Ex-Wife Interview Backfires: Why the Media Messed Up

If ABC and CNN don’t learn from the recent episode involving Newt Gingrich and his ex-wife, they never will.

ABC News aired an interview Thursday with Marianne Gingrich, ex-wife number two, who claimed Newt wanted an “open marriage” when they were still married. I believe ABC News should not have aired the interview for the following reasons:

1 – It had no corroborating evidence. It was “he said, she said.”
Just because someone makes a claim, journalists are supposed to investigate the evidence. That used to be standard practice. What if someone said the ABC News president is a child molester? Would they air that without proof?

2 – The story was not new. Newt’s infidelity has been well documented and Mrs. Gingrich actually did a 2010 interview with Esquire Magazine detailing essentially the same story.

3 – There’s a strong possibility an ex-wife might have an ax to grind. Given that about half of marriages end in divorce, this should be a surprise to no one.

4 – The timing. Given that this was not new information, its celebrated release came just two days before the biggest election of Gingrich’s life.

Ironically, CNN’s misstep — making the question the opener for a presidential debate — saved Gingrich’s bacon. He blasted the question and the audience responded with a standing ovation. By most accounts, the race was very tight at the time, but the Gingrich surge from the answer propelled him to a double-digit win.

Should the media be playing such a large role in the election? They should be covering the story, not be part of it.

Given the publicity the story received, I can’t fault CNN for asking for a response. But when their second question involved what will the candidates do about the nearly 10% unemployment in South Carolina, it struck me how skewed their priorities were. I think CNN’s John King is actually pretty fair, he just made a mistake in judgement. The actions of ABC News cannot be excused so quickly.

Many people are drawing a comparison to Bill Clinton’s troubles. However, Clinton was involved with a government employee (an intern) in a government office (White House) and lying under oath. That’s a long way from the private discussions between a man and his wife.

I do believe a candidate’s personal life is fair game, especially when they talk so much about “values.” But the media needs to exercise good judgment in this area. Digging up the guy’s ex-wife? Even the religious  conservatives in South Carolina made it clear, that crossed the line.

The writer is a former TV anchor/reporter and elected GOP official and current Siena College media professor and political consultant.