumping a smelly fish on the table at the start of a formal dinner -- but Gingrich knows there there is one reason why the press will always struggle to bring up the obvious hypocrisy of a guy who crusades for family values while dragging a long personal history of disregarding them.
Especially on TV, journalists need the viewers to like us, too.
King is a smart, experienced debate host and reporter. He's been around Gingrich long enough to know his standard response to a question about his wife's charges would be to blame the media for dragging the debate into the gutter.
But King could have noted the candidate's own talk about morals and public policy.
For example, in a response to question about gay marriage during a Jan. 7 debate in New Hampshire, Gingrich said: "The sacrament of marriage was based on man and woman, has been for 3,000 years, is at the core of our civilization, and is something worth protecting and upholding." But didn't his second wife tell ABC News he wanted something else; a marriage where he was also free to see another woman?
Gingrich also, of course, pressed Congress to impeach Bill Clinton for actions connected to the President's affair with Monica Lewinsky while having his own affair with the mistress who would become his current wife. (Gingrich has said he objected to the president lying to a grand jury, not the affair).
Before that, he had pressed the House ethics committee to investigate Democratic Speaker Jim Wright for ethics violations, though Gingrich would also be reprimanded over using a tax-exempt organization for a political purpose and lying to the ethics committee about it.
But King's problem in addressing all this was twofold -- such questions are almost too complex to ask in a debate setting. And asking them means focusing on getting an answer and forcing the subject to face his own hypocrisy, no matter how bad it makes you look to ask the question in the first place.
Gingrich is helped by the fact that people really don't want to hear about such issues in public, particularly from public figures they like. Forcing Gingrich to face his long public hypocrisy and the implications for his candidacy -- asking, essentially, will a guy who has twice cheated on his wives and lied to Congress really make a fit president? -- means forcing the audience to face subjects they'd rather not discuss.
At a time when cable channels and TV networks are hoping GOP debates draw big ratings, that is a third rail they will hesitate to touch. They are pulled back from pursuing uncomfortable answers to pertinent questions, because they need the audience to like them enough to keep watching the program.
I also agree with Jim Lehrer, who told me late last year that allowing the audience to react during debates, while making the broadcasts more exciting, also worsens the debates, forcing moderators to consider the crowd's opinion in asking questions and subjects. Just remember how ABC's George Stephanopoulos struggled with an impatient crowd when he kept asking questions they didn't link in New Hampshire.
Hours before the latest debate here in Tampa, co-sponsored by the Tampa Bay Times, National Journal and NBC, I hope the moderators here find the courage to ask questions the audience doesn't like, and keep asking them until they get real answer.
Because the simple fact is, any debate is really about testing whether a candidate really means what he (or she) says he stands for.
And uncovering that is pretty much Job One for any journalist.