In last night’s debate, Newt Gingrich never seemed to catch fire, and the consensus on Twitter last night was that the admonition to the audience by NBC not to react to the candidates hurt Gingrich more than anyone else. In the South Carolina debates, the ovations Gingrich received for his attacks on the media helped fuel his victories and the game-changing result in the primary on Saturday. After his flat performance, Gingrich warns that he won’t take part in any debates that forbid cheering:
In an interview with the morning show “Fox and Friends,” Mr. Gingrich said NBC’s rules amounted to stifling free speech. In what has become a standard line of attack for his anti-establishment campaign, Mr. Gingrich blamed the media for trying to silence a dissenting point of view.
“I wish in retrospect I’d protested when Brian Williams took them out of it because I think it’s wrong,” Mr. Gingrich said. “And I think he took them out of it because the media is terrified that the audience is going to side with the candidates against the media, which is what they’ve done in every debate.” …
Mr. Gingrich’s performance in the debate in Tampa on Monday night was far more muted. Critics noted that he seemed to be off his game. The National Journal, which co-hosted the NBC debate, compared Gingrich to “a stand-up comedian whose routine suffers without echoes of laughter egging him on.”
Mr. Gingrich clearly noticed something was off, too. “We’re going to serve notice on future debates,” he told Fox. “The media doesn’t control free speech. People ought to be allowed to applaud if they want to.”
Free speech? Meh. The media does not stifle free speech; these debates are their events, their forums, and they have every right to set the rules for participation in them, for both the candidates (with whom they negotiate) and the audience. Free speech does not mean that NBC has to broadcast cheering sections. It’s a false and silly argument. If Gingrich or any of the other candidates choose not to participate in these media events, that’s their prerogative, of course. If people in the audience don’t like the rules, they don’t have to sit there, either.
There are plenty of good reasons to question why Gingrich and his colleagues agreed to do 19 of these media game-show events. I’d start with the poor selection of questions, topics, and moderators, as well as gimmicky chimes and “This or That” nonsense. Audience hooting and hollering doesn’t make my top ten debate attributes. In fact, I find that kind of behavior off-putting for something as serious as a presidential debate. That doesn’t mean that we won’t allow the audience to participate in the Hot Air debate, but I hardly think of that as a critical, make-or-break aspect to the event.
Update: Bad news for Gingrich if he gets the nomination:
I called up the Commission on Presidential Debates, which handles the general election debates, and they confirmed that audience participation has not been allowed in the past in debates, and will not be allowed this cycle either. So, if Gingrich is the GOP nominee, he’ll have to face a silent audience during his debates with the President unless the rules are changed.
Update II: People are complaining that the original headline is misleading. I’ve changed it to narrowly fit what Gingrich said, but what was the obvious interpretation of “serv[ing] notice”? Was it that Gingrich would demand audience participation but take no action if the debate moderators didn’t comply? What about that is “serv[ing] notice”?
Update III: Actually, the Lincoln-Douglas debates did have cheering sections, or at least audience responses.