COLUMBIA, S.C. - Resentment lurks near the surface of the conservative political consciousness. Many voters believe (not always without cause) that elite, hipster liberals in academia and the coastal Big Media are sneering at them, their lives, and their beliefs. They see themselves presented as unsophisticated, bigoted, and quite possibly stupid.
So Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich was tapping into a powerful psychological current when he attacked the news media Thursday at the start of a CNN debate, responding to an ABC News interview with his ex-wife Marianne, in which she said he had demanded an "open marriage" so he could carry on an affair with the woman he subsequently married after divorcing Marianne.
Like a great baseball hitter, Gingrich saw moderator John King's question about the matter as a hanging curveball, looming big as a beach ball in the middle of the plate - and he parked it in the bleachers.
"I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans," Gingrich thundered at the end of an extended riff. The crowd in the North Charleston debate hall stood as one and roared.
Media-bashing has a long and successful history in the Republican politics of the last five decades, a go-to move that rarely fails to arouse the base.
At the 1964 convention in San Francisco that nominated Barry Goldwater, for instance, delegates stood and faced the press galleries and glassed-in network broadcast booths perched in the rafters of the old Cow Palace. They shook their fists, jeered, and booed as speakers excoriated the media for painting the GOP as a nest of right-wing extremists.
Animus toward the media seemed to grow more pronounced in the 1960s as many conservatives believed that Vietnam War protesters and the counterculture were being glorified at their expense. The Merle Haggard country hit "Okie from Muskogee" captures that sentiment.
In 1970, Vice President Spiro Agnew launched a famous attack on the news media for criticism of the Nixon administration, telling an audience in San Diego that "we have more than our share of the nattering nabobs of negativism." Agnew fired other alliterative insults straight from the SAT verbal section: "pusillanimous pussyfooters" and "vicars of vacillation" among them. The phrases have been attributed to erudite speechwriter (and later New York Times columnist) William Safire.
More recently, Republicans in 1992 sported bumper stickers defending President George H.W. Bush, who was often portrayed as out of touch and ineffectual amid a recession. "Annoy the Media: Re-elect Bush," it said.
In 2008, John McCain's campaign had one of its biggest fund-raising hauls the day after a New York Times report suggesting ethical concerns surrounding his ties with a female lobbyist. His campaign called the article "a scurrilous attack against a great American hero" and appealed to donors for contributions so it could "respond and defend our nominee from the liberal attack machine."
And McCain's vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, after she stumbled badly in early TV interviews (sample query: What newspapers do you read?), made complaints about the "gotcha questions" of the news media a regular crowd-pleasing feature of her stump speech.
Gingrich, the former House speaker, owes much of his rise in the 2012 race to media-bashing. His staff had quit and his campaign was broke last August, when he upbraided debate hosts Bret Baier and Chris Wallace of Fox News for asking him what he, too, derided as "gotcha questions." He has regularly included such broadsides since.
But the indignation he summoned Thursday night was epic.
"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," Gingrich said, his eyes narrowing in anger. "Every person in here knows personal pain. . . . To take an ex-wife and make it two days before the primary a significant question for a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine."
Ironically, reporters who travel regularly with Gingrich say he is friendly and solicitous to them in person, and often engages them in freewheeling discussions at the end of the day, according to Politico. The truth is, politicians and the media need each other.
Perhaps the most famous Republican expression of disgust with the media came in 1962 from Richard M. Nixon, after he'd lost the California gubernatorial race. "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference," he told reporters.
Yet six years later, his masterful use of the media helped him become president.