'Frontline' embarrasses itself in profile of Newt Gingrich TV preview: Described as 'investigative reporting,' the program relies on flimsy quotes and unsupported assertions. The makers of this quality series should know better.

January 16, 1996|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

"Frontline" calls "The Long March of Newt Gingrich," which airs at 9 tonight on PBS, an "investigative biography."

That sounds impressive, but it's misleading. This is an uninspired television profile; one that tries to pass off as psycho-history some of the flimsiest quotes and most limited research I've ever seen in a "Frontline" report.

I admit that I am not a fan of psycho-history -- although when a historian like Fawn Brody takes on a historical figure like Richard Nixon, the results can be provocative and intellectually exciting.

But it's almost laughable when a producer like "Frontline's" Stephen Talbot tries to explain Gingrich's political life on the basis of a boyhood friend saying young Newt really got off on the feature film "The Magnificent Seven." I say almost because there is nothing funny about such work flying under the banner of "Frontline," generally the best journalistic franchise on broadcast television.

Correspondent Peter Boyer lays out one-half of the report's thesis at the start of the hour when he tells viewers, "Newt Gingrich has what he always wanted political power and the chance to change America. But he is uneasy with his triumph a victor who sees enemies everywhere."

The other half comes 59 minutes later, at the end, when Boyer says, "What can be said for certain is that, at this moment, Newt Gingrich and the Republican Revolution are inseparably fused together. He has been its strength and he is now its frailty. Inevitably, America's judgment of the revolution will be decided by its judgment of him."

Sandwiched in between is the stock narrative of Gingrich's childhood, education and rather shabby rise to power: a strict military man for a stepfather; the strange marriage between Newt (the college freshman) and his high-school math teacher; Gingrich's divorce of the woman as she lay in her hospital bed; his two failed congressional campaigns.

The report spends a lot time on Gingrich's victory in 1978 over Virginia Shapard, which finally got him to Congress.

In this telling, Gingrich smeared her as savagely as Richard Nixon had Helen Gahagan Douglas -- though the facts don't support the assertions.

That's also the case with repeated suggestions that Gingrich has cut his politics to suit the beliefs of his fat-cat contributors. That may well be true, but if this were really an "investigative biography," this would have been the place for actual investigating to nail Gingrich with facts rather than an ambiguous quote from someone who knew Gingrich back when.

None of this is to defend Gingrich -- whose actions I often find indefensible. But just because Gingrich uses loaded rhetoric and innuendo to attack his political opponents does not make it acceptable for television journalists to rely on the manipulation of language, rather than reporting of facts, to make their case against him.

As you watch tonight, make a list of the terms used to describe young Newt: "lonely boy," "awkward," "outsider who didn't date." "Frontline" makes him sound like a cross between Lee Harvey Oswald and the young Nixon. Or for that matter the old Nixon, who also saw "enemies everywhere."

British historian Quentin Skinner, an expert in the philosophy of meaning, says an author's real intention and beliefs can be found in an analysis of appraisive language. If Skinner is right, "Frontline's" intentions are pretty clear.

And what about the report's final claim that "what can be said for certain" is that "America's judgment of the Republican Revolution will be decided by its judgment of Gingrich."

What does that mean, anyway: "America's judgment"? Do you You think Ross Perot, Hillary Clinton, Alfonse D'Amato, William Safire, Kwiesi Mfume and Al Gore, for example, will come to the same conclusion on Gingrich? Do you think their judgment of the Republican Revolution will be based solely on their judgment of Gingrich? Do you think they are that superficial?

I fear "crackpot" might be too strong a term to describe the "Frontline" conclusion, but it would certainly indicate, a la Skinner, my real feelings about this report.

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