By: Doug Spero
On Thursday evening, Jan. 19, 2012, the American people were treated to an interview on “Nightline” with Marianne Gingrich, former wife of Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich. The interview was promoted to reveal scandalous details about the character of Mr. Gingrich in a blatant attempt to railroad his political ambitions. The bigger issue here is not the details of the “he said, she said” interview, but rather the behavior of a specific news network acting carelessly and unethically. As a veteran network news reporter and news director, I was ashamed of my profession.
Ethically, this particular news network showed a blatant disregard and lack of respect for the codes of ethics that govern the business. This interview was nothing but a cheap political shot intended to derail Gingrich’s campaign. Why on Earth would any news network stoop to this level?
The issue may be two-fold. First and foremost, this was done for ratings. I, however, would argue that any short-term ratings boost could easily backfire, as Gingrich is capable of dressing down “gotcha” questions from reporters. All news networks want scoops, but news executives and producers need to make decisions on what to air very carefully.
Second, it’s hard to look past the perceived liberal bias of national news networks. As someone who worked for two of the big three news networks, for 25 years in New York, I never observed or was part of a liberal bias. However, making the decision to run this interview shortly before the South Carolina primary is unethical, politically charged, and furthers the idea that network news is “in the tank” for Democrats. And it’s hard to argue with that. After all, when is the last time a major news network pulled this kind of a stunt with a Democrat?
The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) and the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) both have codes of ethics that govern behavior by news organizations. Airing this interview violates multiple clauses of both the SPJ and RTDNA codes of ethics.
For example, the SPJ ethics code says journalists should “diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing.”
I know ABC investigators tried to get a comment from the Gingrich campaign, but the request was denied. Why would Gingrich’s campaign want to comment on a program that had already indicted him?
It is impossible for Gingrich’s campaign to be able to react reasonably within 35 hours after the interview has aired. In this case, the news organization is the judge and jury. The airing of this interview did not allow for a proper hearing and response from the Gingrich camp. In one sense, all a network has to do is create enough doubt surrounding a candidate and the damage is done. For Gingrich, this in fact, might be the blow that ends his campaign, or for that matter, it may backfire and be the ignition point he needs to overcome his opposition.
The RTDNA code of ethics says that journalists and producers should “provide a full range of information to enable the public to make enlightened decisions.” This part of the public trust was violated when the interview aired. It’s no secret that Gingrich has had multiple marriages, but major details of his personal life have not been made public until now — less than 35 hours before the South Carolina primary. Timing is every- thing, and producers should have exercised better judgment before airing this interview. Where were they a month or two ago?
It is unfortunate when news networks themselves become the story. News agencies that serve the public should strive to never become the story. The story should have been about the contents of the interview. Now, the main question surrounds why the interview aired in the first place. It was also regrettable that CNN chose to ask Gingrich about this controversy as the lead question of the debate Thursday night when there are so many national and international issues that have more meaning to the American public than dealing with an ex-wife and her personal issues.
I am not saying that character issues should be left out of presidential debates. We need a strong independent press to investigate that aspect. What I am opposed to is the method with which it was done. ABC’s “Nightline” program took the form of a political witch-hunt.
We as consumers must demand more accountability from our news agencies. The timing of when this interview aired was more than unfortunate. Television producers deliberately tried to write the history books, and that is shameful. ABC and CNN need to exercise some institutional control over their newscasts and employees. Perhaps a refresher course on the code of ethics for journalists is due at both broadcast news headquarters. I believe what has happened would have Murrow, Cronkite, and Jennings turning over in their graves.
Doug Spero is professor of mass communication at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C. Spero spent 30 years in network television and local news at CBS and NBC. He was also a local news director for two ABC affiliates.