The most important moment in what may prove the most important debate of the Republican presidential nomination fight came right after the first commercial break, when Newt Gingrich went after the only opponent he detests more than Mitt Romney: whoever is the moderator. In Jacksonville, Florida, Thursday night, that man happened to be Wolf Blitzer, who asked Gingrich whether he was “satisfied right now with the level of transparency as far as [Romney’s] personal finances.” Gingrich, eyes gleaming, shot back at Blitzer, “This is a nonsense question,” to hoots and hollers from the audience. “Look, how about if the four of us agree for the rest of the evening, we’ll actually talk about issues that relate to governing America?”
The MSNBC host Alex Wagner has likened Gingrich to an angry teddy bear, but in this case of ursid-on-canid action, the wolf got the better of the scrap. Instead of backing down, Blitzer calmly pointed out that Gingrich himself had made an issue of Romney’s Swiss and Cayman Islands bank accounts. Gingrich tried once again to intimidate Blitzer, but the moderator stood firm—and when Gingrich then sought to squirm away, Romney dove in for the kill, challenging him to put up or shut up. The crowd turned on Gingrich, laughing and jeering; for the rest of the night, he behaved more like an overfed, declawed, zoo-dwelling panda than a ferocious wild grizzly.
Although Gingrich’s attack-the-moderator gambit did not work out so well in Jacksonville, it’s easy enough to understand why he tried it. Time and again, his mau-mauing of the media has earned him big points, and not just from the GOP base but the press corps itself. Just a week earlier, Gingrich’s deboning of Blitzer’s CNN colleague John King had been praised to the skies by the commentariat as a brilliant display of headline-stealing strength—as well as Meryl Streep–level thespianship and Al Pacino–esque scenery-chewing. And among the assembled journalists in Jacksonville, there was palpable disappointment at Gingrich’s failure to pull off a similarly galvanizing performance.
All of which highlights a larger dynamic that’s at once curious, ironic, and of no small long-term import: that the very “liberal media” that Gingrich delights in excoriating are, in fact, in his corner in his battle with Romney. For Gingrich, this may turn out to be a crucial asset—especially if, as seems likely, he falls short in the Florida primary and is forced into survival mode. And while the media dynamic may not be enough to keep Romney from the nomination, the sentiments underlying it will bedevil him mercilessly in the fall should he face off with Barack Obama.
The idea that the mainstream press has an institutional rooting interest that favors Gingrich over Romney seems obvious enough to me. On TV on the night of the South Carolina primary, I remarked that the former’s victory meant he would “get so much free media attention over the next few days, it is going to be wall-to-wall Gingrich”; that the media “want this race to go on, and so he is gonna … get more attention and in some ways more favorable coverage … than he would ordinarily from people who would normally give him tougher scrutiny.” This provoked a fair degree of outrage on both the right and left, with the Balloon Juice blogger John Cole summing up the chagrin thus: “It’s right fucking there in front of you. They are telling you their priority. It isn’t to inform or deal with facts—it is horse race and page hits.”
To which I say: Yo, dude, I’m not endorsing this reality, I’m just describing it. And a reality is what it is. Indeed, according to a study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs, in the ten days leading up to the New Hampshire primary, when the post-Iowa sense of Romney’s inevitability kicked in, the coverage of the former Massachusetts governor has been markedly more negative than that of the former speaker (or Rick Santorum or Ron Paul). Anecdotally, the same has been true since, with Romney’s stumbles and Gingrich’s surge dominating the news in the Palmetto State and Romney’s taxes receiving as much unhelpful attention in Florida as the orchestrated Establishment backlash against Gingrich.
What explains the imbalance? Though some ultracon conspiracists believe that the press is attempting to take down Romney and elevate Gingrich because of their relative strengths as opponents to Obama, the truth is less nefarious. “The tone of the coverage depends less on the candidates than on the overall dynamic of the race,” says CMPA director Robert Lichter. “Journalists love a horse race and hate a front-runner.”
But there’s more to it than that, of course. And here is where John Cole and his ilk have at least half a point—one that cuts against the notion of ideological bias and toward economic bias. “The press tends to be liberal, to live in New York and D.C.,” says the Daily Caller’s Matt Lewis. “But I don’t think they wake up every day and ask, ‘How can I attack conservatives?’ The bias is toward sensationalism, ad clicks, page views, what sells papers. It is in journalists’ interests to keep things interesting.”
A bias that favors sensationalism is a bias that by definition favors Gingrich, who is sensational in every sense of the word. The kind way of describing this is to say that Newt is recognizably human: He is, as BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith puts it, “a flawed, interesting man with a story that includes success and failure.” A more colorful way is offered by the National Review’s Jim Geraghty: “He’s Rex Ryan, with an enormous ‘Can you believe what this guy said?’ factor in every appearance.” Or, perhaps even more apt, Gingrich is a candidate forever on the verge of spontaneous human combustion—and what reporter in his right mind would want to drive a guy like that out of the race any sooner than necessary?
The other factor in Gingrich’s favor is that, like George W. Bush and John McCain, he understands the ironies and oddities of the candidate-journalist tango—he is in on the joke. In South Carolina, he was asked by Time’s Mark Halperin if Romney’s having strapped his dog on the roof of his car for a family trip would be an electability issue for him, hurting him with animal lovers. “I can’t believe you came up with that question, a man of your sophistication,” Gingrich purred, smiling wryly, and then proceeded to uncork a doozy. “There are many characteristics that come out in the course of a presidential campaign, from the use of words, like ‘I like firing people’ … to putting a dog on the top of a car for nine hours … I wouldn’t want to debate Barack Obama with that in my background.”
And here we come to the other side of the coin: why the press is tough on Romney. Among his advisers, there is considerable wailing about the unfairness of it and many theories for why it is the case. That what one of them calls the “D.C. greenroom culture” distrusts private-sector success. That it is desperate to preserve its prerogatives in conferring legitimacy on and ultimately anointing a party’s leader—and that Romney threatens those powers because he has never played the inside-the-Beltway game.
There may be a smidgen of truth to those arguments, but other factors loom larger, I think. Most plainly, there is the media’s antipathy to the kind of disciplined, unspontaneous, inaccessible campaign that Romney is running. Also to the fact that, hey, let’s face it, he’s not exactly a Roman candle of a candidate. Then there is the temperamental gorge that separates him from most journalists. “Reporters are the kids in the back of the classroom, throwing spitballs,” says Lewis. “McCain would be sitting back there, too, saying, ‘I’m not listening to this B.S.,’ and so would Gingrich. Romney is the guy sitting up in front, raising his hand to every question. Reporters listen to Arcade Fire; Romney listens to the Carpenters and Donny and Marie.”
The suspicion of Romney is even deeper than that, however. Ever since his run in 2008, when his contortions on various issues earned him his reputation as an inveterate flip-flopper, the members of the media—and his rivals, then and today—have regarded him as a phony, his candidacy based on, as Smith puts it, “some really brittle half-truths about his consistency.” But now there is a creeping sense that he may be something worse; that on a range of issues, notably his finances, Romney is making claims that may be less than fully truthful. This perception may or may not be fair, but trust me, it is growing—and problematic. Much as the press enjoys poking at phoniness, it absolutely relishes demolishing a liar.
What all of this means for Gingrich is that, brutal as a loss in Florida would be to his prospects, the press may help keep him on life support into the spring. What it means for the general election, though, is somewhat less clear. No person with eyes in his head in 2008 could have failed to see the way that soft coverage helped to propel Obama first to the Democratic nomination and then into the White House. But in the course of the past three years, reporters, as is their wont, have arrived at a more measured (and even jaundiced) view of him. Let’s hope that means that in this fall’s horse race, both ponies get ridden equally hard.