Newt Gingrich's defeat of Mitt Romney in South Carolina seemed to come as a surprise to many in the media. Sure his debate performances turned the race, but that reflected as much on Romney's weakness as a candidate. Gingrich shrewdly observed that it was not just his forensic skills, but his message that counted. Simply put, the Republican electorate wants someone to pick up the conservative banner, and Gingrich did so with style.
But the level of reporting in South Carolina was superficial with few southerners giving their spin. It lived up to Zell Miller's observation in 2004 that Democrats mistakenly see the South in terribly dated terms. So it is with media mavens who also came in with stereotypes and with little historical knowledge. Gingrich's message was tailor-made for the Palmetto state - showing that although the media did not do its homework, the former speaker did his. He focused on improvements to the harbor in Charleston, and the locals got the message.
Especially with South Carolina conservative voters you would have thought that they operated in the era of the Dixiecrats, or so the media implied. Oh my goodness, they actually cared more about the economy than social issues. A routine visit to a bar, restaurant, church or breakfast spot would have told them that. The best reporting came from Don Lemon of CNN, who actually spent the day at a polling place in Lexington and got to know South Carolina citizens. No histrionics, just patient observation made Lemon one of the sharpest chroniclers of the day's events.
One encounter involved a woman in her late 60s, who not only voted for Gingrich, but resented ABC's interview of his ex-wife just days before the primary. Anyone who has spent anytime in the South can tell you that is a fairly common reaction. You do not air dirty laundry in front of the neighbors. Just because they are evangelicals does not mean they are stiff- backed puritans. Salvation and redemption are living concepts in the South, and in this case, Gingrich was a recipient. Contrary to media views, not all evangelicals react the same.
But for many in the media, South Carolina might as well have been in the 1940s. It is industrial and depends heavily on government installations. It is not rural or isolated. It is diverse, yet the focus of the media was Greenville and a local eatery. Gingrich swept the whole state and took all demographic groups. He managed to take the Myrtle Beach area, which the cable outlets days before had assured all and sundry was in the bag for Romney. Transplants, we were assured, were somehow segregated from the "real" South Carolinians. As it turned out, they were on the same page.
Perhaps the most excluded group in the country when dealing with politics are Southerners. Gone are the Tom Wickers or David Brinkleys. Looks and accentless dullness are the chief credentials for reporters. Their knowledge of politics is cold and textbook with few original observations. Reporters such as Hunter Thompson could extract better information with countless beers than these predictable human cellphones who currently dominate TV news. If they missed the Gingrich victory, they were probably texting.
Gingrich is a new style politician for an insurgent. As an orator, he is nothing special; as a debater and counter puncher, he is superb. Like Jesse Helms, he speaks directly. Unlike former Southern fireballs such as Huey Long or George Wallace, he is humorless. Gingrich is a product of the Atlanta suburbs, and he articulates the views of the middle class who feel threatened rightly or wrongly. But you did not hear that prior to South Carolina, they expected to see a Confederate flag and a hayloft. Next time maybe they'll do better.