ABC to air interview tonight with Gingrich’s ex-wife, but why?

There comes a time when withholding information is more damaging than releasing it. ABC News faced such a time Wednesday when word leaked out that Brian Ross had what the Drudge Report hinted was an explosive interview with Newt Gingrich's second wife, Marianne Gingrich. ABC posted nothing, the only network spokespeople who were talking refused to be identified initially, and the rumor mill started churning. Amidst the confusion, Gingrich's daughters from his first marriage sent this note to ABC News:

The failure of a marriage is a terrible and emotional experience for everyone involved. Anyone who has had that experience understands it is a personal tragedy filled with regrets, and sometimes differing memories of events.

We will not say anything negative about our father’s ex-wife. He has said before, privately and publicly, that he regrets any pain he may have caused in the past to people he loves.

ABC News or other campaigns may want to talk about the past, just days before an important primary election. But Newt is going to talk to the people of South Carolina about the future – about job creation, lower taxes, and about who can defeat Barack Obama by providing the sharpest contrast to his damaging, extreme liberalism. We are confident this is the conversation the people of South Carolina are interested in having.

ABC has since confirmed that the interview will air tonight on "Nightline," two days before the South Carolina primary. (Update: Thursday morning, ABC News posted a short story and a video clip in which Marianne Gingrich says Newt asked for an open marriage.) Gingrich is in a very tight race against Mitt Romney in South Carolina, with the latest polls showing them only a few percentage points apart.

This photo from April 25, 1989 shows then-House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich at a press conference with his wife at the time, Marianne. Gingrich was responding to ethics charges similar to those he made against then-House Speaker Jim Wright. (Dennis Cook/AP)

Gingrich's ex-wife Marianne has spoken out before, saying that the former House Speaker proposed to her before the divorce from his first wife was final in 1981. His second marriage ended in divorce in 2000 and Gingrich admits he had already begun a third relationship, this time with Callista Bisek, who became his third wife.

A duty to disclose

Once word leaked out that ABC News had conducted an interview with Marianne Gingrich and was considering holding it until after the Saturday South Carolina primary, the damage began.

Gingrich could be hurt if the interview aired and he could be hurt even worse if the network withheld the interview, lending an air of suspicion that something even worse was waiting until after polls closed.

The public would understandably think ABC News, and especially a reporter of Brian Ross' reputation, must have found something remarkable to sit down with the former wife days before a crucial primary election. When ABC says nothing on the record, as it did for most of Wednesday night, the network feeds a 24-hour news cycle that fills with speculation and innuendo, which only intensifies the hunger and anticipation for the interview.

The "October surprise"

As ABC News can tell you, these kinds of stories put news organizations in a difficult position. If they run the story so close to an election, the network stands accused of a last-minute gotcha piece with little new news in it and little time for a candidate to respond. If they withhold the story, they face accusations that they are hiding information the public should have before voting.

Last minute "hit" stories are hardly unusual. One of the most noteworthy was the 2004 Los Angeles Times story of allegations that  Arnold Schwarzenegger had groped several women. The Times ran the story one week before sitting Gov. Gray Davis faced a recall vote. (This AJR story takes you step-by-step through the decision-making.)

But the Gingrich story is different. His story is well-known, not new.

ABC should answer the question of why it sat down with the former wife in the first place. The time for these kinds of interviews, if there is a time for them at all, is when the candidate announces for office not days before a pivotal primary. Once stories of the interview broke Wednesday night, the network had a duty to say what it knows, what it intends to do with the interview and why, and allow Gingrich the airtime to respond.

National Review's Robert Costa reports that "ABC News wanted Gingrich to come on 'Nightline' to offer a rebuttal of sorts but Gingrich’s advisers declined."

Is this really news?

When it comes to presidential politics, marital fidelity is an issue that every candidate has to address. It has been a political issue for candidates and their wives for years.

From John Edwards to Bill Clinton, Gary Hart, JFK, FDR and through the ages, powerful politicians have found their love lives in the public vortex. Should a politician's personal life be allowed to remain private? No.

The central issue is one of trust. But for Gingrich, it is more than that; it is a question of hypocrisy. Gingrich called the thunder down on himself when he advocated that Bill Clinton be impeached for his affair with Monica Lewinsky. A year ago, when confronted with a question about his marital past, Gingrich told an audience in Philadelphia:

“I've had a life which, on occasion, has had problems,” he added. “I believe in a forgiving God, and the American people will have to decide whether [that's] their primary concern. If the primary concern of the American people is my past, my candidacy would be irrelevant. If the primary concern of the American people is the future ... that's a debate I'll be happy to have with your candidate or any other candidate if I decide to run."

A January Gallup poll indicates Americans consider the economy to be the most important problem in the country today. Only 2 percent of Americans listed Ethics/Moral/Religious/Family decline/Dishonesty as the number one issue in the country today. That's down from 6 percent in December.

And for voters who are focused on the candidate's marital record, this may provide some comfort. Late last year, Gingrich signed a campaign pledge to never cheat on wife number three.

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


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