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STRAIGHT OUTTA THE DC ESTABLISHMENT! For better or worse, KO’s regular stable of pundits were part of DC’s inner circle: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 26, 2011

Matthews hears the music: Shortly after last night’s State of the Union address, Chris Matthews described an unfortunate part of the current conversation in Washington. As he starts, he’s talking about Obama’s just-finished address:

MATTHEWS (1/25/11): Can I talk about the music, not the words? Because I think we’re caught up in the lyrics, appropriately. So—we’re all literal people. That’s what we do.

But there was a music to it tonight. I think we have to remember, first of all, there’s a person almost dead, who was almost killed, almost assassinated, in a clear assassination attempt. And I think everybody you talk to in the Congress, their spouses, their loved ones are talking about it.

No matter what they say, except the craziest members—there’s only a few of them—they’re worried. They think it has gotten too far, this rhetoric.

Matthews went on to praise Obama for re-establishing his connection with the general public. But we were struck by what he said about the widespread fear of “this rhetoric” in the wake of the attack on Gabrielle Giffords.

We were struck by what Matthews said because a few hours earlier, on the 7 PM live version of Hardball, we’d seen Matthews rant all through the hour about Michelle Bachmann’s latest. Granted, Bachmann’s statement about American history and American exceptionalism was largely foolish, and was therefore ripe for correction. But down through the years, no one has been more foolish than Matthews—and last night, this unfortunate man was ranting and name-calling again. He called Bachmann a “balloon head” throughout the hour; derided her for her “crazy talk;” and was even back to accusing another Tea Party spokesman, a guest on his program, of perhaps being “hypnotized.” (He had initiated this attack on Bachmann herself, last November, during MSNBC’s widely-criticized Election Night coverage.)

Last night, in the course of his hour-long rant, Matthews took Bachmann’s foolish statement and (what else?) embellished what she actually said.

This game goes back a long way with Matthews, back to the day when he apparently felt he was being paid to take out Candidate Gore. Back then, he clowned and embellished for Them. Now, he performs these functions for Us.

Last night, he did it knowing that Washington’s spouses are worried about “this rhetoric” in the wake of what happened in Tucson.

Matthews has walked this ground before, in a very personal way:

In 1999, some inexcusable conduct on Matthews’ part led directly to a near-miss, when one of his unbalanced viewers went to the home of a Washington journalist with a loaded gun on his person. (Fortunately, the journalist was out of the town. The gun-wielding Hardball viewer was arrested, after slashing the journalist’s tires.)

Speaking with his Fairest Lady, Kathleen Willey, Matthews had falsely accused this journalist of a possible crime. One of his viewers reacted. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/20/99.)

You’d think this near-miss would have made Matthews think twice about his on-air conduct. Sorry! A few weeks later, he began making extremely harsh allegations against Wen Ho Lee, who of course began getting death threats. These threats couldn’t be traced directly to Matthews. The man with the gun really could.

In those days, Matthews was one of their’n. Today, he’s been repurposed as one of our’n. But his conduct hasn’t changed a lot, and our side doesn’t much seem to care.

Injustice is everywhere, late night edition: Late last night, nearing one o’clock, Rachel Maddow interviewed former governor Ed Rendell, who is now an MSNBC analyst. We hate it when we learn about injustices of this type:

MADDOW (1/26/11): Joining us now is Governor Ed Rendell, former governor of the great state of Pennsylvania, and a newly minted NBC political analyst. Governor, congratulations and thank you for joining us here tonight.

RENDELL: Good evening, Rachel. You know how much I love doing your show, but if I have to do it at ten of 1, it’s nice to get paid for it.

(LAUGHTER)

MADDOW: Well, you know—I’m sorry. Next time, we’ll do it a little earlier.

RENDELL: No, it’s fine! Now that I’m on the payroll, anything you want—3:00 a.m., 4:30. We’re ready.

MADDOW: You must be getting paid very well. Better than me.

According to Newsweek, Maddow is “getting paid” $2 million per year. We always marvel when major pundits are willing to say things like this.

To judge the pundit’s tone for yourself, you can of course just click here.

Special report: Our’n and their’n!

PART 2—STRAIGHT OUTTA THE DC ESTABLISHMENT (permalink): Many liberals greatly admired Keith Olbermann’s eight-year tenure at Countdown. We wouldn’t count ourselves in that camp, but such differences make for a horse race.

That said, we were a bit puzzled by something Olbermann said when he signed off last Friday night. In this passage, he defined his own eight-year run. This is how he himself sees it:

OLBERMANN (1/21/11): This is the last edition of Countdown. It is just under eight years since I returned to MSNBC. I was supposed to fill in for the late Jerry Nachman for exactly three days; 49 days later, there was a four-year contract for me to return to this nightly 8 PM time slot, which I had fled four years earlier.

The show gradually established its position as anti-establishment. From the stage craft of "Mission Accomplished" to the exaggerated rescue of Jessica Lynch in Iraq, to the death of Pat Tillman, to Hurricane Katrina, to the nexus of politics and terror, to the first Special Comment, the program grew, and grew thanks entirely to your support, with great rewards for me, and I hope for you too.

To us, that’s a slightly odd framing. Whatever one may think of Countdown, was the program really “anti-establishment?” In his critical column at Salon, Niall Stanage challenged that description in the following ways. Absent the insults, we agree with much of what Stanage said, though we don’t think he quite reached the ultimate point:

STANAGE (1/23/11): In his farewell remarks on Friday, Olbermann proudly proclaimed that his show was "anti-establishment." In recent years, that description was a stretch, at best.

Everything from the increasingly contrived "Worst Person in the World" segments to the host’s persona—a kind of an ersatz version of Walter Cronkite, with infinitely more "attitude" but infinitely less real authority—had settled into a rut. Predictability and self-importance were the main features.

[…]

Meanwhile, his professed commitment to the questioning of authority all-too-evidently did not extend to himself. There were myriad stories about diva-like histrionics in front of—and allegedly directed against—staff. There were instances where his sneering at co-anchors had embarrassing public results.

But, more importantly, there was a years-long procession of pundits whose only apparent purpose was to confirm the correctness and brilliance of the host’s every utterance. The spectacle was one in which purportedly respectable journalists seemed to fall over themselves to play courtier to King Smug.

Leaving the insults aside, we agree that Countdown had become grossly predictable, and that Olbermann undercut himself with his air of self-importance. We agree that Countdown’s parade of yes-man pundits was one of the program’s worst features. We’ll only add one note about that—this parade of pundits was plainly drawn from the heart of the D.C. establishment. Whatever one thinks of Eugene Robinson—or of Howard Fineman; or of Jonathan Alter—these pundits come from the very core of mainstream establishment Washington.

This doesn’t mean that something is automatically “wrong” with their outlooks or viewpoints. But was this program really “anti-establishment?” Good lord! For a good chunk of the past few years, Margaret Carlson was a regular guest!

A quick note on the D.C. establishment:

During the Clinton-Gore years, a strange thing happened within this establishment—it became hard to distinguish the views of its “mainstream” and “conservative” factions. For example: As editor of the Washington Post’s Style section, Gene Robinson trashed Candidate Gore in 1999, and helped anoint Bush in the process. But by the summer of 2002, the war in Iraq had begun to split the insider elite into discernible factions.

Whatever one thinks of Olbermann’s stable of yes-men, they very much come from inside the Washington establishment. That doesn’t mean that their viewpoints are “wrong,” or that these pundits were “all the same.” It does mean that they often spewed memorized scripts when they appeared on Countdown, just as they’d done in the prior decade, when their memorized, generally inaccurate scripts were designed to take down Gore.

By the summer of 2002, a large part of the D.C. “establishment” was turning against the war in Iraq. Olbermann’s stable was drawn from that faction. Here at THE HOWLER, we were against the war too. But cast in this new role on Countdown, these pundits often behaved in the same memorized, low-IQ ways they had behaved in the past.

Once, these pundits were their’n; now, they were our’n. But the intelligence level of their punditry didn’t always change a great deal in the process.

Neither did this insider group’s devotion to standards of accuracy. By now, many of Olbermann’s many admirers have adopted a Standard Group Story, in which Olbermann is much better than Fox because he typically got his facts right—and because he was willing to correct himself on the rare occasions when he was wrong. For ourselves, we’ll only say that these claims strike us as being exaggerated. In our experience, Olbermann was routinely wrong, especially when he brought the wrath of god down on his counterparts at Fox; in our experience, his endless “corrections” of Bill O’Reilly were frequently embellished. It’s hard to believe that you have to embellish the facts to challenge the performance of people at Fox. But in our experience, Olbermann did so quite routinely, despite the things our side now says.

Was Olbermann a stickler for accuracy? His admirers tend to make that claim, in a rather routinized fashion. In the process, they make us ask an unfortunate question: Once the liberal world began to emerge in response to the war in Iraq, did we turn out to be a superior species? Or as a new liberal world has emerged, do our’n sometimes seem a tiny bit like their’n?

Was Countdown really “anti-establishment?” In some ways, yes; in other ways, not so much. More on this topic tomorrow, when we examine a prevailing liberal meme—a defense of our tribe’s unassailable conduct on the basis of “false equivalence.”

Tomorrow: Puzzling chronologies