CNN debate host defends question

Newt Gingrich nearly took John King’s head off when King opened the Thursday debate with a question about accusations that Gingrich’s ex-wife had recently made.

Did John King blow it?

The CNN host stepped on a land mine named Newt Gingrich when he opened Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate by asking him about his second ex-wife’s allegation that he suggested she accept his affair as part of their marriage.

Gingrich’s now-famous response practically blew back King’s hair.

“I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office,” he said to thunderous applause during the forum in North Charleston. “And I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.”

To even more enthusiastic applause, Gingrich added, “I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans.”

Gingrich’s shoot-the-messenger answer may be one of the most memorable moments of the campaign.

The question is, Did King, an experienced and able journalist, do Gingrich a favor by starting the debate with such an indelicately posed question on such a delicate issue?

In the face of Gingrich’s initial blast, King could only offer that the allegations about Gingrich “did not come from our network” (The Washington Post and ABC News were the initial sources of the story). That allowed Gingrich to up the ante and scold King further, “Don’t try to blame somebody else.”

In post-debate comments, King seemed to have few regrets. “I understood that if I asked the question, he was not going to be happy with it, and he was going to turn on me. Knew that coming in,” he said immediately afterward.

“This is one of those damned if you do, damned if you don’t. It was my judgment, my decision, and mine alone. If we’re going to deal with it, let’s deal with it up front, let’s not try to sneak it into the middle of the debate somewhere.”

King, 48, is far from a novice at pinning politicians. He is one of CNN’s reporting stars. A much-decorated former chief political correspondent for the Associated Press, he joined CNN in 1997, becoming the network’s senior White House correspondent two years later and has hosted his own show since 2009.

Some observers found flaws in King’s approach.

“Gingrich was clearly waiting for the question, clearly was prepared to pounce,” said Joseph Campbell, a communications professor and media historian at American University.

“King seemed taken off guard. He looked a little sickened. And he did himself no favors by lamely pointing out that it wasn’t CNN but another network that dug out the Gingrich-infidelity story. That allowed Gingrich to pounce again.”

King would have been on safer ground if one of the other candidates had brought up the issue, which was the talk of the campaign all day Thursday, said Terence Smith, a veteran journalist who was the longtime media correspondent for the PBS Newshour.