Last night, Fox News host Megyn Kelly had former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich on her show. He’s a fan, albeit a critical one, of Donald Trump and they were talking about the election. You can watch it here:
Kelly begins by talking about how the Cook Political Report now predicts the GOP will lose the Senate. She asks if that shows that the GOP chose the wrong candidate. Gingrich says Charlie Cook is not infallible and that there is unprecedented early voting among Republicans in Florida and Pennsylvania. It’s unclear what he meant, since Pennsylvania does not have early voting.
It’s a contentious interview, as they fight over all the polls that show Trump doing less well than he needs to. “I don’t take polls as seriously as people who’ve never run for office,” Gingrich says, which would be news to everyone who knows how much success he had poll-testing his major campaign initiatives.
But Gingrich argues that intensity is on Trump’s side and that anger at corruption will hurt Hillary Clinton. After four minutes of this back and forth, Kelly reminds Gingrich that Trump has a bunch of problems related to calling women fat or making unsolicited advances on them, which she proceeds to detail for the viewers who had lived under rocks for the past couple of weeks.
Gingrich notes that one night the networks spent 23 minutes on allegations against Trump versus a total of 56 seconds on the news about Hillary Clinton’s dream of a borderless Western Hemisphere.
Kelly conditionally refers to Trump as a “sexual predator” and that’s when things really start to get heated. Gingrich gets upset and Kelly says, “Your defensiveness may speak volumes, sir.” She proceeds to detail some more of the allegations against Trump, and says that these stories must be covered. They fight over the relative amount of time she’s spent on sexual assault allegations versus stories coming out of WikiLeaks and he says, “You wanna go back through the tapes of your show recently, you are fascinated with sex and you don’t care about public policy.”
She denies it but says she is fascinated by the protection of women and understanding what you’re getting in the Oval Office. So Gingrich says, “So we’re going to send Bill Clinton back to the East Wing because after all you are worried about sexual predators.”
Kelly says that women are concerned about these allegations and he asks if she wants to comment on whether the Clinton ticket has a relationship to a sexual predator. He dares her to use the words “sexual predator” in conjunction with “Bill Clinton.” She declines the opportunity and says he’s not on the ticket. She ends the interview by saying, “And you can take your anger issues and spend some time working on them, Mr. Speaker.”
So that’s some good television! The Hill’s media reporter Joe Concha said afterwards, “It’ll be interesting to see who takes what side between Newt and Megyn Kelly just had a blowout of unique proportions.”
I’m not sure how interesting it was. Trump fanatics loved the segment because they thought Gingrich got the better of Kelly. Trump haters, which include most of the media, proceeded to tweet out the “fascinated with sex” line and they all expressed shock or horror.
When Gingrich said, “You are fascinated with sex and you don’t care about public policy,” I mumbled under my breath, “It’s true. I am fascinated with sex.” But, then again, it’s one of my favorite things to write about.
What was funny about all the media responses to this segment, though, was that they basically proved Gingrich’s point. He said they don’t care about policy so much as distractions, and they immediately took to their fainting couches and screaming rooms to protest that what Newt said was “bizarre” and that he had “melted down” and “lost it.”
Totally apart from the interview which, full disclosure, I simply found enjoyable and entertaining on both sides, here’s how this media reaction came off to me.
“You all don’t cover policy.” — Newt
“Oh yeah, we will show you by freaking out over what you said! And then who will be proven right?” — the media
Of course many reporters care about sex more than policy. That’s a given. But if this election has shown us anything, it’s that many political journalists care about many things more than they care about policy.
The Lengths We’ll Go to Avoid Substance
Take this New York Times list that received a ton of praise from, well, people in the media:
The New York Times (@nytimes) October 24, 2016
I’m sorry, but what is that? It’s a good idea for a campaign ad for Hillary Clinton to spend money on, perhaps, but why would a newspaper do that? It would be one thing if the newspaper were also publishing a list of Clinton’s ever-changing story about her private email server, or a list of every foreign donation she received at the Clinton Foundation, or the most damning things she’d said while serving as secretary of State. But they don’t.
But were those pages really better spent on insults than on policy? At this stage of the race, in particular? Really? And if you bothered to read them, many weren’t even insults so much as descriptions. Or they were just true mean things. Here are four insult topics in a row that give a taste:
The Cruz-Kasich pact
FAILED ATTEMPT AT POLITICAL COOPERATION
“dead on arrival!”
“joke of a deal”
“not being honored”
Leaked D.N.C. emails
“should never have been written”
“really dumb but record setting”
The Democratic debate
I mean, does anyone disagree with any of these statements Trump made? Yes, there are tons of insults, too, but including his claim that the DNC emails that were leaked show “bad judgment” muddies the waters.
Ignoring Substance from Debates
Or what about last week’s debate, where moderator Chris Wallace did what few moderators at prior debates did? It was far and away the best and most interesting debate in part because he focused so much on substantive policy issues. As I previously wrote:
This was far and away the most substantive debate of the bunch. A friend I watched with made the point that Wallace set higher expectations for the candidates and allowed them to reach higher. He asked a few personal questions, such as about pay for play at the Clinton Foundation and allegations Trump has mistreated women. Most questions dealt with policy, including questions about debt, the Supreme Court, abortion, the right to keep and bear arms, immigration, and Obamacare. When they failed to answer, he asked them to do so. He forgot to do that with a question about Bill Clinton’s treatment of women and Hillary Clinton’s role in enabling that.
Yet even when armed with an hour and a half of substantive differences on policy issues that are important to the current election, the media chose to obsess — and I do mean obsess — over Trump’s comment that “I will look at it at the time” regarding accepting November 9 election results. That quip led every debate story across the land.
Even when journalists did focus on policy, they didn’t focus on policy that the candidates themselves talked about; they focused on fake policy that nobody actually talked about. Trump brought up Clinton’s preferred abortion policy—legal until the very last minute of birth—and all anyone could say was, “LATE-TERM ABORTIONS ARE RARE!” It was a non-sequitur fit for the ages.
Ignoring Substance from Gettysburg Speech
Last week, Trump unveiled a 100-day plan for what he would do if elected. It included six measures to root out corruption and special interest collusion in DC, including the proposal of a constitutional amendment for term limits. It had seven actions to “protect American workers,” including renegotiating NAFTA and canceling payments to United Nations climate change programs in favor of American environmental infrastructure spending.
He said he’d cancel every unconstitutional executive action and order issued by President Obama, select a new Supreme Court justice to replace Antonin Scalia, cancel federal funding to sanctuary cities, begin removal of criminal illegal immigrants, and suspend immigration from terror-prone nations. He had various pieces of legislation he wanted to pass, including a tax simplification act, an anti-offshoring act, an investment in energy act, a school choice act, a replacement for Obamacare, an affordable childcare and eldercare act, an act to build a wall on the southern border, an act to create a task force on violent crime, an act on expanding military investment, an act to target special interests in politics.
I had to go to Trump’s website to learn about this because all the stories I came across focused instead on a few seconds Donald J. Trump spent claiming he’d sue his accusers. Not that mentioning that is unimportant, but some perspective is in order. It sounds like I wasn’t alone in my frustration over how the media spun things so very far away from substance.
Here’s what Bob Nolan of Mission Viejo said to the editors of the Los Angeles Times:
To the editor: Hearing of Donald Trump’s policy speech in Gettysburg, Pa., on Saturday, I opened my Sunday Times to read about it. What I found was an article buried on Page A12 giving almost no detail. (“‘All of these liars will be sued when the election is over’: Donald Trump denounces accusers,” Oct. 22)
The article characterized the speech as a rehash of old information, laced with familiar charges of a corrupt media, threats against the women accusing him of sexual misconduct and allegations of a rigged election. Of course, the article did not mention the main text of the speech and his commitment to the voters and glossed over some of the new points outlined by Trump.
I found the full text of the speech elsewhere and realized it was an excellent summary of his game plan for his first days as president. People have been complaining about lack of substance; this speech had it, but it was not reported by The Times.
Whether you love him or hate him, Trump is correct: The election is rigged and the media are corrupt.
The Candidates’ Flaws Do Not Exonerate the Media
Yes, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton hate talking about substance, particularly at a deep level. Hillary is running a dry, disciplined, textbook campaign and Trump is distracted by literally everything, no exceptions. Their followers may support them thanks to the policies they believe they’ll espouse, but the candidates don’t seem particularly good at making policy the centerpieces of their campaigns.
Trump’s message is something about fighting the corruption of DC and the failure of the elite to make better immigration, economic, or foreign policy. But all of that is subordinate to whatever distracts him at a given moment. Clinton’s message seems to be that she will keep the gravy train rolling and she is not Donald Trump.
The media should, like Wallace did in the debate, focus at least somewhat more on policy despite the desire of both candidates to focus on Trump’s personal life. Whether or not Clinton or Trump or even the American people care about entitlements, entitlement collapses will care about them. Whether or not they’re more interested in beauty pageant goings-on than foreign policy, a war with Russia could change that perspective.
And the people should, like Mr. Nolan of Mission Viejo, demand more substance as well. The media we get is the one we tolerate and ask for. Stories about substantive policy disagreements don’t bring in as many viewers and readers as other stories. It’s foolish to expect journalists — with a few notable exceptions such as Jake Tapper of CNN — to make substantive policy discussions a priority and to make them fun and interesting to watch.
But yeah, we in the media care far more about sex than policy. And we care more about insults than policy. And we gossip about the very least-important things, because that’s human nature. But let’s not feign offense when called out on it.