Missing the point in the uproar over Gingrich's mom

January 08, 1995|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The country's having an attack of willful naivete. Everybody wants to be innocent again. Newt Gingrich's poor mom said the B word to that mean Connie Chung, and the consensus is that the old lady's been sandbagged.

"Old lady?" I hear you cry.

Yes, yes, old lady. That's the essence of the argument, isn't it? Poor Mrs. Gingrich is too old to understand the insidious ways of the modern electronic age. She's not sophisticated like the rest of us out here in America, who got our upper-level degrees in mass media by watching C-Span coverage of the House Judiciary Committee while the old folks were up in the attic knitting doilies. She doesn't understand the choreography, the mutual back-scratching, of politicians and the great television networks. Her son must have forgotten to mention it to her.

Connie Chung asked Mrs. Gingrich to whisper Newt's opinion of Hillary Clinton, and the poor woman thought she and Connie were having a moment of genuine intimacy there, just the two of them and Mr. Gingrich at the kitchen table and, oh, yeah, those three television cameras crammed into the room, one pointed directly at Mrs. Gingrich, one pointed at Chung, one at Mr. Gingrich, plus those hot TV lights, plus all the microphones that all those network technicians had taped to everyone's clothing and then run the wires up their bodies so that all of America could hear what they were saying even if they whispered it intimately.

Yeah, intimately.

Yeah, let's just the two of us whisper little secrets, because we're such close personal friends and not actually a network anchorwoman here specifically to do a story about the mother of the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Did Connie Chung get Kathleen Gingrich to say something she wasn't prepped to say on national television? Absolutely. That's the job of any reporter. The game is so carefully plotted now, with the politicians trotting out their families and their spin

doctors, and all of them programmed to stick to specific %J language, that reporters have to use a variety of techniques to break through the script to some semblance of spontaneity, wherein lies the truth. So what, exactly, offends us? That Mrs. Gingrich was tricked into thinking she was sharing a secret? What secret? That her son doesn't like Hillary Clinton? Wow, there's a bulletin.

That Chung made Mrs. Gingrich look crude and vulgar in front of the nation? If that's the problem, CBS is far guiltier in other areas. Was it necessary to mention that Gingrich's father's an old-fashioned guy who chews tobacco -- and then show him spitting tobacco juice into the kitchen sink?

Now, that's offensive. Not on Mr. Gingrich's part. He's entitled to do what he wants in his own home. But what made CBS think the rest of America needed to see him expectorating in our homes? (Nostalgia for absent baseball players, those nonpareils spitting?) This is why God invented editing. CBS spent hours doing the Gingrich interviews, from which they gave us 12 minutes. If Connie Chung teased the B word out of Mrs. Gingrich, that's one thing. But, surely, the decision to use that exchange (and the tobacco-spitting) was made not only by Chung, but by CBS News higher-ups who understood the terms of the dance: Gingrich gets exposure; CBS gets ratings. Gingrich feigns outrage; CBS gets higher ratings.

From the first moment of the story, you could spot the theatrics. From the second floor of the Gingrich home, you see the front door open and Mrs. Gingrich greeting Chung. Are we supposed to believe the TV camera just happened to be sitting there when Chung arrived? Did the Gingriches not know there were cameras all over their house? Yes, of course they did. That's part of the implicit deal: CBS gets enough access to make the story visually appealing, and the Gingrich camp gets to show the heretofore well-disguised human side of Newt.

And that's what has Newt so riled up. It's not merely that his mom was caught looking crude on TV, it's that it gave the whole country a chance to say: See that? The apple doesn't fall far from the tree. See that? The mean-spiritedness goes on.

Except that a lot of us have missed that point, haven't we? (At the local CBS affiliate, WJZ, for example, more than 200 people called to complain about the Chung-Gingrich exchange -- almost all of them condemning Chung -- when the story first broke. After the full interview was shown Thursday, there was only a handful of calls. Maybe it's that the story was two days old by then, or maybe a fuller viewing gave new perspective.) But clearly, many of us think poor Mrs. Gingrich, naive and trusting, got sandbagged. And this image offends us. But it presumes she's never seen these news magazines, which are maybe a half-step removed from tabloid TV.

Here's something to remember about the show on which she agreed to appear: Its final segment was an incestuous bit about what it's really like to be a guest on the David Letterman Show. Letterman's on the same network. And who was the guest on the Letterman show? Connie Chung.

If they're calling that journalism, then that's offensive.

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