Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States. He is Editor-in-Chief of “The Moderate Voice,” an Internet hub for independents, centrists and moderates. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.
The South Carolina and Florida Republican presidential debates will be pointed to as turning points for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's campaigns.
But they'll also be remembered for two moments underscoring the uneasy relationship between the news media and politicians who often seek to control, intimidate or politically use the news media –– and how the media rises again.
Both involved Gingrich. The first was during the Jan. 19 debate when Gingrich blasted CNN's debate moderator, John King, for starting the debate asking him about an ABC interview hours earlier with Gingrich's ex-wife, who had alleged Gingrich wanted an "open marriage."
Gingrich got a standing ovation by blasting King in particular and the media in general. Then, last week in Florida, in his most underwhelming debate performance, he tried another dismissive verbal dagger when CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked a question.
Gingrich made going after the media, a moderator, or a debate reporter a regular feature of his debates since it was a hot-button issue. But wait: CNN's King later got Gingrich to admit part of his allegation about ABC was not true. And Blitzer challenged Gingrich on his broadside, noting it referred to something Gingrich himself had said –– and Gingrich withered.
What's instructive here? Gingrich was blatantly trying to hit a political hot button to woo conservatives. But in both instances, he had CNN reporters from the "old school" who stood up for the actual facts and their craft.
These instances highlighted how politicians use the media to advance themselves, try to manipulate and bully it, but how in the end if they face "real" journalists the media usually rises again.
The best line on Gingrich, who has proposed a program to get a colony on the moon, came from Romney supporter Arizona Sen. John McCain: "I think we ought to send Gingrich to the moon and Mitt Romney to the White House."
Meanwhile, here on planet earth there are these realities: the media has a symbiotic relationship with politicians, politicians will blast it and professional journalists will ask tough questions and defend their craft.
Presidents know how to manipulate the media. And politicians may fall due to the media, but they can also rise and can be remade if they know how to exploit it.
Most people point to Richard Nixon's Nov. 7, 1962 press conference where he told the press "You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore." But many folks forget that Nixon later went on NBC's “Laugh In” and said the show's big national catch phrase ("Sock it to ME?"), played piano on the “Jack Parr Show,” and was highly visible as a less angry Nixon.
Nixon got the coverage his advisors sought and was christened by the media as "the new Nixon" — which helped his 1968 election.
Reporters love quote machines and all politicians love getting free advertising. By most accounts, Gingrich has a solid relationship with reporters. The Politico's Ginger Gibson writes of "Newt's secret press pals," who Gingrich calls by their first names, and they love him because he can be relied on to give them something quotable.
When I was a reporter at the San Diego Union newspaper covering Ronald Reagan's immigration reform, my favorite source was the late Harold Ezell, commissioner for the INS' western region under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush.
Ezell eagerly gave great quotes. returned phone calls ASAP to give me a strong counter quote and, although he sometimes got in trouble due to his choice of words, always got his viewpoint out there (high up in the story). He used the media and the media used him. ("This is great stuff!!" editors would proclaim.)
Gingrich's latest hot button: he vows that if he is the nominee, he will not accept reporters as debate moderators because they all favor President Barack Obama. Fat chance the debate commission would agree to that. But Gingrich knows some will fall for it every time –– fanned on by allied, polarizing politicos and demonizing talk show hosts.
Gingrich keeps hitting that old, reliable media hot button because he knows he has a colony of Pavlovian responding partisans already mentally living on the moon.
Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States. He has appeared on cable news show political panels and is Editor-in-Chief of The Moderate Voice, an Internet hub for independents, centrists and moderates. He can be reached at jgandelman@themoderatevoice.