New Castle News

Mitchel Olszak

January 30, 2012

Mitchel Olszak: Does making the press the villain play over time?

NEW CASTLE — As a journalist and editor, I receive a lot of requests for help.

They come from people suffering from injustice — real or perceived. They come from people who are struggling to grasp the finer points of modern bureaucracy. They come from people who believe I posses the power to alter public opinion in a direction they deem to be desirable.

I suppose such requests are flattering. But they are, at times, frustrating. There may be little I can do for these individuals. Journalists aren’t miracle workers. And we don’t have the ability to right all wrongs.

Besides that, when it comes to the power of the press, I often tell people that the only things newspapers can do is produce words. If there is something that ought to be done as a result of those words, it’s up to the readers to respond.

And I have learned over the years that such a response isn’t always forthcoming. In some instances, what the press does generates a reaction that’s tantamount to blaming the messenger for the message.

A classic example of this occurred a couple of weeks ago in a Republican presidential debate prior to the South Carolina primary. To start the event, moderator John King of CNN asked former House Speaker Newt Gingrich about a report that had surfaced earlier in the day.

It involved claims by one of Gingrich’s ex-wives, Marianne, that he had asked her for an open marriage so he could freely continue his ongoing affair with a woman who is now his current wife.

Gingrich reacted angrily to the question, portraying it as “despicable” and inappropriate for a presidential debate. He added, “I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans.”

Then Gingrich proceeded to basically call his ex-wife a liar by denying her claim.

The reaction from the audience was clear: Gingrich was a hero for taking on the big, bad media. And King, who made a clumsy attempt to justify his question, was humiliated.

It’s now believed that this incident gave a final boost to Gingrich’s South Carolina campaign, propelling him to a solid victory in the contest. And it exposed the nation’s media — or at least much of it — as an ineffective lot, more interested in attacking candidates than informing the public.

Now, I am the first to admit disappointment in how many news organizations do their jobs when it comes to covering national politics. Too many reports treat the selection of a president more like a horse race than a serious exploration of the issues.

And the case can be made that King handled his debate question poorly. It wasn’t the way to lead off the gathering, and better phrasing would have given Gingrich less opportunity to respond as he did.

But I have a few questions for those of you who sided with Gingrich on this point. Don’t we want our presidents to possess a certain degree of character? And isn’t it appropriate to consider how they handle their private lives as a gauge for assessing how they would deal with their public ones?

Plus, isn’t it worth considering that a man who so willingly cheats on his wives would do the same to the American people? Doesn’t trust matter?

Gingrich may have won his battle with the media in South Carolina. But something tells me his character will remain an issue so long as he continues his campaign. I’m just not sure that a candidate’s ability to beat up on the press is the deciding factor for most voters.

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