AJR  Features
From AJR,   February/March 2012

Yo, Newt, That Press You Assail Is Actually Pretty Exceptional   

And who are you calling elite? Mon., February 27, 2012.

By Bret Schulte
Bret Schulte (bjschult@uark.edu)is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Arkansas. He profiled Gingrich for U.S. News & World Report in 2005.     

Newt Gingrich may have faded in the polls, but his ideas have long captured the public's imagination. Plenty of Americans, myself included, are entranced by the idea of taking manifest destiny to the final frontier. We've had Sooners; make way for Mooners. I'm not even opposed to turning students into janitors―my four year old sweeps the kitchen, and we've convinced her that she loves it. "Just like Cinderella!" she says. That's right!

What I don't understand is how Gingrich can get away with trashing the press as "elites" while demonstrating a "fundamental" and "profound" (to borrow from his lexicon) misunderstanding of American exceptionalism.

Gingrich has declared that if he were the Republican nominee, he would not accept presidential debates in which reporters were moderators. "We don't need a second Obama person at the debate," he said. This is red meat for the base, of course, but it's not true. And stoking this kind of anger against the media is dangerous, a very threat to the American exceptionalism he trumpets.

American exceptionalism is the idea that this country, by virtue of its beneficence and judgment and power, is the sort of place that other countries should aspire to become. It's all right there in his new book: "A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters." He roots the notion of exceptionalism in the genesis of our country, arguing that the ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness set soldiers' spirits afire. "That was worth fighting for, suffering for, and dying for," Gingrich writes. "That is what made Americans unique in human history and made America, from its inception, a nation like no other."

I happen to think the United States is exceptional. But unlike Gingrich, I don't think it's limited to the wars we've fought or our inalienable right to low taxes. Gingrich says there are "two vital forces that sustain American exceptionalism: freedom and responsibility." I would add a third: the press. For all the rhapsodizing Gingrich does about the values handed down to us from our forefathers, he is omitting that vital First Amendment right, enshrined and protected in the Constitution, that has done as much to preserve democracy in this country as any war―and certainly any politician. Our forefathers believed that threats to the freedom of the press represented an existential threat to our fledgling nation. No other industry can claim such a vaunted role in the annals of American history.

That is why I'm troubled when Gingrich denigrates reporters for cheap applause lines. At the South Carolina debate hosted by CNN on January 19, Gingrich attacked CNN's John King for inquiring about the open-marriage accusation made by one of Gingrich's ex-wives. So Gingrich let loose with this roundhouse right: "I am frankly astounded that CNN would take trash like that and use it to open a presidential debate." The crowd went wild. So did I. But for a different reason. That kind of indignation takes guts from a man running on the values ticket. If integrity and fidelity don't belong in the conversation, then what "values" are Gingrich running on? Furthermore, Gingrich has a prior history, as they might say if he were in front of a jury. Which he is.

Later, Gingrich let loose with this: "I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans." Whooping from the gallery. They were applauding a lie. A massive study by the Pew Research Center shows that the press has swamped President Obama this political season with negative coverage: 34 percent to be exact, compared with just nine percent positive (the rest was neutral)―far worse than any of the Republican candidates. Gingrich has gone on to accuse the "elite" media of not investigating Obama's Saul Alinsky-esque radicalism. The reason, I suspect, that the media are not pursuing this particular story―among the barrage of negative Obama stories it does produce―is because it's wrong. According to whom, you ask? Conservatives such as Reagan-administration officials Bruce Bartlett, Ken Duberstein, Charles Fried, Jeffrey Hart, and Ken Adelman, among others.

There's no doubt the media have their share of failures. They have missed stories, gotten stories wrong and dealt with their own miscreants, such as Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass. Ironically, the press's most recent big failure came by trusting our government officials and printing the misinformation and innuendo that helped grease the wheels as we rolled into Iraq.

So the press isn't perfect. What is? (Would even Gingrich go so far to call America "perfect?") But the press can and should lay claim to being exceptional for the role it's played in shaping this exceptional country's destiny from the very beginning.

In the 1760s, Sam Adams stoked the fires of rebellion in the Boston Gazette and, as documented in Rodger Streitmatter's handy "Mightier than the Sword," "conceived of what became America's first systematic gathering and distributing of news―a precursor of today's Associated Press." Adams' news service, "Journal of Occurrences," spread the facts and opinions necessary to help lead colonists to arms against their oppressor. Remember Thomas Paine's "Common Sense?" That was journalism, too.

From there, the press can take some credit for airing the ills of slavery, unseating Boss Tweed, holding Standard Oil accountable for a cruel and illegal vertical monopoly, documenting the full and horrific effects of radioactive poisoning after Hiroshima, exposing the My Lai massacre, removing a corrupt president from office, showing the world the torture at Abu Ghraib and exposing warrantless wiretapping by the NSA.

That is an exceptional record. One might argue it's a record far more exceptional than the one held by America's politicians, who are undeniably "elite "―if not in character then in class and money. Facts are no way to win an argument―as proven by our presidential debates―but I'd like to present some anyway. The annual salary of a member of Congress is $174,000. According to the Newspaper Guild, the average salary of newspaper journalists at the top of the pay scale is around $52,000. And those are the high-paid union folks.

In 2010, Gingrich made at least $3 million as, among things, a consultant (he insists he was not a lobbyist). This figure is based on what reporters could glean from his tax returns. What the press has yet to discover is who paid Gingrich. How many regular Americans enjoy such mysterious income? A reporter tends to have one source: his or her employer. And the whole world knows who that employer is. It's right there above the byline! For everyone to see!

I like to imagine King George―the monarch who stands between America and its date with exceptionalism in Gingrich's latest book―trying to convince the laborer and peasant colonists that Sam Adams and his "elite press" were really the problem, not an unfair economic system that benefitted a privileged few. It would have been even easier back then―when ignorance was far more common, and excusable―to convince the masses to turn their backs on people who live in their neighborhoods, who understand what it's like to worry about money and their children's futures. All on the word of a man swimming in riches from sources invisible to them.

Perhaps the worst thing about Gingrich's attacks on the press as "elite" and untrustworthy is that he knows better. He really knows better. He is a scholar and a historian. He is Dr. Gingrich of (the elite) Tulane University, who knows history well enough to understand and fear the dangers of anti-intellectual, anti-elite fervor and nationalism run amok. In this exceptional country, we've called them by the names of fascism and communism.

Despite staggering layoffs―newspapers slashed 13,500 newsroom jobs from 2007 to 2010―reporters are still producing high-quality journalism. The Los Angeles Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into corruption of, ahem, elected officials in Bell, California, comes to mind.

Journalists work longer hours than ever before. With smaller staffs, they write more stories. And they are doing it while unlearning and relearning technology in perpetual evolution. Journalists must always be "on". To be Tweeting, linking, reading; to be shooting video or taking photos; to be cross-platform; to update once, twice, three times for the Web; to pull it together for the print publication; to have a presence on Facebook; to be thinking of illustrations and interactive graphics; to gather the data necessary for those graphics. To be a brand. To find the stories out there, somewhere in the dark. To talk to ordinary Americans, the ones who have lost their homes or their jobs or their hope. To be understanding, to have the common touch. To live up to the values enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, to be vigilant in their watch of the country's powerful, the wealthy, the politicians, those people that you and I might call "the elite." And always, to be exceptional.