David Zurawik

CNN, John King, ABC, Brian Ross have nothing to apologize for with Gingrich

In November, I advanced one of CNN's  debates with a piece hoping aloud that Wolf Blitzer would not let Newt Gingrich bully him as the the former Speaker of the House had been doing to other debate moderators.

Here's a bit of what I wrote:


And so it is that I will come to TV tonight hoping to see one of the few anchors who has the stature and the credibility to call out Gingrich take the candidate of bluster on for his phony game of pounding the press by telling moderators how "stupid" (one of his favorite words) or "wrong" (another favorite word) their questions are.

Blitzer is a journalist who prizes civility and even-handedness in his handling of interviews, which is another reason he might be one of the few who can challenge Gingrich to answer the questions asked of him instead of trying to use the stage to direct a dishonest attack on the press.

Gingrich played nice that night, but he was only saving his mock-outrage game for a bigger stage like the one he had Thursday in South Carolina, which he used to go after ABC News, CNN and moderator John King hammer and tongs.


I walked away from the TV last night outraged, so outraged I knew I shouldn't write until I was able to think more disppasionately about what I saw.

After a night of reflection, I say this with absolute clarity and conviction: John King and CNN did absolutely nothing Thursday night that they have to apologize for. In my opinion, King did do one thing wrong. I'll get to that in a minute.

And for that matter, neither did Brian Ross and ABC do anything that they have to apologize for in interviewing Gingrich's second wife -- who says her then-husband asked her for an "open marriage" so that he could continue his adulterous affair with the woman who is now his third wife. I don't care if it is two days before the vote in South Caroloina. ABC News gave Gingrich plenty of time to respond -- and he chose to do it in the manner of an onstage attack on the press Thursday night.

Not only didn't CNN, King, ABC and Ross do anything that warrants an apology, they were absolutely doing the job of journalism in vetting a presidential candidate and giving her/him a chance to respond to their findings.

Those like Rush Limbaugh who say Gingrich's ex-wife (the second ex-wife) and her allegations "were out there" and should not have been re-visited now with a primary vote looming are dead wrong. It is an excellent time to re-visit them exactly because there is a vote looming.

The job of the press is to make sure voters know as much as possible about a candidate when they go to the polls, and no one should assume anything as to what voters know or don't know. And, by the way, the news organization that gets the interview gets to air it when it wants as long as there is time to for all parties to respond -- who cares if it is a Tuesday or a Thursday night?

Personally, I did not know half the details Gingrich's ex-wife (his second ex-wife) alleged about how horribly he treated her after her diagnosis of MS. And I thought I knew pretty much about this poster boy for self-absorption, over-indulgence and grandious delusions.

CNN and ABC News didn't invent the enmity Gingrich's ex-wife (his second ex-wife) has for him, the former Speaker of the House who spent months attacking President Bill Clinton at the expense of the work of Congress while he himself carried on an adulterous affair, did that all by himself.


And now, Gingrich wants to be the one to lecture the press and the nation on what's "despicable" and what's not -- as he did at the very start of last night's debate. He wants to say how "troubled" he is that "CNN would take trash like that and use it to open a presidential debate."

The "trash" he refers to is the allegation made by his ex-wife (the second ex-wife) that he wanted an "open marriage" so that he could continue his adultery with the staffer who is his current wife. Her words speak directly to issues of Gingrich hypocrisy and character.

And all King did was give Gingrich a chance to respond to what was all over the media Thursday as portions of the ABC News interview scheduled to air at 11:30 Thursday night on "Nightline"  were gobbled up by news organizations all day. (There's a piece for another day here as to the role Matt Drudge played in making an interview that proved to be so underwhelming such an eagerly-anticipated and much-discussed media event.)

I could go on for week about the craziness of Gingrich setting himself up as an arbiter of media morality, but news cycles being what they are, here's the part I need to hit: The Bizarro Planet reaction in some places to what took place last night, particularly some analysts acting like Gingrich did something good and King did something bad.

I get the conservatives' attacks on King, CNN, ABC News and Ross. Those attacks are laced with ideological madness that goes back to Joe McCarthy and runs straight through the Dan Rather-Richard Nixon confrontation up to the present and Fox News. (Which by the way, is another institution that owned a piece of Gingrich until its chairman had to literally kick Gingrich off the payroll last year.)

But the New Republic, for example, has an online piece today questioning King for opening the debate in the manner that the CNN newsman did. (After some of its problems, you might think TNR would be one of the last publications on earth to enter a discussion of media behavior.)


King's argument that he trained as an Associated Press reporter and was socialized to the belief that the "lede [of a story] is the lede," is a good one. And it goes hand in glove with "the elephant in the room" argument -- that Gingrich's ex-wife was the topic on everyone's mind Thursday, so let's deal with it right off the bat, get it out of the way and move into the full debate and the big issues that affect everyone like THE ECONOMY.

I don't think there is an honest newswoman or newsman in America who can argue with either of those defenses.

But here is where, I believe, King did make a mistake. When Gingrich started firing on all eight cyclinders in mock outrage and attacked King for opening a presidential debate with a question about the candidate's second ex-wife, King started to cite the ABC interview. I suspect he was trying to say it was not an issue or question limited to CNN, it was part of a national debate.

But Gingrich ignored that impetus and made it sound as if King was trying to weasel out of taking blame for his own opening question now that Gingrich was scolding him for it.

"Don't try to blame someone else," he told King looking like the smug headmaster about to bring out the paddle and teach Mr. King a good and proper lesson.

Right there, King should have taken back the stage. He should have let Headmaster Gingrich finish his points even to the cheers of the partisan, media-haters in the room.


And then, he should have stopped the train and taken 30 seconds to lecture the headmaster on how the words of the second wife were a legitimate topic of coverage, and it was baggage Gingrich created--not ABC or CNN. And maybe King should have gone even higher road and perhaps lectured for another 15 or 20 seconds on the role of the press in vetting candidates in a democracy and the role of citizens who stand for office to expect their lives to be vetted -- especially president.

We want presidents we can look up to. It troubles some of us to find out our president smokes, for goodness sakes. If you don't want to see your ex-wife (the second ex-wife) on "Nightline," don't run for bloody president. It's easy -- unless you're a self-indulgent hypocrite who wants it all on his terms without paying the price.

King did a nice job of recovering and going on with the debate. But he let himself be bullied for a couple of minutes there, and he should not have.

I would rather be seen as an overly aggressive, even hectoring press that stands up to bullies like Gingrich -- rather than a courteous one that lets bullies like Gingrich exploit us.

But it is always a very tough call, and lots of my colleagues and most of my bosses, I suspect, would opt for the kind of courtesy King showed rather than an onstage throwdown over the role of the press in a democracy.

And if Gingrich gets a terrific "surge" off the debate and even wins South Carolina, who cares? He'll never be president. He will probably never even be the GOP nominee. It's the baggage thing. Look how Gingrich's adultery played with the evangelicals last week when they met in Texas and decided to back Rick Santorum.


Worse than that, by his own doing, Gingrich has become the very face of fat-cat, Washington corruption -- the elected official who comes to Congress, goes on the take and just keeps taking right up to Freddie Mac and Tiffanys.

I wish I had saved my "Don't Let Newt Bully Us" piece for January instead of writing it in November. Wrong debate, wrong CNN moderator. The Good Newt showed up that night.

But let me close with a bite from that piece.

Gingrich was a member of the press (in the loose and sad way that term is now used) by nature of the money and marching orders he took from Fox News and its chief Roger Ailes. Given Gingrich's history of taking large sums of money and then brazenly lying his behind off when his obvious conflict of interest is revealed, he would probably still be cashing checks from Fox News if Ailes had not ordered him off the payroll in March once his compromised relationship with the right-wing cable outfit became too obvious to ignore.

Others have written more eloquently than I can do in this space about what a shabby excuse for an intellectual Gingrich is -- and what it, perhaps, says about how dumbed down we have become collectively to consider him one.

I am going to be nice and just say Gingrich would not have spent his academic career at West Georgia College (now University of West Georgia) if he was one of the best and brightest historians of his generation -- or even one of the better and brighter Ph.D.s in his class. (He left after eight years without tenure.)

Really, think about it. There is a reason he was there, and it had nothing to do with ideology or politics. There are plenty of really smart conservatives at prestigious schools.

As the Freddie Mac revelations clearly showed, this is a hack historian with his hand out to almost anyone who will put a buck in it, and it is time for the press to stop letting him play this dishonest game of beating up on it.

Here is a link to the full piece. (And, by the way, in case anyone wants to try and read this piece through an ideological lens, here is a link to a piece I wrote defending Fox News and Bret Baier for being what some saw as too aggressive in interviewing President Obama.)

One last thought today: Does the ability of someone as corrupted as Gingrich to bully the press and find support within the media ultimately reveal how confused and insecure the press has become about its standards? How is it that so few in the press seem to understand our higher purpose in a democracy -- the one intended by the founders to warrant those First Amendment guarantees?