Newt Gingrich made headlines late last week during an interview with ABC News when he unloaded on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi regarding the unfolding Beltway process gotcha story about what she knew about the use of torture seven years ago. Gingrich made a news splash with his red-hot rhetoric, condemning Pelosi as a "trivial politician" who is either "incompetent or dishonest," and accusing her of having "lied to the House." He demanded a congressional investigation and noted that, as "an Army brat," he was appalled by the Democrats' disinterest in defending America.
ABC News posted a news bulletin online, and just as quickly, it landed on the Drudge Report, complete with a red headline. News outlets all over the Beltway jumped on the breaking story, including The Boston Globe, CBS, and CNN.
Personally, I thought the Gingrich slap was of marginal interest. (Gingrich attacked a prominent Democrat? Wow, get me rewrite.) And as often happens when I read breaking, this-is-what-Newt-said dispatches, I couldn't help thinking, "Who cares what Newt Gingrich thinks?" And I don't mean that in the partisan sense. I mean it in the journalistic sense: How do Gingrich's daily pronouncements about the fundamental dishonesty of Democrats (Newt's favorite phrase) translate into news? Why does the press, 10 years after Gingrich was forced out of office, still treat his every partisan utterance as a newsworthy occurrence? In other words, why does the press still treat him like he's speaker of the House?
If you don't think the press' treatment of Gingrich is bizarre, then please point out the prominent Democrat who was driven from office during the 1990s, suffers from dreadful public approval numbers, has no actual base of political support, hasn't been elected to office in more than a decade, hasn't had his hands on the levers of powers since before the iPod was invented, and yet is treated like a Beltway big shot. Who is the wildly partisan '90s Democrat who spits out falsehoods with stunning regularity, wallows in sophomoric name-calling, and yet the press corps obediently follows around, making sure to report his or her every utterance as news?
The double standard the press has concocted for Gingrich is blindingly obvious. What gives? Asked during a reader chat why Gingrich's "every pronouncement" gets turned into a "media moment," The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz claimed that the former speaker "is quite adept at drawing media attention" and that he "knows how to frame an issue ... in a way that will generate headlines."
So Gingrich has somehow cracked the media code for generating headlines? He has concocted some rhetorical formula such that when he speaks, reporters are forced to type it up as news? I don't buy it.
Instead, the answer seems rather apparent: In the eyes of the Beltway press, if somebody within the GOP routinely stands up and says mean, nasty things about Democrats, and if that person at times uses shocking rhetoric to denounce Democrats, then that person, by definition, is important. That person is newsworthy. And that person must be taken seriously.
But this rule applies only to Republican name-callers. Anybody on the left who engages in those kinds of ad hominem attacks is dismissed as overly partisan and unserious by the press corps.
And that description I gave of the press treating Gingrich as if he's the central player in today's government is no exaggeration. Just look as this Associated Press dispatch from Saturday:
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has told a Chicago radio show he thinks there will be a formal inquiry into House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's accusation that the CIA misled Congress on waterboarding.
Gingrich spoke Friday morning on WLS-AM's Don Wade and Roma Morning Show.
Gingrich says he believes CIA officials when they say Pelosi was told about waterboarding in a 2002 briefing. Pelosi said Thursday that Congress was told about waterboarding but was assured that the technique wasn't being used.
Gingrich went on a radio talk show, made accusations against a prominent Democrat, and the AP typed it up as news. That really was the entirety of the report: Here's what Gingrich said today. That, in the eyes of AP editors, is news?
The AP is hardly alone. It's become the (odd) Beltway norm. Here's the lead from a May 11 New York Times blog post:
Despite intensifying opposition, President Obama still plans to head to Notre Dame on Sunday to receive an honorary degree and deliver the commencement address.
Adding his voice to a growing chorus, Newt Gingrich renewed his criticisms of both the university and the president for the invitation, but this time as a Catholic.
Noted theologian Newt Gingrich criticized Obama and Notre Dame (a knee-jerk conservative talking point for months), so the Times treated it as news, and then did the same thing in a May 15 article:
Conservatives, frustrated by what they regard as Mr. Obama's skillful efforts to paint himself as a moderate, are all over the airwaves denouncing him as "the most radical, pro-abortion of any American president," as Newt Gingrich, a former House speaker, said on Fox News.
Gingrich took to the "the airwaves" to denounce Obama as radical, and at The New York Times, that's breaking news. To me, it's the definition of predictability.
Nonetheless, The Christian Science Monitor did the same thing:
Newt Gingrich still doesn't like the idea of President Obama delivering the commencement address and receiving an honorary degree from Notre Dame next weekend.
And the UPI (its lead):
Notre Dame compromised its Catholic values by inviting U.S. President Barack Obama to deliver its commencement address, said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
You name it, and if Gingrich makes a partisan pronouncement on it, it's news:
Maybe I'm just slow, so I'll ask the question again: Why is any of this news?
Gingrich no longer represents a constituency. He has no governmental power. He doesn't lead a large organization. (Gingrich belatedly tried to gin up support for the modestly attended "tea parties," but was in no way an organizer.) You can't find his fingerprints on any of the major initiatives that the previous Republican administration embraced and advanced.
Oh, but wait: Gingrich might run for president in 2012. At least according to the AP, which recently identified him in an article as "the former House speaker and potential 2012 presidential candidate." And so that's why he receives so much media attention?
The problem is, I'm pretty sure that if you did a secret GOP ballot these days, you could find 10 to 20 Republicans who might run for president three years from now. So what makes the Georgian so special? Is there some kind of conventional wisdom that he'd be an automatic front-runner, and that's why the press hangs on his every word?
If that's the assumption, it's completely false. Because back in 2007, when there were faint rumors that Gingrich was considering a White House run, a September poll by ABC News that year found that his support for the GOP nomination stood at a minute 5 percent. Other polling in 2007 found that Gingrich was "universally unpopular even among core Republican constituents," which means his actual chances of being the party's nominee in 2012 would appear to be slim and none, and slim's out of town. So there's no justification for the press to treat him as the nominee in waiting.
Oh, I know, Gingrich gets draped with news coverage because he's an ideas man, a public intellectual. Just ask Chris Matthews and Gloria Borger. Beltway conventional wisdom: Gingrich is a deep thinker. Really? Let's go back to that newsmaking interview he gave to ABC News, and let's look at some of the loony claims he made, claims that went unreported in the press, which politely looked away.
The topic was torture, and Gingrich claimed that after the terrorist attacks of September 11, the country was terrified: "We had an anthrax attack. We had a real danger that there might be a nuclear attack." He added that America ought to debate whether the president could authorize "extreme measures" if we think "somebody might be engaged in trying to plant a nuclear weapon in an American city."
Oh, brother. According to Gingrich, we came this close to a nuclear attack after 9-11, and the United States tortured detainees only to prevent nuclear bombs from being detonated in New York or Los Angeles. In truth, Vice President Dick Cheney reportedly asked in 2003 that at least one detainee be tortured in Iraq to try to uncover nonexistent links between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. Meaning the Bush administration OK'd torture for purely political reasons.
The larger point is that Gingrich had no idea what he was talking about. Or he did have an idea and purposefully lied about it to ABC News. He does so with immunity, though, because he understands the press ignores all the wacky misinformation that he's patented, and maintains the façade that he's a deep-thinking visionary.
Like, remember last month when Gingrich went on Fox News and got all sci-fi, declaring that as leader of the free world, he would pre-emptively disarm a North Korean missile with "a laser"? (Paging Dr. Evil.)
If and when Newt Gingrich says something that's actually newsworthy, the press ought to let us know. But until then, let's stop pretending that every partisan utterance the unpopular '90s politician makes requires a headline.