Newt Gingrich’s Punching Bag at CNN Debate: Moderator John King

In deflecting his ex-wife’s charges, Gingrich found the perfect foil in John King. Howard Kurtz on the candidate’s antimedia offensive—and ABC’s defense for running the interview with Marianne Gingrich.

01.21.12 9:45 AM ET

It was never a fair fight.

In denouncing CNN as “close to despicable” for using an interview with his ex-wife to kick off a debate, Newt Gingrich picked a fight with an opponent who couldn’t punch back.

John King may have chosen to lead off Thursday night’s Charleston faceoff with a question about Marianne Gingrich’s interview with ABC, but when Newt went nuclear on him, the anchor apparently didn’t want to be drawn into a debate and become an even more prominent part of the story. “Is that all you want to say, sir?” King asked.

When Gingrich continued his tirade, King offered a limited defense, saying, “This story did not come from our network” and “is a subject of conversation on the campaign.” But that only emboldened the former speaker to escalate his scolding—“Don’t try to blame somebody else”—before finally getting around to denying that he’d asked his second wife for an open marriage.

Gingrich has a legitimate point: Were the recycled allegations of a bitter ex-spouse the most pressing issue facing the country two days before the South Carolina primary? But his history of taking on journalists—including Fox’s Chris Wallace and Juan Williams—served him well by shifting the focus from his personal misconduct to the big bad media.

King, for his part, says that as a former Associated Press reporter, he decided to lead with Marianne Gingrich’s accusations because they were the newest development before the debate. “We decided—I decided—that we were going to do it and we decided don't try to be cute, don't try to hide it as part of any other discussion, just ask the speaker,” King told viewers Friday. “Look, in this business you know this, you've got to take your lumps. I stand by my decision. I had my job to do. He's a politician. He had his job to do.”

On narrow journalistic grounds, that may have made sense. But to many viewers at home, it may have seemed that CNN was more interested in Newt’s tawdry past than the country’s future.

Of course, King could have argued with Gingrich as he denounced the “vicious” and “destructive” media, the way that, say, Chris Matthews might have done. King could have said this was about character, which is important in a president. He could have said that Gingrich was leading the 1998 impeachment drive over Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky while carrying on with a woman on the House payroll. But then King, who has a long history as an aggressively fair-minded correspondent, would have risked seeming like a Gingrich antagonist.

The Gingrich campaign, meanwhile, stepped up its criticism of ABC on Friday, and the network pushed back hard.

Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond told me that ABC didn’t contact the campaign until Tuesday and that staffers sent conflicting signals on whether the story would be held until after Saturday’s primary. “At a minimum, you have to be suspicious of the timing and what ABC’s real objective was,” Hammond says. He says ABC “didn’t try to talk to other people” who knew Marianne Gingrich, adding: “There was no new information revealed here. You wonder, why now and what’s new?”

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ABC’s chief investigative correspondent, Brian Ross, who interviewed Marianne Gingrich, told me in an interview airing Sunday on CNN’s Reliable Sources that the story ran the day after his report on Mitt Romney’s former company keeping money in the Cayman Islands. “We felt that as long as it wasn’t within 24 hours, that was good for us,” Ross said. That left “sort of one news cycle to allow Mr. Gingrich to respond, and respond he did.”

One of Gingrich’s applause lines at the debate has crumbled upon closer inspection. In castigating ABC, Gingrich said: “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.”

“Simply not true,” says Ross. ABC spokesman Jeffrey Schneider says that “as soon as we could we started asking them for comment. We were trying to nail down the schedule for it to air, with the goal of it being Thursday night.

“When the candidate took the stage and started firing away at us, I imagine he might have known that his daughters had already spoken to us.” In fact, says Schneider, ABC posted online the Thursday interview with the two Gingrich daughters offered up as surrogates, who were included in the Nightline piece, a couple of hours before the CNN debate.

But Gingrich’s language—“attack any Republican”—underscores that these anti-media jihads work far better for conservative candidates. Never mind that mainstream news organizations disclosed sexual misconduct by Clinton, Eliot Spitzer, and other big-name Democrats. Poll after poll shows that Republicans believe, to a far greater degree than Democrats, that the MSM is hostile toward their side. That’s why Gingrich got an ovation from the Charleston crowd. Republicans also are more comfortable running against the “elites,” and it’s easy to accuse an Obama-loving press of being part of the liberal establishment.

In making King and CNN the issue, Gingrich joined a long line of politicians who have savaged the media for reporting on their sexual hijinks. When CNN reporter Mary Tillotson asked George H.W. Bush about a flimsy New York Post report (based on a footnote in a book) that he might have had an affair with an aide, the 41st president snapped that he was “not going to take any sleazy questions like that from CNN.” Bill Clinton denounced what he called Star magazine’s “cash for trash” story in which Gennifer Flowers alleged a 12-year affair with the then-Arkansas governor.

John Edwards dismissed as “tabloid trash” the National Enquirer stories saying that he’d fathered a love child with his campaign videographer. And Herman Cain ripped the media in racially tinged terms for “character assassination” after Politico and others reported on allegations of sexual harassment and an Atlanta station reported a woman’s charge of a long-term consensual affair. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

We will find out Saturday night whether Gingrich successfully turned the tables on the press in an effort to neutralize a potentially damaging story from his past. If he wins South Carolina, the smackdown with John King may well be remembered as the turning point.