The official time of death for Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign was 4:02 p.m. ET, March 27, 2012. That was when Politico’s Dylan Byers reported that the “last embedded print reporters” had disembarked the Gingrich bus, “$2.50 Gas” signs fading in the distance as they lugged away their laptops. They would not be in Hudson, Wis. to see Callista reading her history book to tykes. They would be elsewhere when Newt brought the gospel of hydraulic fracturing to Green Bay.
How was the Gingrich campaign holding up? This had to be having an impact on them, right?
“Absolutely zero impact,” said Gingrich’s spokesman R.C. Hammond. He ticked off, one by one, the ways that the fourth estate will get to interact with the former speaker. “Print correspondents cover the campaign—they might hit our event in the morning then Santorum in the afternoon. If a network correspondent wants us, they come meet us on the trail, just as they did when the embeds were around.” Gingrich was still available for “the most important media: local media.” He was still mic’ing up for Fox News, and by appearing on the “talking head shows so much there is always a fresh quote on his take of current events.”
Hammond was describing a return to normalcy. On June 9, 2011, Gingrich’s campaign staff up and quit on him, and he became a curio candidate that networks didn’t devote many resources to following. In early November 2011, Herman Cain’s campaign collapsed because of “false and unproved accusations” that were actually, mostly, proved. The networks and newspapers spent money on him again—up to $2000 a day on planes—for full-spectrum coverage. Now that he’s losing to Ron Paul, Gingrich’s trackers are leaving him. And the Gingrich campaign swears this will be good for him.
This is almost true. Let’s start by admitting that Gingrich will not win the nomination, and that the former speaker of the House who resigned under pressure and then married his mistress was probably not going to run away with this thing. The campaign question is no longer “Can Gingrich win?” It’s “When does Gingrich have to drop out?” He says he doesn’t, because he can still get the sort of attention he needs. And if we define “need” narrowly enough, he isn’t wrong.
For now, at least, he still has the attention of embedded TV reporters, though not “because there’s a high likelihood he’ll be president,” said Ron Fournier, the editor-in-chief of National Journal. (The magazine has a partnership with CBS News.) “There is a high likelihood he can do and say things that affect the race. Both he and Santorum are capable of making news.”
Though the heavy-embed stage of the primary is ending, coverage of the primary might not change. Most Americans, consuming their usual news, saw the campaign as a slog with occasional breakout stories—gaffes, missteps, glitter-bombings. They still get it whether a candidate has 25 cameras on him or whether a ThinkProgress blogger is watching the sole C-Span feed.
Look back at the twin March 13 primaries in Mississippi and Alabama. They were the last contests where all four candidates—Ron Paul included—had some embedded reporters following them. The result was beaucoup coverage of a 10-second moment when a goofily sincere Mitt Romney announced that he liked “cheesy grits.”
The candidates joined in. Newt Gingrich would occasionally veer from his main campaign theme—“Newt = $2.50 gallon gas” —to mock Romney’s grit ignorance. A Lexis-Nexis search of TV coverage between Super Tuesday and the Mississippi-Alabama primary gives you 65 mentions of the Gingrich gas pledge, most of them from Gingrich’s TV appearances. The number of “cheesy grits” references? Ninety-nine. It was the line that cable news couldn’t quit. It was the quote mocked on Saturday Night Live and the quote that listeners had to guess on NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me. (“I never heard it called cheesy,” murmured Roy Blount Jr. “It’s cheese grits.”)
Here’s another example. On March 27, Rick Santorum gave an hourlong speech in Janesville, Wis. The local ABC News story: “Santorum Makes Campaign Stop in Janesville: Presidential Contender Touts Paul Ryan’s Budget.” This generated six whole reader comments. Three days later, Gawker’s Max Read noticed that the proudly teleprompter-free Santorum had chewed up a line about Obama’s last campaign: “anti-war, government nig-uh, the, uh, America was a source for division around the world.” Headline: “Did Rick Santorum Almost Call Barack Obama the N-Word?” That got clicked nearly 50,000 times, and shared on Facebook around 2,000 times.
The news cycle is restless, random, and cruel. Nothing that Mitt Romney’s embedded reporters covered last week got as much attention as a blown CNN interview of the candidate’s key aide, Eric Ferhnstrom, when he chirped that the campaign could be shaken “like an Etch a Sketch” after the primary was done. The people tracking Romney across the country ended up filing stories about a single cable news hit. By the end of the week, 44 percent of voters said they’d heard about “Etch a Sketch.” And why wouldn’t they have liked that story? “Americans,” said Fournier, “have always been the kind of people attracted to the next shiny object.”
Gingrich helped. He and Rick Santorum both bought and displayed the red-framed rectangular toys. That story broke out and led both the cable news shows and The Daily Show. Nothing else they were saying got attention like this. That’s what the Gingrich campaign means when it dismisses the “embeds.” There’s got to be some reason no one will cover what the candidate actually says! The local news—now, those guys will cover the story right.
This gripe has precedent. Every campaign, when it feels like it’s getting sucked into the buzzy, silly news cycle, bangs the gavel on the embed’s camera. Ron Paul’s campaign, which lost its embeds right after the Alabama/Mississippi primaries, had been complaining about this for months, all the way back to Iowa. “They follow you around,” griped Paul’s campaign chairman/grandson-in-law, Jesse Benton, when the candidate stopped taking national media questions. “They never make any news about your event. They are there to ask loaded questions and catch a candidate at a loose moment, to see if the candidate trips or gaffes or throws up. It’s really very unhelpful.”
Well, the press isn’t supposed to be helpful. It’s introducing voters to the people who want to rule them. Eyeball-to-eyeball coverage of the candidates is part of that. And then any given day of the campaign can turn into coverage of grits, toys, or a word that fell in the wrong place. Gingrich’s whole campaign is allegedly about consciousness-raising and big ideas. Now that he’s sticking around to lose primaries and talk to delegates, yes, it probably helps to have the national media downgrading him to curio coverage. If you want people to show up to your big policy speeches, run for president. If you want the press to write about them, try something else.