The victory of Newt Gingrich in South Carolina on Saturday night found much of the TV news punditocracy caught flat-footed, grasping for answers beyond cliches about why the defeat of frontrunner Mitt Romney was accomplished so handily.
On Sunday morning on MSNBC’s Up with Chris Hayes, the host said the primary results represented “genuine surprising uncertainly and unpredictability… no one thought this was going to happen; earlier in the week, i thought this was going to be a kind of season finale” – i.e., an implicit anointment of Romney as the untouchable, forgone candidate.
Well, a surprise to the pundits, left, right, and center. The problem with talking heads invited by cable news to analyze the primaries – whether it’s Fox News having Joe Trippi and Karl Rove handicap Gingrich’s new odds, or MSNBC constantly airing its Chris Matthews ad in which he talks about “American exceptionalism,” a phrase that’s now been co-opted by Newt Gingrich as part of his regular campaign rhetoric – is that they’re working from old models that don’t apply any more. The previous Presidential campaigns that 95% of the pundits use as predictors of the future don’t take into account the profound unease felt by citizens throughout the country combined with the 24-hour news cycle that moves much more quickly than it ever has before.
What’s emerging is that those TV personalities who head up their channels’ coverage, whether it’s Bret Baier and Megyn Kelly on Fox News or Rachel Maddow on MSNBC or John King on CNN, are more important in moving the conversation along than the experts they usher in to tease out meaning from the results. It’s their questions (whether directly to the candidates as moderators, or to their viewers at home, shaping their reports), and the way they frame them, that helps influence their viewers’ interpretation of what the candidates are saying.
This past week, no network benefited more – and benefited Gingrich more – than CNN, with John King’s lead-off debate question to Gingrich about his ex-wife’s charges. On Saturday night, CNN host Piers Morgan interviewed Gingrich’s two daughters about their father’s victory, saying that their dad had become more viable once he stopped trying to be “Saint Newt and became Nasty Newt,” and he asked about King’s “attack” question. A few minutes later, Wolf Blitzer said he needed to “correct” impish Piersy, and get him to retract the use of the word “attack.” The spin was clear: We, as CNN, are supposed to be objective and an “attack” would make us look partisan. Morgan, hired to attack and opinionize, backed down meekly. On Sunday morning on CNN’s Reliable Souces, host Howard Kurtz discussed “Newt’s Nuclear Attack on the Media.” There’s that pesky word “attack,” but applied to the politician, not the media figure.
Going into next week, the litany will start all over again. Talking heads will tell us it’s impossible for Gingrich to defeat Romney in the Florida primary, and maybe they’ll be right. But right or wrong doesn’t matter as much now. It’s the interaction between candidate and media questioners, between anchors and how their audiences interpret the facts, that is moving political discourse – and, to some extent, inescapably, votes.