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Jayne Lyn Stahl Headshot

Spiro T. Gingrich

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Newt Gingrich's attack on what he calls "the elite media" during the South Carolina debate on Jan. 20 reminds me of another high profile Republican's invective against the major media, Spiro T. Agnew.

Spiro T. Agnew, you'll recall, was Richard Nixon's vice president, and it was one of Agnew's favorite pastimes to turn television networks into hunting expeditions for his imagined enemies. But, it wasn't just television news Agnew was taking aim at when he said, "Some newspapers are fit only to line the bottom of bird cages."

Gingrich tore into CNN moderator John King because King, the former House speaker contends, chose to open the South Carolina debate with a news story broadcast widely that day, allegations by Gingrich's ex-wife that he wanted an "open marriage."

The debate's moderator deemed the subject newsworthy because it was allowed to dominate news coverage all day, but it wasn't tabloid journalism Gingrich was inveighing against. It was about being targeted for the irrelevancy that is his personal life. In this, he is absolutely right. Mr. Gingrich has been given a free pass during all these debates, and on every network, by the conspicuous absence of questions dealing with his tenure as speaker, and his removal from the House. Yes, what Newt did or did not propose to his former spouse is not pertinent to his role as a serious contender for president, but his ethics violations are.

Whether Mr. King chose to open or close the debate with aspersions cast by Speaker Gingrich's former spouse is irrelevant. Gingrich went so far as to sound off not just about this one incident, but instead to take the opportunity to inveigh against the entire "left" media that, in his opinion, is biased against Republicans, and will eventually get around to attacking not just him, but Romney, Paul, and Santorum, too.

Aside from their contempt for broadcast journalism, and the press in general, Gingrich and Agnew have something else in common. Agnew was the first vice president in U.S. history who was forced to step down for accepting bribes, and Gingrich was forced out as Speaker of the House for ethics violations.

Oh, yes, and let's not forget George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. They raised Cain when revelations about their clandestine programs that sidestep the rule of law were reported in major newspapers.

As you recall, too, Agnew lived during an immensely troubled time in our history, the Watergate era, and served under a president who effectively said, it's not illegal when the president does it. It would be reasonable to hazard the guess that the same line of thinking drove Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney to pursue their "enhanced alternative" interrogation methods in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan, as well as their not-very-covert program of extraordinary rendition.

Interestingly, it wasn't until the Bush administration that the media came under attack again. As The Baltimore Sun reports, Bush and Cheney "fired broadsides at The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and to a lesser degree The Wall Street Journal."

The Sun continues, "On November 13, 1969, Vice President Spiro T. Agnew became a household word when he vehemently denounced television news broadcasters as a biased `unelected' elite who subjected President Richard M. Nixon's speeches to instant analysis."

So, thanks to Newt Gingrich, we've gone from a "biased 'unelected' elite" to "the elite media" in one fell swoop. Is it really the intention of the Republican Party to remind us of the Watergate days by evoking the memory of Agnew who had such disdain for the media as being inimical to executive power that he even contemplated regulating it?

Does the Republican Party want to remind us, as the Baltimore Sun suggests, of the not-too-distant past when the Bush administration's leveled "mightiest political salvo at the press since Maryland's Spiro T. Agnew threatened the big three television networks and newspaper-dominated mixed media corporations?"

Spiro T. Agnew would have been proud of the attack Newt Gingrich leveled at a broadcast journalist tonight in South Carolina. Gingrich's tirade had one intended target, television news, but if Gingrich's mindset is allowed to prevail in its bid for the Oval Office, the real target will be the First Amendment.

Instead of his tongue-lashing of broadcast journalists at the South Carolina debate, Mr. Gingrich should have invited moderators out for drinks for letting him off the hook about the ethics violations that forced him out as House speaker.