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VILLAGE-ON-VILLAGE JOURNALISM: Success! Howard Kurtz has had his lips surgically removed from Brian Williams average Joe keister. (For the first three parts of our yet-to-be four-part report, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/14/07.) And in this mornings Washington Post, he puts his freedom to very good use. He shows how tribunes of The Village profile The Villages own.
The subject of Kurtzs is cable loudmouth Chris Matthews. Amid the various ways Kurtz has found to understate the problem with Matthews, we thought his passage about Dee Dee Myers was in some ways the most instructive. Last month, Matthews ridiculed Myers on his show, as he has routinely done, down through the years, when contradicted by non-Republican women. Kurtz tells the tale at some length today. But he leaves out one part: Who was right?
KURTZ (2/14/08): [Matthews] routinely talks over his panelists, but some women feel especially trampled. Matthews challenged Dee Dee Myers, the former Clinton White House spokeswoman, when she argued last month that nobody expected Hillary Clinton to be the inevitable nominee. Everyone thought Clinton would win, he insisted.
"That's wrong, Chris," Myers said.
"Hey, that's a fact," Matthews said. He kept interrupting her, saying: "This is revisionism, Dee Dee."
"Chris," she said, "you ask me a question, if you would let me answer it, it would be helpful—"
"You are answering it and you're wrong," Matthews declared. Myers was so annoyed she refused to return to the next night's show until Matthews called to apologize. "Chris was very disrespectful to me," Myers says. "He has every right to disagree with me, but he did it in a way that was dismissive and wrong. Not only was it bad manners, it was bad television....My only regret is I didn't make him apologize on the air."
Kurtz misstates what Myers originally said, but he soon presents the dispute correctly. Excuse me, Dee Dee, Matthews said on the January 8 Hardball, everybody thought Hillary was going to win this nomination. The international betting odds have been clear for years now. As part of his array of cracked pottery, Matthews loves to cite betting odds. But in this case, Matthews was simply ignoring what an endless array of insider guests had said on his own programs during the spring of 2007 Obama announced his campaign in Springfield, Illinois on February 10, 2007; Matthews spent several clownish hours on the air, trying to decide if Obama reminded him more of Jack, or Bobby, or Martin. (Or was he more like Abraham Lincoln?) Three weeks later, still pimping hard, to asked a panel of housebroken guests (on The Chris Matthews Show) a question about the Dem race. This is what people were saying on The Chris Matthews Show in March of 2007:
MATTHEWS (3/4/07): OK, let me go around the room. Will he, meaning Obama, catch Hillary by Memorial Day in the polls?
KATHLEEN PARKER: I think so. He's going to move fast.
MATTHEWS: David [Gregory], Democratic primaries—Democratic vote. Will he catch her in that poll, the next poll we take on Memorial Day?
ELISABETH BUMILLER: I think so.
CLARENCE PAGE: So many variables, but they—within shouting distance.
Only Page expressed any doubt; Obama would be even with Clinton in the polls by late May 2007. But then, several guests had said the same thing on Matthews February 11 program—on the weekend Obama announced. On March 25, Matthews was still excitedly asking his question, and resident genius Patrick Healy offered the consensus view: Both campaigns think will be a dead heat by Memorial Day.
Obama would catch up to Clinton by May; its what all the pundits were saying. But this is exactly what Myers was saying last month when a certain loudmouth rudely—and stupidly—decided to shout her down. Heres the actual chat between Myers and Matthews on Hardball—the part Kurtz slightly clipped:
MATTHEWS (1/8/08): Everybody has been betting that Hillary would be the nominee. When they put money on it, people bet on Hillary being the nominee. This has been going on for years now. Why do you say she wasnt the front-runner, where did that come from?
MYERS: I think a year ago, in the spring of last year, that wasnt the story-line at all.
MATTHEWS: Who was the front-runner if it wasnt her?
MYERS: I dont think there was a front-runner. I think a year out—
MATTHEWS: This is revisionism, Dee Dee.
MYERS: Chris, you ask me a question, if you would let me answer it, it would be helpful—
MATTHEWS: You are answering it and youre wrong. It`s revisionism to say Hillary Clinton—no one believed that Hillary Clinton was not the front- runner.
Classic Matthews! Myers was basically right on the facts. In the spring of 07, the story-line was widely pimped: Obama was going to catch Clinton fast. Clinton might be ahead in the polls, pundits said—but she wasnt going to be there for long. But that wasnt the story-line Matthews was seeking. Even worse, Myers was a woman—and she wasnt a Republican woman! And so, we got the standard reaction, the reaction weve seen on this program for more than a decade; Matthews began to interrupt and name-call, berating Myers for making a statement which was basically accurate. This was a case of Classic Matthews—and this morning, we got Classic Kurtz. With his lips newly freed from one Village stars backside, Kurtz forgot to say it: Matthews was basically wrong on the facts when he dished out his whipping to Myers.
But then, the loud, stupid Matthews has done this for years; Village tribunes like Kurtz just wont tell you. Sometimes, theyll tell you how rude Matthews is. They wont say how often hes wrong as he hands out his loud whippings. (Example: Last fall, Matthews made Jill Zuckman shut up about Rudy. She was obviously right on the facts—but avoided the facts from then on. But so it went with Elizabeth Holtzman, way back in 1/99.)
IT ISNT THAT KURTZS PROFILE OF MATTHEWS is an outright puff piece. Matthews has been in trouble of late, and his first lieutenant has just been suspended; this meant is was time to profile Matthews—just not to profile too hard. The pleasure of reading this profile lies in seeing the endless ways Kurtz agrees to understate the various problems with Matthews. As everyone knows, Matthews has been in trouble—has been in the news—for his nasty coverage of Hillary Clinton, a well-known, major Democrat. With that in mind, you have to admire the way his profiler shapes things early on in his piece:
KURTZ: Matthews is not easy to pigeonhole. He has liberal sympathies on most issues, but can hammer Democratic guests as aggressively as he grills Republicans, often annoying his left-leaning friends. He is impulsive and unpredictable, reeling off snap judgments, sometimes punctuated with his trademark "Ha!": John McCain, 71, claiming victory in Virginia alongside octogenarian Sen. John Warner, "looks like an army in retreat." If you "don't cry" when Barack Obama gives a speech, "you're not an American." And what made Mitt Romney think "a Mormon guy could win in the Bible Belt"? In fact, MSNBC executives have encouraged this approach—while also cautioning him to watch his tone.
Too funny. In fact, Matthews is quite easy to pigeonhole. He has been an aggressive, crackpot Clinton/Gore-hater over the course of the past dozen years; his year-long gender-trashing of Hillary Clinton is just the latest installment in a long and disgraceful journalistic campaign. Kurtz, understanding the problems involved here, frames the facts in a vastly different way. He makes it sound like the question is this: Will Chris Matthews, a liberal Democrat, hammer Dems as hard as Republicans? This is a ludicrous way of framing Matthews conduct in the past dozen years. But, to drive this fantasy home, Kurtz includes a negative statement about McCain—a man to whom Matthews has endlessly pandered and fawned in the past decade. Everyone knows that Matthews has done that, but within The Villages courteous confines, some facts simply must be polished, just like the silverware down at the club. From the quotes about McCain, Obama and Romney, a reader might even get the idea that Matthews is a liberal war-horse who has to struggle to make himself go after Dems. That completely reinvents The Problem With Matthews. But Kurtz is framing his profile this way right from its opening paragraph:
KURTZ: Last fall, as network executives, members of Congress and other hotshots gathered beneath a massive tent at Washington's Decatur House to celebrate the 10th anniversary of "Hardball," Chris Matthews began to address the crowd.
Dispensing with the usual platitudes about his MSNBC show, Matthews vowed not to be silenced by Bush administration officials. And he let loose with this broadside: "They've finally been caught in their criminality."
The political community was soon abuzz: Did you hear what Chris said? What criminality was he talking about? Could he really be fair in moderating the following week's Republican presidential debate?
"I did it on purpose," Matthews says now. "I wanted to make a statement that we had a purpose on the show—to tell the truth."
On his show, on the street, on the phone, on the party circuit, this 62-year-old refugee from Democratic politics wants to tell you what he thinks. Now. Right away. Not after the next commercial break.
As he starts, Kurtz presents a refugee from Democratic politics blurting out an aggressive statement about Bush Admin criminality. Shamelessly, Kurtz pretends that Washington was puzzled by this statement: What criminality was he talking about? he pretends the political community was saying. But whatever one thinks of Matthews statement, everyone knew what criminality he meant; he was referring to Scooter Libbys conviction in a criminal trial. Meanwhile, theres no record of the political community asking if Matthews was fit to moderate that (October 9) Republican debate; this question was raised by a handful of right-wing sources (by a New York Post editorial, by John Gibson and Bill OReilly on Fox), and Kurtz is willing to let them speak for all of The Village here. In fact, Matthews was his usual clownish self as he moderated that debate; he took a few weird pot-shots at Fred Thompson (to whom he had pandered so hard in the spring). But otherwise, he engaged in his standard powder-puff approach to such Big Republicans as his darlings, Saints Rudy and John. Hed done the same thing when he clowned his way through the first Republican debate.
What has Matthews really been like when it comes to partisan politics? In fact, Matthews was very tough on the war in Iraq, starting in the fall of 2002; his statement(s) about Libbys criminality were part of a long campaign he adopted with respect to that war. Except for strategically-fired Phil Donahue, Matthews was the most skeptical voice on cable when it came to the war; he did a lot of good work on the issue (and some that was not), and he deserves credit for it. But in this conduct, Matthews was way out of character; the war is virtually the only issue he has ever addressed on his show, which runs instead to inane chatter about the four Ps: Personalities, polls, pointless predictions—and endless pummeling of Major Dem pols, especially the Clintons and Gore. Matthews did oppose the war. But he has built his cable career around the loud trashing of Dems.
But so what? In the capable hands of Kurtz, Matthews is somehow said to have liberal sympathies on most issues; hes a liberal former Democrat, one who has to force himself to treat Dems as harshly as Republicans. Anyone who has watched Matthews show will know how absurd this notion is. But as weve told you in the past, if Jack Welch did have a motive in assembling the NBC News corps, Kurtzs portrait shows what that motive was. Starting with Tim Russert in the mid-1980s, Jack Welch hired three Reagan Democrats; gave them vast wealth; and put them in charge of the NBC News op. Result? These three Lost Boys spent the past dozen years savaging both the Clintons and Gore. But its amazingly easy to frame this trio in the way Kurtz frames Matthews today. Even as theyve savaged Clinton/Gore/Clinton, it has always been easy to say: NBC is headed by a trio of Democrats! If Welch had a motive in their hiring, Kurtz displays Welchs genius today. Matthews has to force himself to trash Dems! That framework is completely absurd, but obvious. Howard Kurtz has never serviced his Villages narratives better.
KURTZ NEVER QUITE MISSTATES ANY FACTS as he constructs todays profile. But professional communicators rarely lie; their skill lies in the facts they omit. This takes us back to Kurtzs treatment of the problem which produced todays profile.
Last month, people finally screamed and yelled about the way Matthews has gender-trashed Clinton. [S]ome high-profile women are now holding him up as the symbol of the insensitive male pundit, Kurtz writes (our emphasis), ghettoizing this concern in the way insensitive males sometimes do. Magnanimously, Kurtz even allows his readers to learn a few of the relevant facts. Here we see some ugly facts from a longer parade of true horribles:
KURTZ: Among the women with whom Matthews has tangled, Clinton may be the most curious case study. Kathleen Matthews, now a Marriott executive, has given Hillary Clinton's campaign the maximum allowable donation of $2,300, and one of their three children, Michael, has worked in Africa for Bill Clinton's global initiative.
Yet the "Hardball" host has been particularly hard on the former first lady, to the point where some of her advisers have glared at him at parties. And there is a history here. In 1999, amid speculation that Clinton might seek a Senate seat in New York, Matthews told viewers: "No man would say, 'Make me a U.S. senator because my wife's been cheating on me.' "
The following year, he said: "Hillary Clinton bugs a lot of guys, I mean, really bugs people—like maybe me on occasion...She drives some of us absolutely nuts."
In 2005, when Clinton criticized the administration on homeland security the day after terrorist bombings in London, Matthews said: "It's a fact: You look more witchy when you're doing it like this."
In recent weeks, he has asked whether Clinton's criticism of Obama makes her "look like Nurse Ratched." He has said that "Hillary's loyal lieutenants are ready to scratch the eyes out of the opposition" and likened her to Evita Peron, "the one who gives gifts to the little people, and then they come and bring me flowers and they worship at me because I am the great Evita."
It was against that backdrop that Matthews sparked a furor last month when he said: "I'll be brutal: The reason she's a U.S. senator, the reason she's a candidate for president, the reason she may be a front-runner, is her husband messed around." The counterattack was fierce.
In fairness to Kurtz, Matthews has gender-trashed Clinton so much that it would be hard to convey the full backdrop—the full history here. But Kurtz undercuts the facts a good deal, and his reshaping goes beyond the way he understates Matthews insults. Regarding that endless gender-trashing, were told that Matthews has called Clinton witchy—but not that hes compared her to a strip-teaser. Were told he has said that Clinton bugs him, but were left unaware of his earlier statement: I hate her. I hate her. I hate everything she stands for. Its hard to know why youd profile Matthews without asking why he would say such a thing—without asking his bosses why such a man was left in charge of covering Clintons run for the White House. But then, the essence of Kurtzs profile of Matthews is found in the various things he omits. Lets assemble a basic list of things which have been disappeared:
Gennifer Flowers: Were told that Matthews once told Flowers that she was a knock-out (on Hardball, in August 1999). We arent told what Flowers did on that show; we arent told that she spent a half-hour accusing Clinton and her husband of committing a long string of murders. This astounding event occurred nine years ago. Kurtz kept his big trap shut at the time, and nine years later, people like Kurtz still refuse to admit that it happened. Heaven forbid they ask Matthews—or his bosses—how such an outrage occurred.
David Shuster/Tucker Carlson: Were told that Matthews had to apologize for recent, gender-trashing remarks. We arent told about the pattern of such conduct on MSNBC. We arent told that Matthews first lieutenant, Chris-shill David Shuster, is on suspension right now/today for having made a similar comment—after having boo-hoo-hooed about the vile way poor Chris had been treated. We arent told about the endless similar statements by MSNBC boy toy Tucker Carlson—who involuntarily crosses his legs every time he sees Clinton. Were told that Matthews has said stupid, weird things. A much larger pattern disappears.
Al Gore: Kurtz gives readers a cursory look at Matthews history with the Clintons. In this passage, youre very much looking at the way these Village People play softball:
KURTZ: Matthews is a Roman Catholic with a strong moralistic streak, which became clear in his constant denunciations of Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky affair.
"I spent a year going after Clinton because he just wasn't straight with the American people. He used the presidency to protect himself," Matthews says.
Matthews is allowed to say that he spent a year going after [Bill] Clinton. Presumably, he refers to the Year of Monica, which started in early 1998. But Matthews had been a Clinton-trasher before the world ever heard of Lewinsky—and, as everyone must know by now, he spent the next two years going after Gore, the most eventful, disastrous conduct of his disastrous cable career. Surely, Kurtz knows about the disgraceful conduct in which Matthews engaged during Campaign 2000—but he also knows that it mustnt be mentioned in this, a profile of a liberal Dem who has to make himself go after Dems. Result? We dont learn about Matthews open lies about Gore, or about his endless, kooky insults. We dont learn about the way this stupid man paraded about at Washington parties, telling anyone who would listen that Gore would lick the bathroom floor in order to reach the White House. (When Gore went ahead in the polls in September 2000, Matthews apologized, on Hardball, for this routine insult.) And we dont learn what Matthews said to Don Imus. Lets pair it up with the disappeared statement about vile HRC:
Chris Matthews on Hillary Clinton: I hate her. I hate her. I hate everything she stands for.
Chris Matthews on Al Gore: He doesnt look like one of us. He doesnt seem very American, even.
In the spring of 2000, Pews Project for Excellence studied the coverage of the character issue in Campaign 2000. Pews final report went out of its way to mention the endless trashing of Gores character encountered on one cable program—Hardball. But that all disappears today, as Kurtz presents a manicured tale—a tale about a liberal Dem who has to force himself to go after Democrats. Matthews career is based on conduct which Kurtz just keeps disappearing.
Jack Welch: And yes, this one last name is AWOL, just as it always will disappear when The Village profiles its own. The basic history is clear (and comical), although its a story which mustnt be told. Jack Welch, a near-billionaire conservative Republican, purchased NBC News for GE; he then assembled a team of home-boy, Irish-Catholic Reagan Democrats at the top of his news division. He made his Big Three extremely wealthy; he even let two of them live on Nantucket. And by complete and total coincidence, his three Lost Boys have spent the past decade kicking the shit out of the Clintons and Gore. It was their trashing of Gore which changed the worlds history; but Matthews trashing of Clinton in the past year is just the latest chapter in a decade-long story. But Howard Kurtz is a man of the people (The Village People); he understands how The Village writes history. Recently, his lips were removed from Williams backside, and he uses his freedom today to polish a portrait of Matthews.
Chris Matthews? He is a liberal former Dem who doesnt much like going after Big Dems. His recent trashing of Hillary Clinton? Its a curious case study, Kurtz says, thus telling his one blatant lie.