It didn't take long in last night's Republican debate for Newt Gingrich to pounce. Moderator John King began the Q&A with a question to Gingrich about his ex-wife's report of marital infidelity. Gingrich was appalled. He found the questioning "close to despicable." He attacked ABC News for airing an interview with the former Mrs. Gingrich two days before the South Carolina presidential primary. When King attempted to justify the question as one raised by another network and the topic of national discussion, Gingrich pounced again. CNN (King's employer) had aired the accusations, too, he said, and King and his staff had chosen to open the debate with a question about Gingrich's failed second marriage.
Anyone who has watched the GOP debates could not have been surprised at Gingrich's sanctimonious, condescending tone. After all, he's the guy with all the answers, the one with all the brains, the lecturer who understands history, the outsider who knows how Washington works, the smartest guy in the room — or any room at any time in history. That Gingrich would turn a question into an attack on news networks and on the news media in general should not have been a surprise. The only question might be whether he had rehearsed his shock in advance.
And maybe the reaction of the crowd should not have been a surprise: The more that Gingrich lashed out at the media, the louder the cheers from the audience became. The "mainstream media" has been a convenient whipping boy throughout the GOP debates. Gingrich has criticized the media before. Herman Cain, before dropping out, blamed his troubles on the news media. It seems to be a fundamental doctrine of the Republican Party that the news media are evil — and on the side of whatever Democrat is around. But the hooting from the Charleston audience was particularly vociferous, nearly matching Gingrich's obvious contemptuousness.
I'll agree with Gingrich on one thing: The ex-wife question was no way to begin a presidential debate (can you imagine that question coming up in the Lincoln-Douglas debates?). The timing is improper, bordering on silly, given the important issues of the day. But "despicable"? The professor is lapsing into hyperbole. A candidate's moral underpinning is a fair topic for voters to consider, and Gingrich knows his personal history is filled with blemishes, so he'd rather dodge the question and blame the media for his past lapses. The question put to Gingrich is wrong, at least in its timing, because it's sensational rather than substantive. The biggest problem with the national media is not that it's "mainstream" or biased but that the media have turned to sensationalism, sex, blood and hype and has turned away from substantive, in-depth reporting. You can blame the media's consultants who (led by television viewership numbers) care more about attracting eyeballs than serving the public interest.
That — and not any perceived bias — should be what gets the public's blood boiling. From my own experience in more than three decades in the newspaper business is that news reporters, on average, tend to lean leftward but make conscientious efforts to separate their personal views from their reporting. I've also known my share of right-wing news people. The national media are not monolithic. Even with recent consolidation in the industry, dozens of corporations are in the news business, and there is no secret collaboration among them. In fact, they are viciously competitive. On cable news, you can find right-leaning Fox News, left-leaning MSNBC, and (mostly) balanced CNN. Intelligent people can digest news from several sources and make their own judgments.
But the audience in Charleston last night played into the hands of demagogues who would stifle the free press with threats and anger. Vigorous, independent news media are as necessary to the democratic process as the secret ballot.