From the opening minutes of the CNN Southern Republican Debate in Charleston, SC on Thursday, the tone was combative. But it wasn’t the candidates going after each other.
CNN moderator John King opened by asking candidate Newt Gingrich to address allegations of infidelity made by his former wife in an interview with ABC News.
Rather than respond to the allegations, Gingrich unleashed an angry tirade on King, and the rest of the “elite media,” to a rousing applause from the audience.
“I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office. And I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.” Gingrich said, leaving the CNN anchor stammering to defend himself.
Whether or not it was the right choice of opening question, one thing is clear: in the debate, as in the campaign as a whole, slamming the media is a sure way to win points with voters.
Over the course of our week in South Carolina, I heard numerous references to the ‘elite’ or ‘liberal’ media from all four of the candidates.
Which makes sense. It’s a brilliant tactic, which allows the candidate to paint them selves as an underdog in touch with the common folk, who can’t get the tough truths they’re delivering out to more potential supporters because they’re being censored and attacked by a biased media machine.
But irony of this argument didn’t fully dawn on me until Gingrich’s victory speech on Saturday night, when he again went after the media. In an awkward moment I looked around the packed ballroom and noticed that journalists and TV crews outnumbered his actual supporters about 2 to 1.
Should we take offense? Here we were, spending our Saturday night crowded into a stifling room to broadcast his message around the world. The least he could do was say, “Its okay guys, I’m not talking about you.”
Of course, the seasoned political reporters in the room knew not to take it personally, because they understand the symbiotic relationship that media companies and politicians have.
But back in Charleston on Thursday, at moments it looked a lot more like a debate between the CNN moderator and the four republican candidates, especially when SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act) came up in a question sent in via twitter.
King took the opportunity to disclose that CNN’s parent company, Time Warner was in favor of the law. But it sounded more like he was making an argument for SOPA on their behalf than just pointing out that they had an interest at stake:
“Time Warner says we need a law like this because some of its products, movies, programming, and the like, are being ripped off online,” he said.
All four of the candidates came out against the Republican-introduced bill to varying degrees, slamming nails into the coffin after the bill was effectively killed by the massive protest blackout the previous day.
But in between the individual candidates’ responses, King continued to make what sounded like arguments for the bill.
You can see the back and forth for yourself here:
(No, the irony of embedding an unlicensed rip of the CNN broadcast is not lost on me.)
In the next round of questions, about how the candidates might have run their campaigns differently if they had it to do again, Gingrich took another opportunity to tout himself as a media outsider.
“I would skip the opening three months where I hired regular consultants and tried to figure how to be a normal candidate,” he said. “And I would just go straight to being a big ideas, big solutions, Internet- based campaign from day one.”
Its true that, of all the remaining candidates, he appears to have the most web-savvy campaign, right down to the Foursquare integrated events map on his user-friendly campaign site newt.org.
Despite his dismal national approval ratings, and tainted history, both personal and political, Gingrich seems to have found a sweet spot of playing the outsider and deftly using the mainstream media to deliver his message that he, well, doesn’t have any use for the mainstream media.
It may not be winning him friends at CNN, but it seems to be winning him votes.
This post was produced in partnership with Flip the Media