united states project

Newt Gingrich, Media Critic

Primary night in South Carolina, Gingrich and supporters sound off on press
January 23, 2012

COLUMBIA, S.C. — All campaign long, Newt Gingrich has been known to knock the media, but at his victory party Saturday night in Columbia, having won the South Carolina primary by twelve points, Gingrich laid on especially thick his now-familiar criticisms of the press. During his twenty-four-minute speech, Gingrich returned frequently to his excoriations of the “elites in New York and Washington”—which he singled out as President Obama and the news media—who “have no understanding” of, and “do not represent,” the public.

Early in his speech, Gingrich noted the way voters had embraced his media-bashing debate performances in the days before the South Carolina primary (see Williams, Juan and King, John) and had reacted “so strongly to the news media” this past week. (Exit polls show that 88 percent of voters said that recent debates were “a factor” in deciding whom to support in the South Carolina primary).

At another moment in his victory speech, Gingrich hinted the press corps suffers from a cowardly political correctness—“this makes some of the elite media nervous”—when he repeated his riff on President Obama as “the most effective food stamp president in American history.” (A riff that last spring prompted NBC News’s David Gregory to ask Gingrich about insinuations of racism.)

Each time Gingrich went after the press, his crowd of supporters went wild—throwing up their arms, and hooting and hollering affirmative “yeahs!” At one point, the man in front of me, wearing suspenders and lots of pro-Newt campaign buttons, spun around, pointed his finger at the rows of cameras in the back half of the room, and yelled, “Remember that!”

The media kept their cameras trained, conveying Gingrich’s words while often being the target of them.

Indeed, much of the story this past week has been that Gingrich’s feisty exchanges with the media have pleased South Carolina Republicans and galvanized support for the candidate.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Here is what one Gingrich-voting South Carolinian on Saturday told The State, South Carolina’s largest newspaper:

One of the worst things in this country is the media. They have an agenda. And (Gingrich) is the only one, probably since Reagan, who stands up to them.

Or as Roy Linsey, the Orangeburg County Republican Party chair, told McClatchy of Gingrich’s pushback against Fox News’s Juan Williams, a moderator at Monday night’s debate:

I love it when Newt takes the media to task, and other people like it, too. Juan was worth 2-3 points, I guarantee you that.

Yet, as Politico reported on Friday, there is a performance element to Gingrich’s media-bashing: while Gingrich assails the press during debates and on the stump, he’s actually quite friendly and generous with the reporters following him on the campaign trail—apparently far more so than Mitt Romney.

Likewise, while supporters in attendance at Gingrich’s victory party Saturday night cheered the candidate’s swipes at the media, they were very willing to talk—at least with this particular member of the news media, even after being informed of my New York connections.

When I ran into Roy Lindsey, the 64-year-old farmer and Orangeburg County Republican Party chair quoted by McClatchy (above), it was 7:30 p.m. and he had already been interviewed three times at the victory party (he had also been twice interviewed in Orangeburg earlier in the week).

He called his interview experiences “fine,” and noted that reporters asked him the same general questions—“Why do you support Newt? What’s your opinion of Newt?”—which he was happy to answer. He thought the media had done a “good job” covering the primary in South Carolina, though when asked particularly about the fairness and appropriateness of reporting on the “open marriage” allegations made against Gingrich, he quickly said, “Well, that has been proven false.”

Lindsey gets his news from Fox, CSPAN, and occasionally MSNBC—which, he says, along with CNN and NBC, can be “automatically” counted on to have a liberal slant. He likes Fox because he says it “reports both sides of everything.”

Also enthusiastic to talk was Ana Silvia Mincey, a campaign volunteer and wellness instructor who moved to Myrtle Beach from the Dominican Republic twenty years ago. She had an “I Voted Today” sticker affixed to her forehead and was exuberant about Gingrich’s win. She noticed my notebook and poked my arm wanting to be interviewed (although Gingrich’s speech started up before I could get much).

I also encountered the Sciolaro family from Leawood, Kansas, at the victory party—they had come to South Carolina to support Rick Perry but had joined up with Gingrich after Perry suspended his campaign. Vicki, 50, rattled off, with pleasure, the numerous times she or other Sciolaros (her husband Chuck, and three children) had been interviewed and photographed this campaign season: “We’ve been in the New York Times, the LA Times [photo], on the front page of the Des Moines Register [photo].” (I wasn’t able to find an inclusion in the New York Times.)

I was not the first to interview the Sciolaros Saturday night, and I noticed I was hardly the last (the reporter-to-supporter ratio was heavy on the former at that point in the night). A cursory Google News search shows the family has been mentioned in coverage by Patch, The American Prospect, The Daily Beast,
and Danish Dutch television (and now me!) this week. Vicki said she’d had no problems with her various media exchanges other than that her age and her daughter’s age have each once been misreported (Vicki says she was aged five years).

Sciolaro, who gets her news from Fox (“because it’s conservative”), Drudge and over Twitter (a habit her family picked up from the Perry campaign) had more beefs with the press for its coverage of Perry—“they didn’t give him a chance;” “they talked about 4 candidates when there were 5”—than of Gingrich. While she thought CNN debate moderator John King’s choice of opening question for Thursday night’s debate was “disgraceful,” she thought it was a fair question to ask later in the night.

I next met a woman named Patti, an administrator with an engineering consulting firm who spoke with me freely, but declined to give her last name. She had decided to vote for Gingrich earlier that day because “he can beat Obama.” She prefers to get her political news from Fox because, she says, it’s “fair and balanced.” (Patti was the fourth Republican voter I spoke with yesterday who explained a preference for Fox in terms of the network’s motto.)

When first asked, she characterized the media’s coverage of the South Carolina primary as generally good. But when pressed, she mentioned she had some problems with the reporting: she thought CNN had the right to ask Gingrich about the “open-marriage” story, but believed there were more important things to ask and that the timing of Newt’s second ex-wife’s ABC interview was fishy. She feels the coverage of Romney’s wealth and off-shore bank accounts has unfairly hinted at criminality, when, she said, “he is just being a good business man.”

She also faults the media for bringing in their personal biases and trying to influence the public, and for not scrutinizing Obama with the same aggressiveness applied to the Republican candidates.

Yet far more problematic to Patti—and to nearly everyone I spoke with at the Gingrich event—than the media coverage, has been the negative advertising that has accompanied the campaigns (and originates from them or, more often, from the super PACS supporting but not “coordinating” with them). “It’s just nasty—to the point it makes you disillusioned,” she said. “No one’s life is perfect.”

Actually, I heard a lot of voters in South Carolina say they’re sick of the negative advertising—and I also heard about what they want from their media. More on that later this week.

Correction: The original version of this piece mentioned that the Sciolaro family had been mentioned in coverage by a Danish television station. In fact, the television station was Dutch. The relevant sentence has been corrected. CJR regrets the error.

Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.