Newt Gingrich, the Adversarial News Media and “Camscam”

If you wander over to Politico, you should read an article by Ginger Gibson entitled: “Newt Gingrich and the Press: Secret Pals”  The gist of Gibson’ article is that, despite his righteous indignation and antipathy toward the news media–which he predictably blames for being too “liberal”–Gingrich is a skilled purveyor of the adversarial media.  In direct contrast to his uncomfortable exchanges with Juan Williams of Fox and John King of CNN, Gibson describes Gingrich’s warm rapport with news reporters and other media personalities.

In Gingrich’s infamous exchange with John King–a debate I attended–he noted:

I think the disruptive, vicious, negative nature of the news media makes it harder to govern this country.

Some political scientists would agree.  Empirical research has shown, for example, that people select news outlets that confirm their ideological viewpoints (contributing to polarization) and that uncivil news programs lead to less trust in government.  So in this way, Gingrich is probably right.

Students of Congress, however, will find Gingrich’s statement, let’s say, “unusual” (some would say hypocritical).  In 1970 Congress passed the Legislative Reorganization Act which, among other legislative changes, authorized television broadcasts inside the House of Representatives.  In 1979 the newly created Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network (C-SPAN) began live, gavel-to-gavel coverage of all floor proceedings.  Yay for transparency!  But in 1983 and 1984 a funny (yet predictable) thing happened: members of the newly formed Conservative Opportunity Society, a group founded by Newt Gingrich, began using C-SPAN as a vehicle to politicize the House’s proceedings and embarrass the Democratic majority. You can see elements of the Gingrich/COS strategy today.  Turn on C-SPAN late in the evening and you will see a close-in shot of some representatives addressing the House (see the picture above, for example).  During this time–known as “special orders”–the House has completed it’s daily business, yet members are still permitted speaking time (and the cameras are rolling).  Unbeknownst to viewers, however, the House chamber is usually empty Upset with how Gingrich and his conservative allies were using C-SPAN, then Speaker Tip O’Neil ordered the camera operator to pan the chamber.  By taking the camera shot off the individual, it was revealed that the speaker (in this case Robert Walker, R-PA) was in an empty room (see the picture to the left).  The event spawned a partisan battle and became known as “camscam” (“camgate” was apparently taken).

Perhaps it goes without saying, but the point is that when Gingrich rails against the “negative nature” of the media because it makes our nation “harder to govern,” it’s not that he’s neccessasrcy wrong, just that this is a pot-meet-kettle situation.  One familiar with Gingrich’s past, particularly his role as a partisan insurgent in the House from 1983 to 1994, cannot help but roll their eyes.  He is, after all, a master of the adversarial media (not just a victim).

edit: Jonathan Bernstein has a nice post questioning Gingrich’s similarity outrageous statement that he “voluntarily” left the House for the good of the Republican Party.

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