As the Newt Gingrich campaign confronts uncomfortable revelations from the candidate's second wife, Marianne Gingrich, that he asked her for “an open marriage” – charges that will air Thursday night on ABC’s "Nightline" – questions are also surfacing about about the network’s motivations for broadcasting it now.
Does ABC have it in for Mr. Gingrich? Is the show timed to hurt his prospects, which have been rising, in Saturday's South Carolina primary? Why dredge up now something that happened 10 years ago?
The full interview won’t run until after the CNN-sponsored GOP presidential debate Thursday evening, but clips of it have gone viral on the Internet, and reporter Brian Ross appeared on ABC’s “The View” to discuss the potential effect of Mrs. Gingrich's interview. “She spoke in measured tones,” he said, attempting to play down what co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck introduced as “bombshell” allegations." He also noted that the final impact is “for the voters to decide.”
Defending the network’s decision to broadcast the interview two days before the South Carolina primary, Mr. Ross noted that ABC has been scrutinizing all the candidates, pointing to its reports Wednesday night on Mitt Romney’s possible tax evasions. Beyond that, he said the interview took place on Friday. ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider says "Nightline" “reached out to the Gingrich campaign” for a response. The candidate has declined to comment on the allegation.
“This is one of the toughest decisions news executives and producers face,” says former ABC News producer John Goodman, via e-mail. “You have a story that can impact a political campaign. Do you go with it, or sit on it?” he says. “The journalist in you says you have to air it. But you clearly understand that by doing so, you create a PR nightmare.”
The fact that most of Mrs. Gingrich's comments are “old news,” and that the South Carolina primary is days away, feeds the “suspicion by the average American that ABC has a liberal bias and can’t wait to air the story to destroy Gingrich’s presidential hopes,” Mr. Goodman says. In obtaining the interview, he adds, ABC must ask itself this question: Does she have a vendetta to destroy her ex-husband? “There’s no clean-cut, no-brainer, right-or-wrong answer,” he says. "You just have to do what you feel is the right decision.”
ABC is not Marianne Gingrich's only recent brush with the media. The Washington Post published an interview with her on Thursday, in which she said she was speaking out for the first time because she “wanted her story told from her point of view, rather than be depicted as the victim or suffer a whisper campaign by supporters of Newt Gingrich’s presidential bid.” At the same time, according to a CBS spokesman, “ '60 Minutes' passed on this one.”
Withholding a story is justified only on the rarest of occasions, says Lee Kamlet, dean of the School of Communications at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., and a former ABC News producer. It might be justified if national security is threatened, or if a person's life could be put in danger. “Neither is the case here,” he says, via e-mail.
The standard should be simple: “If it's news, it should be broadcast, regardless of the timing," he says. "The voters can decide its relevance to their decision.”
An internal debate over a story’s potential impact on the campaign is a no-win proposition, adds Mr. Kamlet. “If ABC News decided to hold the story until after the South Carolina primary, they would be just as susceptible to speculation and criticism that they withheld it in order to avoid embarrassing Newt Gingrich,” he says. Moreover, the candidate himself has made his marriages public fodder, he notes.
“He has spoken about them and addressed the question in at least one nationally televised debate. Once the candidate puts a personal subject like that out before the public, he has made it fair game for reporting by any news organization,” he says.
However, this does not suspend obligations for careful reporting, says Len Shyles, a communication professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. It is critically important, he says, for the media not to “sully another person with the rants of a disgruntled former associate.”
But if information can be validated and confirmed, “it should be shared immediately," he says. "Then let the chips fall where they may.” A former spouse raises unique challenges concerning corroboration, but that still does not remove the necessity for it. “It comes down to the need for evidence,” he says. Without that, there is no proof, and “it should be passed over in silence.”
The history of such personal revelations amid a primary season suggests that the public would like to be the final arbiter. Revelations about Bill Clinton’s relationship with Gennifer Flowers became a major campaign issue, yet "he was ultimately elected," says Karen Curry, a Drexel University professor and former NBC News bureau chief. The key, she says, is for the candidate to step up and take the heat immediately. Gingrich is in a good position to do so, she says, adding that he has already introduced the notion of being a changed man, regretful about past mistakes.
“The redemption narrative plays very well in American politics,” she says. But “the candidate has to step up right away or it will appear something is being hidden.”