The most important event of the Republican president race thus far occurred at the candidates’ debate on January 19. CNN’s John King’s first question was to Newt Gingrich regarding his ex-wife Marianne’s interview with ABC News in which she alleged that Gingrich had asked her for an “open marriage” as he carried on an affair with his current wife Callista.
When the interview with Marianne aired just days before the South Carolina primary on Jan. 21, many Republicans denounced it as a low blow. The thinking was that South Carolina is a state where Republicans tend to be very socially conservative and religious. Reminding them of Gingrich’s infidelity would make them less likely to support him, everyone assumed.
However, in an amazing turnaround, Gingrich used the situation to his advantage, making the issue one of media bias rather than trust and martial fidelity. He called the question “vicious” and “negative” and said he was “appalled” that King would begin a presidential debate with such “trash.” King was immediately put on defensive and Gingrich went for the kill:
Now, let me be quite clear. Let me be quite clear. The story is false. Every personal friend I have who knew us in that period says the story was false. We offered several of them to ABC to prove it was false. They weren't interested, because they would like to attack any Republican. They're attacking the governor, they're attacking me. I'm sure they'll probably get around to Senator Santorum and Congressman Paul. I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans.
It was a bravura performance by Gingrich, who managed to turn a seeming liability into a political asset in the space of a couple of minutes. The debate transcript indicates extensive applause from the Republican crowd for Gingrich’s words and boos for King’s. Two days later, Gingrich unexpectedly won the South Carolina primary by 12.6 percentage points over his nearest rival, Mitt Romney. Gingrich’s debate performance undoubtedly was a key factor in his victory.
In reading commentary on this incident, mainstream media commentators were baffled by it. That is because they are genuinely unaware of the deep resentment – even hatred – that conservatives have long had for the major television news networks and elite newspapers such as The New York Times and Washington Post. As far as conservatives are concerned, these organizations might as well be subsidiaries of the Democratic Party; they don’t report the news objectively, but always slant it through a liberal lens designed to protect and defend Democrats and ridicule and belittle Republicans.
The liberal slant of the major media is a core conservative belief that dates back many years. Think of the character E.K. Hornbeck (played by Gene Kelly) in the movie, “Inherit the Wind.” The movie was based on the real-life Scopes trial in 1925 in which a Tennessee teacher was prosecuted for violating a state law by teaching the theory of evolution, and Hornbeck was based on the famous writer H.L. Mencken, whose disdain for the masses and religion was legendary.
Hornbeck continually ridicules the people of the town where the trial took place for being ignorant, superstitious fools who prefer mysticism to reality. Needless to say, the citizens are insulted and vigorously denounce the elitism and condescension of the Hornbeck/Mencken big city newspaper reporter. No doubt, many evangelical Christians in South Carolina felt exactly the same way about King when he went after Gingrich.
My point is that I don’t think very many journalists for elite news organizations understand how deeply Republicans feel about the hostility they perceive from them. It also explains why they are so devoted to Fox News, which started out as the “fair and balanced” alternative to ABC-CBS-NBC, but has evolved into an explicitly Republican network. Republicans know that when they tune into Fox their leaders and ideas will be treated with deference and respect, with a healthy dose of Democrat-bashing thrown in.
According to a January 17 PPP poll voters are now deeply polarized in terms of where they get their news. Republicans overwhelmingly trust Fox and have little trust in any other major media source. Democrats and independents tend to have much greater trust in non-Fox outlets.
Of course, talk radio and a wide proliferation of conservative Internet sources also provide alternatives to the mainstream media – often called the “lamestream media” by Republicans such as Sarah Palin – for Republicans more interested in having their worldview confirmed than acquiring information that may conflict with it.
For many years the elite media did have a liberal bias. But over the last 20 years, it has largely disappeared. As the entire political spectrum has moved to the right, so has the media, from a position modestly on the left to one squarely in the center. But Republicans still have a chip on their shoulder from the period when they often got less than fair treatment. That’s why Gingrich’s attacks on the media resonate with Republicans so deeply.
Those on the right are already gearing up to make the election this fall as much about the media as about Barack Obama. The conservative Media Research Center announced a $5 million campaign yesterday to expose liberal media bias. Rush Limbaugh rants about it almost daily. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney’s defense of the media has gone over like a lead balloon and shows that he remains out of step with the hardcore conservative base of the Republican Party.
It’s too soon to say whether Gingrich has found that hot-button issue which could propel him into the Republican nomination. But he clearly revived his sagging campaign and energized many Republicans who care more about the aggressiveness of their nominee’s style than the substance of his policy positions.
Bruce Bartlett’s new book, The Benefit and The Burden: Tax Reform-Why We Need It and What It Will Take, published by Simon & Schuster, is available at Amazon.