Used and Abused
Newt Gingrich astutely manipulated the news media and made himself a megastar. Now he's trying to score points by pummeling them.
By James McCartney
James McCartney is a former Washington correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers.
Shortly after Newt Gingrich was elected speaker of the House in January, and two months after he began receiving what has probably been the most massive news media exposure accorded any modern non-presidential politician, he launched a broadside attack on journalists, declaring that they were constantly "nitpicking," intent on making trouble.
"It's a little bit like having a large household in which one person wakes up every morning trying to start fights – spends the whole day trying to get people to fight each other," Gingrich said.
This from a politician who has made negation and attack a way of life in the House, and is perhaps the most combative and confrontational figure to emerge in national politics in a generation.
As far as the media are concerned, the Georgia Republican is Newt the Knife, a politician who rarely passes up an opportunity to stab. He has made the acerbic Bob Dole look like Mr. Nice Guy.
Only a few days before the "nitpicking" explosion Gingrich denounced a rather bland, inside-page story in the New York Times that had reported, quite accurately, that he had arrived at a Washington hotel in a "glinting black Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham that matches his new status as the big man in town."
Speaking to a conservative group, Gingrich characterized the story as "an effort to prove, I think, in the reporter's mind, the inevitable selling out of populism of those who get power... They assumed it had to be conservative populist hypocrisy, which is what they're looking for.... Here is an exact, explicit, trivial, factual example of the constant, unending barrage of distortion."
What is going on here? Why is it that a politician who has enjoyed an overwhelming bonanza of publicity and attention would turn so bitterly on those who paved the road to his prominence?
For journalists, it is not a trifling issue. As a profession, the media are held in disfavor by much of the public, as every poll shows. And now journalists face a new and powerful national figure – -whom they helped create – -who will turn on them and snarl or snipe at virtually any story he finds not to his taste.
More important: To what extent is his criticism valid? And how should the media conduct themselves in response?
One thing is for sure. Gingrich's attacks on the media are not accidental. They show every evidence of being carefully contrived for a larger purpose. One reporter who has covered him intensively, and who does not wish to be identified, says, "It is a very deliberate strategy... It is obvious he has thought about who he wants to attack... He chooses a few examples he uses over and over, he doesn't choose them by mistake. There is nothing spontaneous about it."
An examination of Gingrich's mannandling of the media suggests that he has developed several techniques of attack that he turns to regularly:
The Frontal Assault. ^This approach was exemplified by the attack on the New York Times story about the Cadillac.
Addressing the conservative group about the Times story, Gingrich misquoted the Times. He said the Times had reported that he had "traded in" a battered Honda Accord for a Cadillac. But in fact the Times story said only that he had arrived in the Cadillac, which he had. The car had been provided by the group he was going to speak to.
The Times story did, however, mistakenly refer to a battered Honda Accord that Gingrich owned. He has never owned a Honda. He owns a 1967 Ford Mustang. But that error had little to do with what Gingrich was complaining about. He was feeding the conservative appetite for red political meat, seeking to attack the credibility of the New York Times, which Gingrich and many conservatives see as the arch villain of the "liberal media elite."
Recently Gingrich told a group of corporate executives that there are "socialists" on many newspaper editorial boards and that their companies should consider whether they want to advertise in papers with views different from their own (see "Top of the Review," page 4).
The Quick Stab. He summarily dismissed as "a piece of trash" a perfectly legitimate Washington Post story comparing his recent troubles with a controversial book deal to a storm he had created years earlier when he attacked a book deal made by former House Speaker Jim Wright, a Texas Democrat. The piece suggested that Democrats were giving Gingrich a taste of his own medicine, which they were.
The Philosophic Rumination. He remarked on NBC's "Meet the Press" that "we [the resurgent Republicans] are not like any political effort in modern American history. Unless [the media] erase all their political assumptions growing out of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, and everything that's happened since 1965, they're just not going to get it."
The Injured Innocent. At a meeting of the Republican National Committee he lamented: "But for Marianne [his wife] and me to have tried every way we could to be totally honest, for us to have lived on limited incomes, for us to have been scrupulous about what we've done, and then to have the news media of this city used as a tool of the Democratic Party, to just go out again and again and again, in a one-sided way, is I think a despicable comment on how sick this city got."
The Offense as Defense. When asked about a story in Baltimore's Sun reporting that his wife had been hired to help recruit businesses for a free trade zone in Israel, he replied, in part: "You'll find every other day somebody on the left launches a new attack." The Sun an instrument of the left?
The Boycott. Gingrich cut off all communication with his hometown newspapers, the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, after editorial cartoonist Mike Luckovich caricatured a hospital room scene in which Gingrich presented his first wife with divorce papers while she was recovering from cancer – a scene first described by the liberal San Francisco-based magazine Mother Jones in 1984. He refused to talk to Journal and Constitution reporters or editors for weeks, demanding an apology. If a Constitution or Journal reporter sought to question him at a news conference he would reply: "No comment." He relented only after he was elected speaker.
The most intriguing aspect of Gingrich's approach to the press, however, is his assertion that it should be more "positive" – even though he has made a political art of the negative.
On one recent occasion after a day of repeated needling of the media at a press conference, Gingrich counseled a group of Washington journalists to "just literally dump everything out of your PC and go back and start over... I would suggest to all of you that to make it work you've got to be positive."
In Mother Jones' oft-quoted 1984 piece on Gingrich, reporter David Osborne described a lecture Gingrich delivered to a group of conservative activists on negativism as a political art.
"The number one fact about the news media," Osborne quoted Gingrich as saying, "is they love fights... You have to give them confrontations. When you give them confrontations, you get attention; when you get attention, you can educate."
It is a formula Gingrich has used repeatedly over the years in his climb to power. His press spokesman, Tony Blankley, acknowledges that Gingrich continues to follow it. "Yes," he says, "we take advantage of the media's bad habits."
As explained by Blankley (Gingrich declined to speak with AJR), Gingrich believes that the public gets a distorted view of reality because of the media's obsession with confrontation. His open criticism of the media is designed to try to "educate" journalists, to teach them that what they do is wrong, Blankley says.
"The media," he says, paraphrasing his boss, "has a Mencken mentality," derived from the iconoclastic tradition of H.L. Mencken. "It approaches politics and politicians with the assumption that politicians are inherently venal... There is a predisposition to find venality even when it doesn't exist...
"That is the silent implication of virtually every question that everybody in government gets almost every day from virtually every reporter. And it just is not true."
Gingrich concedes, says Blankley, that there is a proper role for skepticism, but that "in the modern media it is carried too far... He has to hope that over a period of time..reporters will think about how they do their craft."
Gingrich also believes that many reporters, perhaps subconsciously, think of public affairs in terms of the traditional liberal Democratic Party agenda. Reporters, he believes, simply don't understand much of what he is trying to say and haven't taken the trouble to try to learn. They don't understand his brand of modern conservatism.
"So many of the decisions are made by people in New York who have only seen sound bites," says Blankley. "Decisions are made by people who are uninformed, who don't know the richness of Newt's analysis. So I think a fair amount of it is simply ignorance, combined with a conventional mentality and the conventions happen to be moderately liberal for the last couple of generations...
"I don't think..most of them get up in the morning saying, 'How can I screw a Republican,' or 'How can I get a conservative,' but by and large I think it comes from their conventional perspective and a lagging indicator of where the public is" politically.
Many close students of Gingrich's skyrocketing career believe that the Mother Jones piece triggered his animus toward the press.
The article portrayed Gingrich as a phony, a sexual adventurer and a master of negative campaigning who dumped a loyal wife because she was "too frumpy" for an aspiring politician.
Its most devastating paragraphs, however, described the hospital bedside scene cartoonist Mike Luckovich depicted many years later. The story said Gingrich appeared with a yellow legal pad "and a list of things on how the divorce was going to be handled." Osborne also wrote that many of Gingrich's former supporters had turned against him. "He is a man who campaigned on themes of ethics and morality, then betrayed his words; a candidate who speaks constantly of restoring traditional values, but whose private life tells a very different story."
According to Blankley, Gingrich to this day is inflamed by references to the Mother Jones piece. He believes that it has been recycled repeatedly by the "liberal" press in efforts to destroy him.
"The seminal event was the Mother Jones article," agrees columnist Robert Novak, a long-time Gingrich friend and admirer. "I think it was an event which changed his whole attitude. He was stunned. That is when the civil war with the news media began, the hostility."
As Gingrich saw it, according to Novak, he had allowed Osborne access, permitting him to accompany him, and the result was "hostile," representing an attack from the "left wing."
On one thing there is no dispute: Gingrich is a master in manipulating the media. While attacking it, he has learned to use it to his own advantage. "He wouldn't be where he is today if he didn't know how to use the media," Blankley concedes.
Gingrich himself has acknowledged the point. In explaining why he decided not to seek the Republican presidential nomination in 1996, he said, "I hardly need to run for president to get my message out."
Part of his technique has been deliberately creating confrontation, a technique honed in the House. His first major success came in early 1984 when he took on then-Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr., a Massachusetts Democrat.
By that time Gingrich and his fellow conservatives had begun taking advantage of C-SPAN's live telecast of House sessions. They excoriated the Democrats with conservative theology and the unblinking C-SPAN beamed their charges out across the country, even though they were often speaking to an empty House chamber.
At one point Gingrich, then largely unknown, savagely attacked the patriotism of Democrats, saying some were "blind to communism." O'Neill was enraged. He ordered C-SPAN cameras to pan the empty chamber every few minutes, exposing the conservatives' trick. A fierce fight followed, and made all three network news broadcasts. Gingrich was delighted. Confrontation worked.
Reporter Kenneth Cooper, who covers the House for the Washington Post, tells how Gingrich exploited the lesson: "If you go back you'd find that he would have luncheons with reporters and he would have vituperative remarks and it made news... We quoted him a lot."
Cooper recalls that when he was working on a story on the crime bill last August and he tried to reach Washington Democrat Tom Foley, then the speaker, Foley did not return his calls. "But I got a call at home at night from Gingrich, who was on a commercial plane flying to Atlanta. A lot of politicians wouldn't do that."
Cooper says that "in many ways Newt Gingrich is a creation of the national media." Gingrich, in fact, had started cultivating the national media much earlier in his political career. Columnist Novak tells of receiving calls in Washington from Gingrich when he first ran for Congress in 1974.
"He'd say, 'Look, any time you're flying south you've got to change planes at the Atlanta airport, which is in my district. Call me up, I'll come over and we can have a drink at the airport.' " Novak says he never took advantage of the invitation, but did eventually have a get-acquainted drink with Gingrich and his wife in Washington.
Since becoming speaker, Gingrich has opened up the speakership to television in much the same way that John F. Kennedy opened up the presidency in 1961. He stages a news conference that is open to cameras almost every day the House is in session, seating himself before a giant portrait of George Washington in the ornately furnished Rayburn Room on the second floor of the Capitol.
The news conference is covered live by C-SPAN, which means that Gingrich is on TV on his own terms more frequently than the president of the United States. His predecessor, Foley, would brief the press in the speaker's office. No cameras.
Reporter Bob Franken, who covers Gingrich for CNN, estimates that Gingrich has probably appeared on CNN about 20 to 25 times a day since last November's election. "His name has probably been the most used name in all the media," Franken says. "We cover his every move."
Gingrich manages his media exposure carefully. He has been stingy about granting one-on-one interviews since a blackout dating back to the November elections. And he announced that he intended, at least temporarily, to boycott talk shows like "Meet The Press" on the grounds that serious issues could not be "intelligently discussed." He also cannot control the questions.
"He's not an amateur when he says something that appears to be outrageous, although not necessarily moored in fact," says Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution.
There can be little doubt that Gingrich has a strategy in mind in the way he deals with the media, and there is a consistent theory among reporters on exactly what it is.
"His attacks mean two things," says Cooper. "On one hand, I think he is trying to soften us up to have his way with us. Second, it is a way of throwing red meat to his constituency, who believe the media is liberal and establishment." Echoing Bob Franken of CNN, he says: "I don't take it personally."
Franken opines: "He uses us as villainous foils... He takes advantage of the inherent tendencies of the media to focus on conflict... He is striking out on the theory that the best defense is a good offense."
Another reporter who has watched Gingrich for years and wishes to remain anonymous says: "There are a couple of things at work. He uses the media as a whipping boy when it's to his advantage. He needs an enemy. He is trying to act like a bipartisan speaker, so he can't directly attack the Democrats, he has to attack the media... [He believes] that if he can undermine what is written, then people don't trust what they see and read, and his voice can have more influence."
Some professional students of the media agree with these observations. "He is very cleverly setting up a straw man" to blame if his programs fail, says Marvin Kalb, the former TV news correspondent who heads the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Poßitics and Public Policy at Harvard University. "If in three months or six months he cannot perform up to expectations, it is not Newt who is at fault, or his followers, it is the press, the 'liberal, opinionated press.' "
Congressional reporter Katherine Q. Seelye of the New York Times puts it more simply: "He loves to hate us."
While almost all politicians – and presidents going back to Thomas Jefferson – find cause to blast the media, most have accepted unfavorable coverage as part of the job. President Clinton, who has had a rough ride with the press, once complained that he had "not gotten one damn bit of credit from the knee-jerk liberal press." But unlike Gingrich, he has not regularly attacked the press. Ronald Reagan practiced the light touch. He told media moguls at a Washington Gridiron dinner that he preferred watching television commercials to listening to the anchors.
The Gingrich tactic, however, must be seen as a logical evolution of the longtime strategy of the political right, a strategy that goes back at least as far as Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964, and was honed by Vice President Spiro Agnew and the Nixon administration. It was Agnew, during Watergate, who characterized the press as "nattering nabobs of negatism" – a phrase proudly coined by William Safire, then a Nixon speechwriter, now a New York Times columnist and Gingrich admirer.
It is also true that Gingrich has not had a free ride. Newsweek at one point asked in a headline: "How Normal is Newt?" and proclaimed in another: "Gingrich Goes Ballistic." Washington Post cartoonist Herblock, the bane of many in power, depicted him climbing out of a sewer. The New York Daily News headlined a piece on his ex-wife: "The Cold-Blooded Newt." A CBS commentary described him as "bombastic and ruthless." New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis described his methods as "slash and burn, knife and smear." A lead editorial in the New York Times was labeled: "Newt Gingrich, Authoritarian."
Nevertheless, studies by the Center for Media and Public Affairs suggest that after the November elections Gingrich received more favorable television coverage than President Clinton. According to John Sheehan, executive director of the center, "From November 9 through November 30 Gingrich's coverage was 45 percent positive and Clinton's was 34 percent positive."
However Gingrich's strategy might be described, it is clear that he is not playing by the traditional journalist conventions in Washington. This is not a mere game with him. His attacks are far more consistent, far more calculated, than typical complaints from politicians. Ultimately he appears intent on destroying the mainstream media's credibility – its most precious asset. That, then, raises the question of whether the media should respond, and if so, how.
At least some journalists believe that Gingrich may have a point in asserting that the media don't understand him and have had difficulty grasping his message. David Broder, veteran political writer and columnist for the Washington Post, says, "It is tru¿ that the political debate in this country has been within a particular set of dimensions" and that Gingrich's agenda strikes "at the heart of long established traditions and arrangements."
Other reporters go even further. Julia Malone of the Cox Newspapers' Washington bureau says, "The coverage has been unduly negative... There is a 'get Gingrich' attitude." She believes that reporters tend to be sympathetic to Democratic Party points of view.
Nolan Walters, who has covered Gingrich for the Knight-Ridder Newspapers' Washington bureau, adds, "There is certainly a premium in bringing the guy down. It wouldn't hurt any journalist's career to find the silver bullet that killed Gingrich."
But if there is a single consensus among journalists and media watchers about how to deal with Gingrich, it is that journalists must not forget their central mission – to report the story. "I don't think the press should involve itself in calculated crusades against anybody, including anybody who wants to destroy it," says Kalb. "My answer is 'Cover him.' " Broder concurs. "I don't think we can do anything about it, except keep reporting on him."
Some believe the press could be more vigilant in questioning Gingrich's more flagrant assertions. "The press is not doing its job if it doesn't challenge him when he makes outrageous charges," says Bill Kovach, curator of Harvard's Nieman Foundation.
"The only thing the press can do is to take care that it does the job it is designed to do in our society," he says, "which is to help citizens understand the figures and characters who are controlling their lives... It is perfectly legitimate to hold him to account for what he says."
But for most in the working press, the perspective of Eric Engberg of CBS News will do very nicely: "Our response to Newt should be the same as it always has been – to simply get on with our jobs. We should keep calling 'em like we see 'em – and shoot out the windows on both sides of the street, while walking down the middle." l ###