Former McCain strategist Steve Schmidt made the statement over the weekend that were Newt Gingrich to win the Florida primary after winning South Carolina, we might see a bit of a civil war within the Republican Party ensue. Well, I think we got a taste of some of the opening salvos of that during this interview from Sunday's Reliable Sources on CNN.
The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin was not at all happy with CNN debate moderator John King for the question he asked Newt Gingrich to open up their South Carolina debate earlier in the week, but not for the same reason the audience was displeased. It's not often I agree with Rubin on much of anything, but she's right here that King lobbed Gingrich a complete softball in the way he framed the question and should have known better that Gingrich was going to go after him and attack him for it.
Rachel Maddow actually made a very similar point in her coverage shortly after the debate, noting that there were about a dozen different ways that question could have been framed for Gingrich so he would have had to answer for the hypocrisy of one, being from the party that claims to run on family values when you've got a history of cheating on your spouses. And two, the utter hypocrisy of Gingrich cheating on his wife at the same time he was trying to have President Clinton impeached for similar behavior.
Howard Kurtz did point out that Rubin is a supporter of Mitt Romney during the segment. What he failed to note is that she wrote an op-ed the previous day, basically begging a number of people in the Republican Party leadership to come together and "collectively get behind a not-Gingrich candidate." Schmidt talked about the panic that was coming if it looked like Newt Gingrich might actually have a chance to win the Republican nomination. Well, as BooMan put it in his post on Rubin's op-ed -- I Got Your Panic, Right Here.
The other thing missing from this discussion is one of the reasons for the audience at the debate being so completely hostile to John King, or to Juan Williams earlier in the week as well, and that's how many of them are potentially Fox News viewers or listen to right wing radio and have been completely propagandized to believe that you can't trust the "liberal media" and that conservatives are somehow under assault from those evil lefties that are just out to get them? We've got large swaths of this country who have been trained to believe that Fox is the only place they can trust to get their information from and as much as CNN tries to go after those viewers by catering to the AstroTurf "tea party" or with their fake balance and host of "conservative" pundits who come on the air and lie to their viewers as well, they're still going to be part of that "liberal cabal" that they've been taught to hate.
As has already been noted here, Fox viewers are less informed than those who watch no news at all. I imagine a good deal of them were in those audiences cheering for Gingrich's attack on John King and booing Juan Williams for daring to point out that Gingrich has been playing the race card. I don't expect Kurtz and his guests to be pointing that out since CNN is about one notch above Fox in the misinformation game, if not on a par with them.
Transcript via CNN below the fold.
KURTZ: Joining us now to examine Gingrich's war with the media and his stunning comeback victory in the South Carolina primary, Ryan Lizza, political correspondent for "The New Yorker" magazine; Jennifer Rubin, author of "The Washington Post" "Right Turn" blog; and Terence Smith, former media correspondent for PBS' "NewsHour."
Terry Smith, was it a blunder, plain and simple, for John King to lead off that debate, very first question -- with the question about Gingrich's ex-wife?
TERENCE SMITH, FORMER PBS CORRESPONDENT: It was a gift to Newt Gingrich, I'll say that. I mean, you got the impression that Newt was rather ready for that, didn't you?
I mean, he used it. He used it effectively. And you would have to judge from the results profitably in the primary.
Was it -- was it a mistake? You can defend it on the grounds that it was the news of the day. But it certainly was maladroit. It wasn't very well done, and it would have been vastly better if it had been brought up by one of the other candidates.
KURTZ: Well, I've said it's a misstep. I think it was perfectly fine for John King to ask the question, but the way he asked it at the very top, Ryan Lizza, didn't it give the impression, fairly or unfairly, that CNN thought this was the most important thing to be discussed, you know, more important than the economy, more important than health care, more important than Afghanistan?
RYAN LIZZA, NEW YORKER MAGAZINE: Wait a minute. I totally disagree. We had over a dozen debates, right? We've gotten to every single important issue in this campaign. It's come one after another, week after week.
That was the issue that day. It was driving all the coverage of the campaign, and right now we would be sitting here talking about why didn't John King ask that question if he hadn't.
KURTZ: You are totally fine with him asking, and you are fine with him asking it at the top of the debate?
LIZZA: Absolutely is. It's what everyone was tuning in, was wondering about this campaign. It's what everyone was tuning in to see.
I mean, the genius of Gingrich here was, as Karl Rove wrote in a column recently in "The Wall Street Journal" -- these aren't really debates. They're press conferences.
And the fact --
KURTZ: And a theater.
LIZZA: And they're theater.
And the fact is, as Rove pointed out, I thought this was very shrewd. They've sucked some of the power from the campaigns to us in the press, which is great if you are in the press. And Newt's gift here is he figured out a way to sort of shift that power back to him.
KURTZ: Jennifer Rubin, it's no secret that you have been a big Mitt Romney supporter in your blog and very --
JENNIFER RUBIN, WASHINGTON POST: Oh, not exactly. Also, I'm the only one to ever come for Rick Santorum before the rest of the media caught up.
KURTZ: That's fine.
RUBIN: I have been very critical of so many other candidates.
KURTZ: You have been critical of one Newt Gingrich of Georgia.
KURTZ: Coming back to the John King question. On Twitter when this happened, you called him a dope. This is a guy who's been a respected political reporter for 25 years for the "A.P." and for CNN. I thought that was beneath you.
RUBIN: No, I think it's fair. I think the question was phrased in a very dopey fashion, which was set up --
KURTZ: OK. So, maybe it was a dopey question.
KURTZ: You called him a dope.
RUBIN: Listen, it's Twitter, in the midst of the moment.
KURTZ: Do you regret using that language?
RUBIN: The question was dopey. If he hadn't thought through it, then shame on him. It was a setup. He should have -- Newt Gingrich should thank him for the largest in kind donation in American political history because he probably won the South Carolina primary on that basis.
And for someone to ask a question in that fashion where you know he is going to hit it out of the ballpark, follow it up with a very defensive kind of silly argument that it didn't come from CNN, I thought was beneath him. And it didn't play to his benefit. It sort of transfixed the rest of the panel, subsumed the rest of the debate, and I think it was a mistake.
KURTZ: Let me pick this up after we have a chance to hear what John King said after the debate. Here he is on "THE SITUATION ROOM" talking about his decision, he said it was his decision to use that question at the top.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) KING: We decided -- I decided that we were going to do it, and then we decided, don't try to be cute, don't try to hide it as part of any other discussion, just ask the speaker. You look in his business -- you know this -- you got to take your lumps.
I stand by the decision. I have my job to do. He's a politician. He has his job to do.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Terry Smith, Ryan Lizza makes the point that this is what everyone was waiting for. But everyone, I think, what Ryan really means is journalists, political insiders. People obsessed with this stuff.
I wonder if there's a disconnect with what the political media complex was obsessing on, and average folks who may not care all that much about what Marianne Gingrich thinks about their marriage.
SMITH: I suspect there were people in that audience and in the audience at large that did care about what Marianne Gingrich said and were at least curious to see what Newt Gingrich would say in response.
But what stunned me was the standing applause for Newt Gingrich when he attacked John King. The delight of that audience in South Carolina, that Republican largely white audience in South Carolina, who loved to see the media skewered by --
KURTZ: Cared more about that than the messiness in Gingrich's personal life?
SMITH: More than the answer.
RUBIN: Well, I think they like the answer? Because what the answer was is: we're sick of the media. It was a non-substantive, had nothing to do with the issues of the day, and he has tapped into that vein of segmented anger.
KURTZ: The answer of the skewering.
SMITH: And that's what they liked.
LIZZA: But let me just say, I think the gap between what the average voter wants, what we sometimes think the average voter wants, which we really don't know, and what so-called insiders want in these campaigns, it's narrowed.
Everyone has access to the same information these days. Everyone is online. People who watch a Republican debate or in that Republican debate, they know exactly what the political conversation is among the insiders, because that's now been sort of universalized.
I don't think we should pretend to know what people really want.
KURTZ: Right. But there are times, let's face it, when the media are simply out of touch with America. I want to come back to this conversation.
KURTZ: I -- settle down. I didn't mean to shock you. I know it's early on a Sunday morning.
An unusual move, FOX anchor Neil Cavuto tore up the format of his program to defend CNN's John King. Let's take a look at that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
NEIL CAVUTO, FOX NEWS: John King is an excellent journalist. Newt Gingrich is an excellent politician. The excellent politician swaths away at embarrassing question by trying to embarrass the guy who asks it. Now, that's to be expected.
The excellent journalist, nevertheless, asked that question -- knowing full well a crowd, and a big one, will turn on him because he did ask it.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Ryan, should King have frame the question more pointedly rather than to say do you want to say something about this, so that the audience would understand why it was important. And once Gingrich, you know, just unloaded on, and took that club and whacked him, should he have come back more forcefully and defended his question?
LIZZA: Well, look, I'm not going to criticize King and it's very tough situation to be in. But I don't think the way he asked it really mattered. Gingrich was prepared for that to be the first topic of the night, and he had an attack planned on the press, no matter how it was asked.
KURTZ: But the danger then, you are the moderator of the event, is you don't want to be drawn into the position of debating the candidate, like you're not just a moderator, but a participant.
LIZZA: You don't want to make it all about you.
SMITH: You know --
RUBIN: I have to disagree. There was a great opportunity to do that because in an earlier debate, when they were speaking more generically about the issue of infidelity, Gingrich gave a rather sincere little spiel that, yes, this was important. People had to be concerned. It's part of the whole.
And I wonder if John King had read that back to Gingrich in this context and explained people's concerns, whether he would have gotten such a strong response.