King opened the debate by asking former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to respond to allegations from his second wife, Marriane Gingrich, that he had asked for an open marriage in the 1990s. At the time, Gingrich was having an affair with his current wife, Callista.
When King asked Gingrich if he wanted to respond to Marriane's claim, Gingrich shot back, "No. But I will." He went on to deny the claims and attack King for raising the issue:
“I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country. I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that… To take an ex-wife and make it two days before the primary a significant question for a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine.”
John King defended the question, saying it was a subject of the campaign, and therefore a legitimate point to raise. But King moved on, and critics say he should have had a more forceful follow-up.
The New Yorker's John Cassidy writes today:
"King and his producers seemed stunned by Newt’s fusillade. Rather than standing up to Gingrich and pressing him about his ex-wife’s allegations, which included the affirmation that he doesn’t have the moral character to be president, King allowed him to dismiss them as unfounded and get in a few more shots at CNN and the rest of the 'elite media' for 'defending Barack Obama by attacking Republicans.'"
John King defended his actions in an interview after the debate:
“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 upfront, let’s not try to sneak it into the middle of the debate somewhere."
But Charles Bierbauer, former CNN political reporter and dean and professor at the University of South Carolina, told Here & Now's Robin Young that he thought it was wise for John King to move on to another topic, because it is not a debate between John King and Newt Gingrich.
National Political correspondent for the Washington Post Karen Tumulty agreed. She also pointed out that when she interviewed Gingrich last year, he said he felt an important turning point in his campaign had been a series of skirmishes with moderators.
"He sees these as very much working to his advantage," Tumulty told Here & Now's Robin Young.
Readers Weigh In
On Here & Now's Facebook page, Penny Mahood Burgett said John King "backed down."
But Marshall White had this to say:
"I found it was the first time I agreed with Newt. Questions of that nature have no place in a presidential debate."
This segment aired on January 20, 2012.
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