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Daily Howler: Chris Matthews keeps trashing our Big Major Dems--and our big liberal journals keep dozing
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THE REFUSAL TO SERVE! Chris Matthews keeps trashing our Big Major Dems—and our big liberal journals keep dozing: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, JUNE 4, 2007

IF YOU’RE HAPPY AND YOU KNOW IT: We haven’t really had much time to review last night’s second Dem debate. But for us, the high point came with the hopefuls’ rebellious response to this silly question:
BLITZER (6/3/07): I want everybody to raise their hand and tell me: If you agree that—if the U.S. had intelligence that could take out Osama bin Laden and kill him, even though some innocent civilians would die in the process, would you, as president, authorize such an operation?

If you would, raise your hand.

BIDEN: It would depend on how many innocent civilians—

CLINTON: Yes, I mean, part of this is one of these hypotheticals, Wolf—

EDWARDS: There's not information—not enough information.

CLINTON: That is very difficult to answer in the abstract.
Blitzer was asking presidential candidates to state their views on a complex matter by raising their hands! This was at least the third time he had asked them to do this in last night’s debate. This time, the candidates rebelled. Sorry—they weren’t going there, the hopefuls said.

“I want everybody to raise their hands!” This silly practice debuted at last month’s MSNBC-run Republican debate; let’s hope the practice dies right here.

For some types of questions, a show of hands makes marginal sense. But you know how our celebrity journalists are! Secretly, this is a way to establish their dream—a presidential debate in which only they speak! We’re glad the Dems rebelled last night. We think Wolf should go stand in the corner.

STOP THE DECODING: The good news: At present, the national press is not constructing “demon tales” about Obama; at present, the demon tales are being reserved for Clinton, Edwards and Gore. The bad news: When not constructing “demon tales,” the national press loves to offer fatuous profiles designed to reveal who the candidates “really are.” Case in point: On the front page of Friday’s Times, Jodi Kantor offered an innocuous but silly front-page profile of Obama, focused on the solon’s love of pick-up basketball games. In paragraph 4, the Timeswoman offered this overview:
KANTOR (6/1/07): From John F. Kennedy's sailing to Bill Clinton's golf mulligans to John Kerry's windsurfing, sports has been used, correctly or incorrectly, as a personality decoder for presidents and presidential aspirants. So, armchair psychologists and fans of athletic metaphors, take note: Barack Obama is a wily player of pickup basketball, the version of the game with unspoken rules, no referee and lots of elbows. He has been playing since adolescence, on cracked-asphalt playgrounds and at exclusive health clubs, developing a quick offensive style, a left-handed jump shot and relationships that have extended into the political arena.
But does anybody really think that sailing and wind-surfing have been “correctly” used as “personality decoders” for Kennedy and Kerry? Unfortunately, our mainstream journalists may think such things. And the fact that these journalists think such things keep them churning streams of trivia—trivia which can then be used to tell the stories they prefer. They may think of themselves as “armchair psychologists”—but in fact, they’re serving as armchair novelists. When big journos are allowed to focus on trivia, they can tell you any story they like.

The press corps’ treatment of Kerry’s wind-surfing was a gruesome case in point. Michael Crowley got there first, with an utterly silly profile of Kerry in The New Republic (see THE DAILY HOWLER 9/10/02). In this paragraph, Crowley began to use wind-surfing, “correctly or incorrectly,” as a personality decoder. Asa we mentioned years ago, we thought his decoding skills were quite weak:
CROWLEY (6/3/02): The very fact that Kerry is so obviously running for president is, to some, a perfect illustration of the character flaws that make it impossible for him to become president: a degree of personal manifest destiny and self-love rare even among politicians. Indeed, his biography suggests an almost lifelong grooming for power. A descendant of the plutocratic Forbes clan (Forbes is his middle name), he is the son of a diplomat who was stationed in Europe for much of Kerry’s boyhood. He was schooled in Switzerland before going on to the elite prep school St. Paul’s and then Yale. Even as a young man he had a reputation for intense ambition; in 1971 he was devastatingly lampooned in a “Doonesbury” comic that depicted him singing to strangers the virtues of a man named John Kerry—without revealing that he was John Kerry himself. Wealthy for most of his life, in 1995 Kerry married Teresa Heinz, the widow of Pennsylvania Senator John Heinz and heiress to a fortune of nearly half a billion dollars. And he evinces a distinctly self-indulgent streak. Kerry speeds around on a motorcycle and in a convertible, Rollerblades and wind surfs, and plays classical pieces and Broadway show tunes on his guitar. Feeling introspective two years ago, he told The Boston Globe that he might like to become an artist someday.
Somehow, Kerry had displayed “a distinctly self-indulgent streak” by the fact that he wind-surfed. (And by the fact that he liked to play show tunes on a guitar. And by the fact that he owned a convertible.) This troubling habit was part of a paragraph in which Crowley was discussing the possible “character flaws that make it impossible for him to become president.” (In Crowley’s peculiar thinking, the fact that Kerry was openly running for president was foremost among these bad flaws.)

Yes, that passage about the wind-surfing—and the show tunes—was daft. Arguably, the fact that Crowley could type such nonsense was a perfect illustration of the character flaws that make it impossible for him to be a real journalist! But contemporary journos love such piffle—and the freedom it affords them. Two years later, with history in the balance, other journos would assess Kerry’s wind-surfing—in line with harsh, and completely inane, RNC trash-talking-points.

Do American citizens deserve a real press corps? Do they deserve serious coverage of presidential elections? If so, we’d make this first demand to the press: Drop all the trivia! Kantor’s profile last Friday was perfectly innocent—but it was built on a daft and daffy base. Let’s get sane: It’s extremely unlikely that topics like this will ever serve “as a personality decoder for presidents and presidential aspirants.” More often, they will serve as the raw material from which the press will build its beloved hero/demon tales—the kinds of utterly silly spin that can change our history.

Special report: Why the Prospect slept!

READ EACH THRILLING INSTALLMENT: The Post praised Gerth—and four journals slept. Read each thrilling installment:
PART 1: Friday morning, the Post savaged Clinton—and four liberal journals slept. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/29/07.

PART 2: At The Prospect, one person spoke—and readers howled in protest. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/30/07.

PART 3: The press waged war against Gore for two years. Largely, these journals slept. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/1/07.
Today, our hard-hitting conclusion:

PART 4—THE REFUSAL TO SERVE: On Sunday’s Chris Matthews Show, the host unveiled a new technique. Apparently, it’s now OK to offer sexist comments if you say you’re doing so in advance. Here’s the question the talker posed—about Hillary Clinton, of course, and her vile, troubling husband:
MATTHEWS (6/3/07): Cynthia [Tucker], the question, I think, somewhere in the middle of this—and this may be sexist, I don't deny it, but—is the charge that she's calculating, that they're calculating together, a little too much planning. This two presidencies following two presidencies, this 20-year plan, so-called, does this hurt?
Tucker answered—then told her host that yes, it really is sexist to hammer away at a woman’s ambition if you never raise the same question about her male opponents. And don’t worry—Matthews never does.

Yep—sometimes you just have to throw up your hands and laugh at this talker’s performance. But the gentleman’s loathing for both Clintons and Gore has helped transform American politics. In broadcast journalism, no one savaged Gore as hard (or as dishonestly) in the two years of Campaign 2000. Now, he is endlessly savaging Hillary Clinton—and he won’t stop reciting those hero tales about “Big Handsome,” Fred Thompson. No one has made a bigger joke of our discourse in the past dozen years—and no one has battered Big Democrats more. And yet, Matthews has gotten a near-total pass from our liberal and progressive journals.

What explains our liberal journals’ astounding refusal to serve? Before we try to answer that question, let’s run through their few halting efforts to challenge Matthews’ work.

It’s not as if these liberal journals have never discussed the talker. Omigod! In March 2006, The American Prospect actually published a 1600-word review by Todd Gitlin which discussed how awful Matthews is. Here are the headlines under which Gitlin’s aggressive—and admirable—profile appeared:
It may sound strange to ask what's happened to Chris Matthews. But in recent months, he's been even worse than usual. No. We're serious
We cited the profile when it appeared, and Gitlin hit Matthews hard—and quite accurately. He discussed the clownishness of Matthews’ work, and his nasty Democrat-bashing. (“Matthews always knows who the good guys are. They’re the Republicans,” Gitlin wrote.) But the stinging nature of Gitlin’s piece only served to raise an obvious question: Why have other liberal journals (and the Prospect) seemed to avoid this topic so thoroughly down through the years? Indeed, this may be the only piece these journals ever published which dealt with Matthews in a serious way. Matthews has savaged Big Dems for a dozen years—and only Gitlin has spoken. Why is that?

These journals’ tiny amount of Matthews criticism has sometimes seemed willfully clueless. In June 2001, for example, The New Republic published an interesting profile of Matthews and Bill O’Reilly by Noam Scheiber, a young liberal writer (no link available). Scheiber focused on the common working- to middle-class, East Coast Catholic origins of these two aggressive talkers; it was a rare attempt to discuss the cultural context for the loud cable punditry which has come from so many members of this cultural cohort. But Scheiber short-changed Matthews’ war against the Clintons and Gore—and this is the way he started:
SCHEIBER (6/25/01): New York representative Peter King likes to tell a story about his friend, the cable television talk-show host Chris Matthews. Last May, King was a guest on Matthews's show. Rudy Giuliani had just hinted that he was about to drop out of the New York Senate race, and King's colleague, Rick Lazio, was preparing to step in as his replacement. King, who had once eyed the nomination himself, wasn't especially keen on the upstart from Long Island. But Matthews was even more dismissive. At one point in their banter, Matthews briefly sized up Lazio's chances: "He said he knew Lazio was going to lose the first day he wore that prep school outfit," King recalls.

When I ask him about the anecdote, Matthews disputes both the syntax ("I said, 'You don't get elected senator with khakis on.' Not preppy clothes—khakis") and the implication ("I was just saying the guy's got to grow up. He's running in the New York Senate race; the guy should put a suit on"). But then Matthews betrays himself. Before we can move on, he insists, with his trademark manic laugh: "I don't have any class resentment. Why? Because Lazio went to Vassar? You know, give me a break...My son wanted to go there till we straightened him out."
From there, Scheiber went on to discuss the “class resentment” of Matthews and O’Reilly. Again, his piece was quite intriguing; journalists have largely avoided the culturally conservative Catholic context from which a good deal of our cable punditry has emerged. But note Scheiber’s relative lack of interest in the actual things which actually get said on the actual Matthews program. In an interview, Peter King had told him a favorite story about an alleged Hardball session; in turn, Matthews had disputed “both the syntax and the implication” of what King had said. But what had Matthews actually said on his program? Which of these two men had given Scheiber a more accurate account of the Lazio matter? No, it didn’t hugely matter—but to all appearances, Scheiber never bothered to check. In fact, this conversation seems to have taken place in the fall of 2000 (not in May), when Matthews began to beat up on Lazio for his troubling sissy-boy wardrobe.

What did Matthews say about Lazio? According to the Nexis archives, Matthews and King had a brief exchange on the troubling subject on October 27, 2000. But here is an earlier, longer exchange between Matthews and New York governor George Pataki. As usual, Matthews is expressing familiar pique about a familiar subject—Hillary Clinton’s emerging success. He was steamed because he feared that Lazio wasn’t going to beat her:
MATTHEWS (9/12/00): Everybody knows Hillary Clinton, probably the most famous woman in, in history maybe next to Jackie Kennedy. How do you compete against her the way Lazio's doing it? He's not doing a lot of national programs like this. He walks around wearing khaki pants. I mean, I just wonder why he doesn't act and dress like a grownup big-timer who's going to take her on and beat her? Why is he so small?

PATAKI: Well, I don't think he's small. I think you, you beat her—you're right that she's a national, global figure and he's a new congressman.


PATAKI: But I ran against a national figure [Mario Cuomo], and no one knew who this guy from Peekskill was back in 1994.

MATTHEWS: But you didn't wear khakis. I mean, you dressed up. You dressed like a grownup.

PATAKI: Well, Rick—you don't, I don't think people are going to vote based on the color of your pants. They're going to vote based on the—the intelligence of your ideas and—and—and I think—

MATTHEWS: I just wish he'd dress like a grownup guy. It just seems strange to me.
This exchange with Pataki was vintage Matthews. But Scheiber’s assessment of the Peter King anecdote wasn’t quite accurate. “The [King-Lazio] episode is standard fare for anyone familiar with Matthews’ show,” he wrote, saying that Matthews’ denigration of Lazio reflected his “class-based populism.” Scheiber went on to analyze Matthews and O’Reilly in ways that were well worth considering. But the King-Lazio episode was not standard fare in one key respect; in the story Scheiber told, Matthews was denigrating a mid-level Republican pol, not a major Democrat. If you read deep into Scheiber’s piece, you find him discussing Matthews’ attacks on both Clintons over the years. (“Indeed, for Matthews and O'Reilly, the Clintons are poster children for the irresponsible liberal elites that working-class Americans despise.”) But you’d never have known that Matthews had just spent two years kicking the sh*t out of Candidate Gore, in ways that were often astoundingly dishonest. This is probably the second-best profile of Matthews found in the archives of these four liberal journals (see note below)—and for all its merits, it substantially understated the extent of Matthews’ long-running war against Major Dems. But then, aside from last year’s piece by Gitlin, it’s virtually impossible to learn about the depth of Matthews’ assault on Dems from these four liberal journals. Scheiber’s approach to King’s anecdote reflects the way these journals have averted their gaze from the actual things Matthews actually says and does. For a dozen years, Matthews has savaged Big Dems—as he tells hero tales about Big Reps. And to all appearances, your liberal journals don’t know or care.

As Gitlin noted, Matthews has made a joke of our discourse—and he has savaged liberals and Democrats, often in inexcusable ways. This year, his nasty, gender-based attacks on Hillary Clinton have only extended his body of work—and the liberal journals’ body of silence. Let’s be honest: Democrats work at a massive disadvantage when the nation’s most important liberal journals are willing to tolerate conduct like this. And yet, while Matthews has endlessly trashed Big Dems, these big liberal journals have slept.

Why has this happened? We can’t read the minds of individual journalists. But there is a massive conflict of interest involved in this troubling history. For young career writers and editor at our liberal journals, Hardball (and its companion MSNBC/NBC programs) are an obvious route to career success—an obvious pathway to lucrative careers as major American pundits. If you criticize Matthews, that career route is gone—and these writers and editors have endlessly chosen not to criticize Matthews. And uh-oh! As they have slept, a good selection of writers and editors from these journals have served as regular guests on Hardball and other MSNBC shows (especially on Scarborough Country); they sometimes appear on Meet the Press or other NBC programs. In the case of any given individual, we can’t say if career strategies have stifled criticism of Matthews. But only a fool could miss the conflict—and only a fool could fail to be troubled by these journals’ long-running silence. And while we’re at it, let’s mention Salon, another publication which has largely played patty-cake with Matthews—as he kicks the sh*t out of Major Dems and makes a ruinous joke of our discourse. Like other liberal publications, Salon gains publicity from MSNBC programs—as it plays softball with the network’s most objectionable pundit.

Two Fridays ago, the Washington Post vouched for Jeff Gerth—and, as usual, our liberal journals slept. But then, they’ve slumbered long and well, in various ways—and they sell you down the river as their loud snoring continues.

ON METHOD: It’s always risky to say that certain types of work haven’t appeared in certain publications; it’s easier to established what has appeared, rather than what hasn’t. If other tough profiles of Matthews have appeared, we’ll be happy to link to them. But given his endless assault on our discourse, the silence from these journals has been vast. The assault—and the silence—only continue as he goes after Vile Strident Clinton, singing the praises of Handsome Movie Star Fred as he does. When on earth do our “liberal” journals plan to talk back about this?