This week’s BCC Interview is with someone I think is really singular in terms of the media-politics landscape, with tremendous success in each: Newt Gingrich.
Gingrich and I emailed this week about President Trump and his re-election chances and battles with the media, Twitter, CNN, Space Force and more. And then, with all BCC Interviews, I published it in full, below. Check out past BCC Interviews with Fox News’ Greg Gutfeld or Ben Smith of the New York Times, and subscribe to Fourth Watch here. Read the full interview below…
From: Steve Krakauer
To: Newt Gingrich
Thanks so much for doing this. I’m not sure there’s anyone else who has the breadth of experience you have when it comes to the media-political structure, from both sides of the equation. So there’s a lot I want to ask you about.
But let me start on the media side of the equation – I’m curious as you look out at the landscape, two things come to mind. First, you have been at the forefront of the move in media to digital – active on Twitter and other social platforms, newsletters, active in podcasts… and usually before others adopted to new platforms. What do you think the role of legacy media is in this current media landscape? Are they losing ground and influence?
But also, you and I worked at CNN back in an era I’d say was quite different at the network, even if it was still run by Jeff Zucker. We didn’t work together much, although I helped launch the Crossfire show you co-hosted in 2013 and 2014. So I guess my question is – what do you think changed, from when we were there to the CNN of the Trump Era? And…why? Clearly things are different there, but many of the same people are in place both in front of the camera and decision makers behind the scenes. So why the major shift in output and direction?
Feel free to throw any questions my way…
From: Newt Gingrich
To: Steve Krakauer
You asked some pretty fundamental questions.
First, I grew up with a weekly newspaper editor named Paul Walker in Harrisburg Pennsylvania. He taught me a lot of the trade. If you divide early 20th century political reporting into two schools at the Baltimore Sun—Frank Kent actually trying to understand the mechanics and business of politics and H L Mencken as a cynical deeply biting commentator on politics and government Walker was clearly in the Frank Kent tradition and taught me to revere the newspaper business. I love zoos and i used to go the Pennsylvania state library and look at the original bound volumes of things like the new york times coverage of the founding of the Bronx zoo. For me newspapers were institutions of recording history.
By the summer between my junior and senior year I was appearing on a local children’s cartoon show with a segment on exotic animals from local pet stores and did a stint of talk radio discussing the 1960 campaign.
As a young professor I read Mcluhan and began thinking broadly of the media. I also worked with Alvin and Heidi Toffler after Future Shock. I taught a course in the year 2000 at Tulane in 1968 when I was a graduate student (back then 2000 seemed a long way off).
I helped grow the Georgia GOP from virtually nothing to a competitive institution and learned a key rule that noise matters because it is noise which attracts supporters and creates energy.
When I won my third race in 1978 (having lost in 1974 and 1976) it seemed to be fate that C-Span launched just a few months after my arrival. It was obvious to bob walker and me and a handful of others that CSpan was a game changer. It allowed you to communicate with the media which could sit in their offices and listen. It allowed you to communicate with the Reagan administration. It allowed you to communicate with other members of Congress. It allowed you to reach a small but activist audience in the country.
Halberstam in the Powers That Be had noted that Rayburn was very afraid of television in the House because he knew it would change the entire aggregation of power. Rayburn was right.
Then a unique event occurred (it is stuff like this that made me a historian rather than a social scientist). Braden-Buchanan was the top rated drive time talk show. When i had been in DC about five months Buchanan in effect went on strike. Wmal was desperate for a conservative to play with braden. So as a freshman with limited opportunities in the house i began to go out and cohost a three hour show. Within weeks my staff noticed that the bureaucracy answered their calls much more rapidly. My name had resonated and the civil servants assumed I must be somebody because they listened to me going home from work.
Art Pine had been a mentor of mine when he was the political reporter for the Atlanta Constitution and by 1979 he was at the Baltimore Sun. He took me to dinner one night and said what I was experiencing was the media replacement of Richard Russell’s model that there were whales and minnows. In the preceding era only a handful of members of the house and senate mattered. They were the whales. Everyone else was a minnow and ignorable. Now media was conferring a new kind of whale status. Noise rather than insider ties was beginning to matter. In a sense AOC is a current example of this phenomenon. She won a very low turnout primary and the media made her a national figure out of all proportion to her actual achievement but now her status is a fact not a theory.
Without CSpan we might not have been able to win a majority in 1994. However we also had a vast tape training program (about 75,000 people got training tapes every month) through GOPAC which gave us the biggest cadre of potential candidates the House GOP ever had. In a sense those training tapes were an alternative media.
I had first worked on computers at the Rich Computer Center at Georgia Tech in 1965 and before thatI had a job running an IBM card sorter. In a sense I was in on the very early stages of the capabilities which have become alternative media. When I was teaching at west georgia college we had a joint experiment with Georgia Tech on distance learning (didn’t work too well, not enough band width and way too slow and limited).
Given that background I was very alert to the rise of alternative media. I also had a deep appreciation for talk radio because Rush Limbaugh was a key player in our winning in 1994 and I first met Hannity at an alabama station in 1990.
I think you have to think of today’s media as a very complex ecosystem with the commanding heights of the old order increasingly radical (propaganda media has replaced news media at place liking CNN and the New York Times) but with an extraordinary range of alternative voices.
You raise the question about CNN and frankly it perplexes me. CNN was clearly liberal when I was there and had been liberal back when I did shows there 20 years earlier as a guest. However with the election of Trump it just went off the rails and became so anti-trump and so hostile that it clearly was a psychological-cultural event. Why Zucker did that is beyond me. My guess is it involves social status in upper class new york city. He got attaboys from his cocktail party friends while losing the rest of the country.
The existence of online media puts enormous pressure on television and newspapers to develop stories very quickly and to move from headline to headline because they know they will otherwise lose their audiences.
Some of the media have now become trapped by their audience (the New York Times crumbling under hostile response to the wrong headline is a good example).
Virtually all of the media resembles the weatherman for whom every storm is a potential hurricane or tornado so you MUST see the weather at 11.
The coverage of Covid-19 which is disgraceful incoherent and misleading is in the hurricane tradition.
The total lies about Cuomo reflect a political-ideological bias which is steadily eroding belief in the traditional news system.
I hope this is useful.
From: Steve Krakauer
To: Newt Gingrich
This is fascinating and a true history lesson for me too. I want to dig in more about the way you describe the usefulness of the media in the 80s and 90s because I think that is so crucial to the landscape today. And I guess this puts us on the other side of your experience, in the political realm (although perhaps politics and media have never been more intertwined in our culture than now).
So let’s talk about Trump. It’s interesting you talk about the “attaboys” from the NYC elite now, because Zucker (who I know fairly well and really think is a genius) was so connected to Trump from back at the NBC days. For a time, Zucker succeeded at NBC because of Trump’s success with the Apprentice. And maybe that connection is what brought CNN to amplify Trump during the GOP primary…giving him a massive, largely uncritical, platform. Of course, that changed during the general, and then has REALLY changed over the past 3 years. But there was the built in connection.
As you look at Trump’s rise, how much do you see the way he worked with, and actively worked against, the media as part of that success? He knew the NYC media scene perhaps better than anyone, and it seemed to have worked to his advantage, and obviously, like you, got the value and impact of Twitter as part of that whole ecosystem. Was his cultural cache with The Apprentice and his ability to control the media message key to winning in 2016?
And then looking at 2020, it seems Trump is in trouble, honestly, based on every poll. Not necessarily because of Biden, but self-inflicted. I said the other day to someone that if Trump changed 5% of who he is, he’d win in a landslide. But he’ll never change 1%, and that 5% is such a turnoff for people (full transparency – I’m one of those people) he might lose. Looking at the media landscape as it is stacked up against him, how do you see his best path to ensure victory in November?
From: Newt Gingrich
To: Steve Krakauer
Trump believes he helped Zucker get his current job. He was not initially hostile to Zucker. However I think as it became obvious that Trump could win and as his extraordinarily aggressive repudiation of the establishment (immigrants, trade, taxes, judges, etc) Trump became anathema to the new York elite and zucker played to them. He won points among the literati while losing viewers in the country.
The rise of Trump can only be understood as a brilliant player who cut his teeth on page six and the new york media and then branched into national media. He actually writes about it in one of his books when the ny times attacked him as a barbarian for tearing down the front of a building (I think it was art deco)-Trump learned that the attacks drew attention to the building and enabled him to sell more apartments at a higher rate-even bad publicity was good publicity). I used to tell audiences that if The Apprentice had been on PBS right after Downton Abbey the reporters would have understood they were up against a guy who had been living in and earning a lot of money from popular commercial television which meant understanding and pleasing mass audiences. He also had the practical experience of using media to attract money for projects and customers for hotels, office buildings and golf courses. His techniques were blunt and centered on marketing himself but they worked (as they did again in 2015-2016).
You are accurate in diagnosing that a significant part of the President’s challenge comes from unnecessary tweets and fights that are distractions. Reagan came to understand that with a hostile news media you have to stay focused and repetitive. This problem is compounded because the country is now deeply frightened and wants reassurance. Any signs of confusion or unpredictability cost far more in a pandemic than they would have in the peak of the Trump economy back in February. When the President is focused and disciplined as he was at Mount Rushmore he connects with a lot of people and really helps himself. When he wanders off into ad hominem attacks and fights that are beneath the stature and dignity of the President of the United States he weakens himself. His reelection will require a more disciplined focused communications strategy.
From: Steve Krakauer
To: Newt Gingrich
In your new book, Trump and the American Future: Solving the Great Problems of Our Time, you write a lot about our current cultural landscape, and connecting it back to history. I’m particularly struck by some of what you wrote about polarization – and I wonder what you think the current media’s role in that is also. I think the media is missing some element of being able to debate and discuss but do so in a way that doesn’t make the polarization in America worse. My wife Meghan (who also worked at CNN) is a big fan of yours, and I think one of the things that set you apart, even in a setting like Crossfire, was the way there was never any vitriol attached to strong disagreement. Do you think the media – on both sides – have raised the temperature in our cultural conversation now?
Last thing – I know you have a big interest in space, and I do too. So I have to ask. How great is Space Force? I mean, of all the things people can love or hate about the Trump administration, can we all come together on this one point?!
Thanks so much for doing this Newt, I greatly appreciate.
From: Newt Gingrich
To: Steve Krakauer
Michael Barone wrote a stunning article recently about this being the most dishonest news media of his lifetime. Barone, like David Broder, was one of the people I cued off of for 20 years in the House. There were reporters and observers who might have leaned liberal but were honest and were willing to listen. Even then the overwhelming bias was anti-Republican. Sam Lubbell, the great election analyst, wrote that he was in a party in new york election night 1952 in which not a single person had voted for Eisenhower. He wrote that it made him realize how out of touch with the country the literati had become. Charles Murray’s amazing book, Coming Apart, notes that ivy league marries ivy league and lives near ivy league and you can identify by zip code where the intelligentsia live. The polarization is cultural first and political second. The Downton Abbey set never saw The Apprentice and had no concept of the Americans who loved the how, made it a success for 13 years and were biased in favor of its host. We have become a four tribe country. There is the classic intelligentsia and literati who make money by making money and get paid for doing very little (think senior professors). There is the newly emerging radical anti-Americans traceable to Alinsky and Marcuse (25% of college faculty self identify as Marxists). There are the ethnically alienated, almost all Black (Latinos and Asians are too busy making money and enjoying life to spend their time being alienated) and with a legitimate grievance that has grown rather than shrunk since the original Black Power fists at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968. Then finally there is a huge mass of hard working people who think of themselves as Americans and salute the flag, stand for the national anthem and want to believe in the goodness of America. The first three tribes have little in common with each other but unite in their dislike of the “incorrigibles”.
The propaganda media which is gradually crowding out and replacing the news media is in fact emotionally and intellectually aligned with the anti-American sentiment. Europeans comment to me how strange it is to see happiness in the American television news when reporting deaths from covid or violence in cities with happiness because they think it will hurt Trump. The Europeans can’t understand why so many American news people would be happy when their own country is in trouble. As long as CNN stays hostile to America neither China nor Russia has to run anti-American propaganda because CNN does it for them.
Trump’s commitment to go permanently to the Moon and beyond and his commitment to create a space force to defend freedom in space will remain two of the most historic accomplishments of his presidency. Vice President Pence’s skill in developing the National Space Council, in reshaping NASA and in helping get the Space Force through the Air Force and then through the Congress was extraordinary. As someone who proposed a permanent lunar colony in the 2012 election and got ridiculed by Mitt Romney I take particular pride in the progress we have made. One of my greatest fears is that a Biden administration would withdraw from the commitment and return to a trajectory which would guarantee Chinese control of space and eventually the planet.