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RESPECTFUL/OBEDIENT! Three pundits staged a rare discussion. They won’t likely do it again: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, JUNE 17, 2008

A GENTLEMAN’S WORDS DISAPPEAR: It begins to seem that Chris Matthews’ words have perhaps been disappeared. As we noted yesterday, Matthews offered an unusual recollection of his late colleague, Tim Russert, on Friday evening’s Countdown. In particular, he recalled a conversation he had with Russert as the U.S. prepared for war with Iraq. “It may be tricky to say this,” Matthews said, knuckling to his lack of impulse control. “And I’ll say it.”

Matthews’ statement was “tricky” that night because it wasn’t a silly novel. Perhaps for that reason, it almost begins to seem that Matthews’ words have been officially disappeared.

Due to the miracle of the net, you can still watch what Matthews said, and we recommend that you do so. (Just click here. The comments about Iraq start about 1:10 in.) But the transcript of this 8 PM hour seems to have disappeared. It’s absent at MSNBC.com (this transcript is from Friday afternoon’s coverage). It’s also absent at Nexis. At Nexis, an MSNBC transcript is posted for Friday’s 7 PM hour. The next hour doesn’t appear.

Matthews’ comment was worth considering. We’ll let you know if it ever appears.

Special report: Novels, all the way down!


PART 1—RESPECTFUL/OBEDIENT: If we might paraphrase Bertrand Russell: When the pundit corps remembers Tim Russert, it’s novels, all the way down. In today’s Post, Gene Robinson’s column is a “cluelessness classic.” But let’s start with the discussion of Russert conducted last evening on Hardball.

Under Jack Welch, NBC News became a news division without real precedent in modern history; to a remarkable degree, it became an ethnic news division.(Note: By long tradition, most American news orgs were “ethnic” in the sense that they were all-white.) How thoroughly ethnic did this news org become? When Bush and Gore debated in October 2000, MSNBC assembled a five-member panel to discuss the sessions:

Brian Williams (moderator)
Chris Matthews
Mike Barnicle
Peggy Noonan
Doris Kearns Goodwin

Remarkably, all five were East Coast Irish Catholics! First guest commentator on the air each night? Tim Russert, East Coast Irish Catholic! (Tom Brokaw tagged along with Russert, presumably serving as chaperone.) Under Welch, East Coast Irish Catholics were put in place at the news division’s key spots. (We have no idea if this was done as part of some conscious plan.) Russert became moderator of Meet the Press; Matthews became king of NBC cable; and Williams was locked in place as Brokaw’s successor on Nightly News. Once his runs for public office ceased, Pat Buchanan (East Coast Irish Catholic) emerged as top cable pundit. Under Welch, Robert Wright (East Coast Irish Catholic) became president and CEO of NBC. And the network hired so many O’Donnells, they were routinely said, by us, to have their own page in the company’s phone book.

[Note for the nervous: We were raised East Coast Irish Catholic ourselves. Our grandmother’s maiden name: Callahan. Location of service: Outside Boston.]

Everyone in the wider press world avoided noting this peculiar way of staffing a news division. Except USA Today’s Peter Johnson, who offered this as part of an unusually frank profile of Russert:

JOHNSON (11/1/00): Russert, a Roman Catholic, refers to his religion on Meet the Press and speaks reverentially about moderating. "If there's such a thing as a non-religious vocation, this is it." Colleagues say he shares a Catholic bond with NBC president Bob Wright and General Electric chairman Jack Welch.

In the 1990s, Russert bought a summer home on Nantucket—joining Welch and Wright on the island. Matthews bought a $4.4 million home there in 2003.

Is there actually something wrong with building a news division this way? Consider last night’s discussion on Hardball. Producers had assembled a three-man panel to discuss Russert and his legacy:

Chris Matthews (moderator)
Pat Buchanan
Mike Barnicle

All three were East Coast Irish Catholics! Indeed, in the course of a truly unusual (and enlightening) discussion, the gentlemen expressed their views of East Coast Irish Catholic culture. Answering Matthews’ opening question, Barnicle praised Our Kind:

MATTHEWS (6/16/08): Michael, you’re so good at understanding who we are and why we are. And you know, I’ll start with the religious piece tonight, and this is probably the one night we’ll ever do it on Hardball—about religion, how it drives people.

BARNICLE: Well, there’s no question about that, Chris. And you just, you know, referenced, you know—Pat’s there. You’re there. I’m here. Not—all of us are Catholic, as Tim was Catholic. None of us, I think, were Catholic because of the pope. We were Catholic because the faith was rooted in us.

Tim’s faith was rooted in him at home, at his kitchen table, by the nuns. And it was a faith that he brought to the rest of his life, that imbued in him the idea to be respectful of others, that charity was a terrific thing to encompass and embody, to look out for those less fortunate than you, to be respectful of people.

And he brought all of those things, I think, to the table of politics. We could see it each and every Sunday morning or each and every time he was on your program, on Hardball, or on the nightly news. Whenever he was dealing with anybody in the business of politics, he had such a love for the game, the profession of politics, he didn’t come at it yelling. He didn’t come at it disrespectful of the opposition person there, or that person there. And he gave everyone a chance to answer the question.

He had an extraordinary ability that too many younger people, I think, now trying to come into this overly glamorous business of the media, both print and electronic—they don’t have the ability to listen that Tim had, and that is imbued, as you, Chris, know full well, and Pat, you know full well is imbued in you in parochial school, because you better sit there and listen or else you’re going to get a rap of the ruler against the knuckles.

In Barnicle’s portrait, Russert possessed remarkable traits—because he was Catholic, raised by the nuns. Indeed, you could see it every time he went on the air. The younger people are no longer like this.

Pat Buchanan largely agreed. He described “the type of people” created by Russert’s upbringing:

BUCHANAN: Look, you and I and Mike and Tim were born in a time and a place that I think no longer really exists. I mean, we all went to parochial schools when they were 100 percent nuns. I did. I never had another teacher but a nun. They were all Jesuits in high school, in college almost all Jesuits. And they did imbue in you certain certitudes, beliefs of right and wrong. They were hammered into you.

You got the religion every day. You got the religion every day in high school and you got theology three times a week, and philosophy and all that in college. And I think that creates a certain type of people.

Now, today, you see a lot of what I think are pretty homogenized individuals, you know, come out of a cookie cutter and they’re almost interchangeable. He was unique, he was sui generis, because he came out of that working-class Catholic urban ethnic Buffalo neighborhood, parochial school, church, “Sister this.” And you’re respectful. You were obedient. And I think it creates in you a certain type of individual. I don`t care what side of the party of the political party you`re on, we are culturally very much the same.

And I think, Chris—I mean, I think, Chris, that Tim really reflected that. You could look at that and you could see—you could see where he came from and who he was.

Russert “was unique,” Buchanan said, “because he came out of that working-class Catholic urban ethnic Buffalo neighborhood.” But even as Pat called Tim unique, he almost seemed to be saying the opposite. Let us translate his (only slightly) less obvious meaning. According to Buchanan, Russert was unique because he was raised just like us. Russert was a great, unique man—because he was one of We Irish.

Is there really something wrong with assembling a news division in the way Jack Welch did? We think the problem is already evident here—and we think it became a good deal more evident as this discussion proceeded.

In this discussion, you see three East Coast Irish Catholics “starting with the religious piece.” “This is probably the one night we’ll ever do it on Hardball,” Matthews said—and let us translate that for you too. Almost surely, this was “the one night” on which these men will tell you, anywhere near this frankly, how they really see the world. Indeed, in the passages we’ve already quoted, a great deal has already been said.

What happens when you’re raised as Russert was raised? Buchanan stated his view of the matter. “I think it creates in you a certain type of individual,” he said. And then, he said what type of individual he had in mind. If we remember who Buchanan was discussing, we think he made a striking assertion:

BUCHANAN: [Russert] was unique, he was sui generis, because he came out of that working class Catholic urban ethnic Buffalo neighborhood, parochial school, church, “Sister this.” And you’re respectful. You were obedient. And I think it creates in you a certain type of individual. I don’t care what side of the party of the political party you’re on, we are culturally very much the same.

What happens when you’re raised as We Irish were raised? According to Buchanan, you become a respectful person. You become obedient. And not only that: The Jesuits “did imbue in you certain certitudes, beliefs of right and wrong. They were hammered into you.”

But here’s our question: Are those the traits you want to see in your nation’s leading journalists? And then too, were those really the traits of you saw in the work of Tim Russert? We had planned to postpone this discussion, but we think the ideas being blabbed all about are too important to be delayed. So how about it: Do you want an obedient, respectful news corps? A news division full of people who got their “certitudes” “hammered” into them during the early years of life? And is that really what Russert was like? We think these questions are especially relevant because of what Matthews said to Olbermann last Friday night.

It seems his words may have been disappeared. But in his comments to Olbermann, Matthews did describe an obedient man, a man who bought the company line—the “patriotic” line—at a time when his nation really needed a hard-headed type of analysis. There is much to ponder in last night’s discussion; we’ll continue with it tomorrow. But according to Buchanan, We Irish were raised to be respectful—obedient. And everybody seemed to agree: We Irish are better than the rest.

In such glimmers, you see the problem with building a news org in the way Jack Welch built his. And in such glimmers, you see the shape of NBC News’ appalling performance over the past sixteen years. Of course, sitting politely at their card tables, the boys and girls of the “career liberal” world would die before they’d tattle about this. Obedient as these boys and girls are, they may not be deeply inclined to spot the trait in big stars.

TOMORROW—PART 2: We Irish make wonderful prosecutors, all three pundits said.