By Stump Connolly

John King: Mr. Gingrich, as you know your ex-wife has given an interview to ABC and an interview to The Washington Post, and this story has now gone viral on the Internet.  In it, she says that you came to her in 1999 at a time when you were having an affair she says you asked her, sir, to enter into an open marriage. Would you like to take some time to respond to that?

Newt Gingrich: No, but I will. (laughter and sustained applause) I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office and I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate with a topic like that.

As presidential debates go, that skirmish last Thursday between Newt Gingrich and CNN anchor reporter John King in the South Carolina primary debate was a moment to remember. A real attention grabber. And a great way to start the show. Maybe the most dramatic encounter this season between the candidates and the press. Or maybe not. There’s plenty of race left to go, and we’ll have more on that in a moment. But first, let’s send it back to Wolf in the newsroom and ask our panel of judges how they think Newt did.

Where did it go wrong?

Where did it all go wrong? When did this seemingly innocent contest to choose a Republican candidate­­ (out of a seemingly uninspiring field) turn into the Gong Show? Who made the first move? What happened to probity? How did we get to this point? And does it matter?

On that last question, yes, it matters. About as much as who gets a rose in The Bachelorette matters. Because what we are witnessing this year is a new form of politics as entertainment on a scale, and in a media environment, the likes of which we’ve never been seen before. The Republican debates––there have been 18 so far––have not been particularly thrilling, or enlightening (unless you enjoy hearing Newt Gingrich give a history lesson on mercantile trading), but they do have a kind of zany, faux reality feel that has made them a surprise ratings hit for the broadcast and cable networks. Last week’s debate moderated by Brian Williams in Florida, for instance, drew 7.5 million viewers to NBC.

On the surface, there is nothing in the format of 60-second answers and 30-second responses that makes these debates much different from all the others that have gone before. But they come on the air with such a dazzling array of graphics, such rapturous crowds, and anchors raving about only xx more days until the pivotal xx primary, you feel compelled to watch. Never mind that you don’t know or care who half the candidates are, you watch to see who can get in their two cents worth before the bell rings, who’s going to go after whom,  and who will draw the first blood.

The Politics Show is a moveable feast of politics (okay, maybe more like a light buffet) that drifts around week to week from ABC to CBS to NBC, Fox, Bloomberg, MSNBC, CNN––whoever wants to highlight their political reporting team. Most of the time they have an Internet partner: a Facebook, Google or Twitter eager to insert their social network brand into the show, sometimes in live tweets displayed on screens, sometimes by making remote visits to citizens who sent their questions in advance.

On Fox TV, they have a lower screen graphic that charts the instant responses from a focus group offstage. On CNN, the star of the show is the anchorman––alternately Wolf Blitzer, Anderson Cooper, or John King–– prowling the stage with a microphone, bouncing questions off different candidates, in effect baiting them to take on each other. The Politics Show is, in short, definitely not your mother’s League of Women Voters debate.

Bickering, Baiting and Belittling

In Las Vegas last October, for instance,  Anderson Cooper found Texas Gov. Rick Perry placed next to Mitt Romney, then all but goaded the two men into a series of verbal body punches on everything from immigration to health care.

“You lose all standing,” Perry told Romney after citing his use of illegal aliens to mow his lawn. “It is the height of hypocrisy.”

“You were chairman of Al Gore’s campaign!” Romney countered when it was his turn. “Forty percent of all the jobs you created were for illegal aliens!”

“You failed as governor of Massachusetts!” Perry parried.

Every taunt and retort elicited an audience reaction, which is a not uncontroversial element of this year’s debates. One reason is that debate co-sponsors now include the likes of The Tea Party and local Republican group, who fill the arenas with people not shy about expressing their opinions.

At an NBC/Politico debate in California in September, the audience broke into wild applause when moderator Brian Williams began a question to Gov. Perry by noting 234 people on death row in Texas have been executed during his governorship. After the interruption,  Perry gave his response. Then Williams asked a follow-up question: “What do you make of that dynamic that just happened here, the mention of the execution of 234 people drew applause?”

“I think Americans understand justice,” Perry said, and the audience again broke into cheers.

Five days later at a CNN/Tea Party debate in Tampa, moderator Wolf Blitzer found himself trying to pin down Ron Paul on how a physician and libertarian like himself would handle the case of someone who refused to buy health insurance then fell deathly ill. “Are you saying that society should just let him die?“ Blitzer asked. “Yeah!” came a loud voice from the crowd, followed by raucous applause.

Roger Simon is a Politico columnist who has covered literally hundreds of presidential debates. He’d never seen anything quite like it. “If you have ever asked yourself how crowds could have gathered to cheer public burnings, beheadings and guillotining in times past, tune into one of these debates and you will stop asking,” he wrote. “It is said there is wisdom in crowds. But sometimes a crowd is just a mob that happens to be sitting down.”

At last week’s debate in Florida, moderator Brian Williams warned the crowd in advance not to interrupt with applause. Newt Gingrich, who felt his performance was hurt by the lack of support, threatened afterward not to participate in future debates unless the audience was unleashed. “I think the prohibition for no clapping was kind of un-American,” his spokesman R.C. Hammond said. “What if you went to a baseball game and they were like, ‘No cheering after a big play?'”

“Audiences are there to watch,” countered Stuart Stevens, Romney’s top adviser. “They are not there to be, sort of, an 11th man on the team. . . It’s not the LSU-Alabama game.”

And that’s what’s so great about the Politics Show: the controversy.

An Alternate Universe

The surreal nature of these debates also owes something to the fact the candidates themselves seem to be living in an alternative universe. It’s a Republican world, to be sure, where free enterprise and American exceptionalism flow like honey over pancakes, founding fathers serve up dollops of wisdom on how to contain health care costs or regulate credit default swaps, and Barack Obama is Lenin in sheep’s clothing. “Anybody on this stage would be a better president than Barack Obama,” Newt Gingrich is fond of saying in one of his grandiose moments. Oh really?

This is the stage where Michelle Bachmann promised to repeal Obamacare “on day one” even though it’s a 954-page bill, already half implemented, with ten titles covering hundreds of small provisions governing hospital funding, health care clinics, drug benefits, insurance eligibility, Medicare cost formulas, and other reimbursement programs that affect about 16 percent of our GDP.

This is where Herman Cain launched his loony “9-9-9“ plan, where Rick Perry uttered his famous “oops”, where Mitt Romney pledged to fight in Afghanistan until the Taliban are defeated, and where eight out of eight candidate vowed not to raise taxes even if that were offset by ten times as much in federal spending cuts.

It’s a world where facts are fungible, especially when they get in the way of a good cliche.

On the question of how to handle the 12 million illegal immigrants in the country, all the Republican contenders say the problem can’t be addressed until we seal the border. Some want a wall; others a fleet of drones. Herman Cain once suggested a moat with alligators.

But not one of the candidates acknowledges that the border is becoming more secure. The estimated 375,000 Mexicans who crossed illegally into the United States last year was the lowest number since the early 1970’s; and, for the first time in a decade, more illegal Mexican immigrants are going home than coming here. In part, that’s because the economy in the United States is so dismal. But it’s also because, thanks to President Obama, the INS has instituted a new policy giving priority to deporting undocumented detainees who are arrested on criminal charges.

On energy independence, all the debate participants criticize the president for government regulations that hamper the exploration for new domestic oil and natural gas. But domestic oil production in the United States is up this year for the first time in a decade, and our reliance on foreign oil is lower than it has been since the early 1990’s. Again, the recession has taken its toll on energy consumption, but energy conservation efforts and higher fuel economy standards pushed by the Obama administration are slowly having their effect.

There is really no place to even start discussing the foreign policy ideas offered by the Republican candidates. They are all over the map except on target. Mitt Romney wants to stay in Afghanistan until the Taliban are defeated? Make a wish. Rick Perry thinks we ought to go back into Baghdad to stabilize Iraq? Are you kidding?

With the notable exception of Ron Paul, the Republican contenders all profess their readiness to go to war to prevent Iran from getting an atomic bomb––as if attacking a nation of 73 million people, twice as large as Iraq and far more militarized, were easy––without any regard for the long term consequences. Didn’t we learn anything from Iraq? War ain’t no walk in the park, Kazansky, no matter how many times you watched Top Gun during your student deferment.

And don’t get me started on Mitt Romney’s claim to have created 100,000 jobs while Obama presided over the loss of 4 million. It’s a bogus number on both sides of the equation. Romney’s 100,000 figure for jobs he created is based on the growth of two companies, Staples and Sports Authority, that Bain Capital provided seed money to a quarter century ago; and his 4 million figure for U.S. job losses includes 2.5 million in the first three months of Obama’s term (before his stimulus package took effect) and does not include the 3 million new private sector jobs created over the last 22 months of his term. Even with public employee cutbacks, Obama can take credit for a modest, but net gain of at least 1 million jobs created in his first term.

A Slip-and-Side Media Landscape

The Politics Show enjoys the support of more than the television news executives who produce it. Before the first voting in Iowa, the Republican debates were the only game in town, the one common forum where political reporters could flesh out the personalities of the candidates. Hard core political junkies jumped on board. One night’s debate performance paired with the next’s day telephone poll (or polls, as the case may be, since everybody and their brother is doing them) produced a new frontrunner every three weeks, and a rash of stories speculating on what that meant.

By the time the Iowa caucuses came around in January, the already hefty press corps covering the race was joined by bloggers, tweeters, hobbyists and comics filling all manner of new media outlets with their instant reaction to the debates. With new media outlets like Politico, the Huffington Post and National Journal pumping out non-stop coverage on all angles of the race, the Politics Show now drives the narrative in a new Slip-and-Slide media landscape.

The Internet once again has changed the nature of political coverage. Video clips supplied by “embedded” reporters following candidates 24/7 are part of the vocabulary. So too are graphic tables analyzing campaign finances, fact checking websites and a greater awareness of the Internet on the part of traditional mainstream media, who now routinely require reporters to not only file stories, but create and promote personal twitter accounts.

When a story breaks, it spreads instantly through a thousand channels. It is tweeted and retweeted, aggregated into websites with audiences far wider than the original publication, and electronically shared on Facebook, and in a dozen other places. Soon enough, one story caroms off another, creating a kind of media buzz (see on the net that shapes the narrative of the day. This narrative, in turn, feeds into the questions at the next debate, spawning new reaction stories, and starting the cycle all over again.

The collective influence of social networks on politics is nowhere more apparent than on debate nights, when Twitter buzzes with online chatter from reporters breaking down candidate responses line by line, and moment by moment. Just in the last month, Twitter (the company) and Google have begun providing analysts to the cable news networks to tabulate and categorize their tweets and searches, providing yet another avenue for looking at the Politics Show.

So even as the final contestants dwindle down to four in the actual Republican primary voting, the Politics Show gathers steam from this bundling of media interconnections. But it’s hard to get around the notion as you watch the actual debates––the next one is tonight, again in Florida–that this is all very disposable news. Fun to read about, fun to watch (my favorite contestant is Ron Paul, although I’d never vote for him) and not all that helpful in deciding who should be our next president.

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