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DID WELCH MAKE A CALL? We wondered if NBC’s coverage was fixed. Watching CNN, Shafer asked the same thing: // link // print //
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 8, 2004

OVERVIEW: Today, we offer a lengthy report on the NBC/MSNBC coverage of Tuesday’s Cheney-Edwards debate. How strange did we find the network’s coverage? Simply put, we found ourselves wondering if the coverage had simply been fixed. As you’ll see, we weren’t the only ones entertaining such thoughts. At Slate, Jack Shafer had the same reaction as he watched CNN’s coverage.

At any rate, we thought NBC’s performance deserved recording. MediaMatters was also struck by the network’s oddball conduct. For one detailed overview, just click here. Other reviews of the network’s odd conduct can be found at the site.

Before we start, though, a note on this morning’s newspapers. How utterly foolish can your Pundit Corps be? Read Charles Krauthammer as he pretends that he can explain Osama bin Laden’s view of our current election. We’ll probably offer more tomorrow. And to see the great New York Times as it finally respond to the endless dissembling of Bush-on-the-trail, read Adam Nagourney’s welcome report. (Headline: “Bush Pushes Limit on the Facts.”) Almost surely, we’ll offer more on this piece tomorrow. But before we do, the obvious question: What took this paper so long?

A HOWLER report: NBC’s oddball evening

DID WELCH MAKE A CALL: By Wednesday morning—the morning after—Chris Matthews seemed to be taking it back. “Maybe we were all wrong about last night because we all thought it was definitely a Cheney night,” he said, telling Don Imus about the bender he and his Hardball cohort had gone on (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/7/04). “I’ve watched Cheney for about twenty-five years now,” Matthews said, “and I think I got snookered again too by the guy.” Of course, Matthews’ comments to Imus didn’t really make sense. Moments earlier, he had described the VP debate in much the same way his gang had done the night before:

MATTHEWS (Wednesday morning, 10/6/04): Well you know, I kept looking at the reaction shots last night, like we did last Thursday, and Edwards, fairly or not, always looked like he had just been smacked. He had this look on his face that he had been smacked, he was hurt, he didn’t know what to do—he’s almost like crying! It didn’t look too good for him last night.
According to the crackpot pundit, Edwards looked almost like he was crying. But that was very much the tone his gang had adopted the night before. Here’s the way this mixed-up man had opened his 11 PM hour:
MATTHEWS (Tuesday evening, 10/5/04): I am stunned! I wish everybody would show an equal exclamation point after their thoughts here tonight! Dick Cheney was prepared! He was loaded for bear tonight! He was out on a hunting trip looking for squirrel!

[LAUGHTER]

MATTHEWS: And he found squirrel! Does anybody share that? Because I think the newspapers are going to share that tomorrow.

In Edwards, Cheney “found squirrel,” Matthews said. Of course, the newspapers—largely run by sane people—weren’t “sharing that” view the next morning. So there was Matthews, on with Imus, saying he may have gotten it wrong. Except, of course, when he was saying that Edwards looked like he’d been smacked. Like a squirrel.

A reasonable person would question this man’s mental balance. But then, all the pundits on Matthews’ panels had ridiculed Edwards the night before—part of one of the strangest evenings ever turned in by a network. From top to bottom—from Brokaw on down—NBC and MSNBC personnel had seemed to be working from one single script. If you watched their coverage and didn’t wonder if the network’s performance had simply been fixed, then you will never—never in your life—entertain a conspiracy notion.

By Wednesday morning, Matthews seemed to realize that no one else was playing this evening the way his gang did. So he went on Imus and almost took it back. But where had the lunacy come from?

In real time: On Hardball, the gang-bang started up instantly. The Cheney-Edwards debate ended just after 10:30 Eastern, and Matthews came on the air with his gang. With apologies for the length of our excerpt, here are the opening comments:

MATTHEWS (10/5/04): There it was, the big debate! It ran a bit over, about 10 minutes late, but let's talk about it right now. And I think we can come up with a jury decision rather quickly.

Andrea Mitchell, you are a straight reporter. You can't make political judgments. But what do you think the country's judgment will be as to who won this encounter?

MITCHELL: I think Dick Cheney did awfully well at, first of all, putting John Edwards in his place, saying that I have been presiding over the Senate and I didn't meet you until tonight. Talking about his not having been on the job was pretty devastating.

MATTHEWS: Not only is he new to politics. He is late to politics.

[LAUGHTER]

MATTHEWS: Ron Reagan, who won?

REAGAN: Well, that was Cheney's best line. I don't think we are going to see—I don't think we saw in this debate what we saw last time, which was a pretty clear winner that would be obvious to anybody.

MATTHEWS: Speak for yourself!

JOE SCARBOROUGH: Speak for yourself!

MATTHEWS: Don't drop that "we" in there!

SCARBOROUGH: Oh, my God!

Reagan’s modest attempt to dissent was steam-rolled by Matthews and Scarborough. “I think we can come up with a jury decision rather quickly,” foreman Matthews originally said. And despite a feeble protest by Reagan, the Hardball gang quickly judged—Cheney had rolled over Edwards. Edwards looked like he was crying. Cheney had hunted him down like a squirrel. Cheney put Edwards in his place. “The analogy would be a water pistol against a machine gun,” Matthews said. With the exception of Reagan, all other pundits shared this view. Weak-willed Newsweek lacky Jon Meacham quickly joined the pleasing consensus. “I think that the vice president did very, very well,” he affably said. “He turned in a strong and serene performance, compared to Edwards, who I think seemed like Kerry-lite.”

There was only one problem with this outlook, of course. Matthews, Mitchell, Scarborough and Meacham spent the next 90 minutes trashing Edwards. But alas—Reagan’s first statement turned out to be right. “I don't think we saw...a pretty clear winner that would be obvious to anybody,” he said. And despite the fraternal uproar of Matthews’ crew, that assessment by Reagan turned out to be right. No other set of network pundits saw the debate as this half-drunk gang did, and polling by ABC and CBS suggested that average voters had come out fairly even when asked to say which man had prevailed. On MSNBC, the abusive imagery and mocking laughter would only build as the evening wore on. But no one else had seen it this way, and, seven hours after he went off the air, Matthews was stupidly sitting with Imus, saying “I think I got snookered again” and saying that “maybe we all were wrong.” Of course, Matthews is becoming famous for endless flipping on his assessment of White House debates (links below). Our question: Why does this half-drunk, erratic man still serve as a steward of our discourse?

No, it didn’t take long for this jury’s decision—and it didn’t take long for its foreman to renounce it. But oddball assessment of this debate wasn’t restricted to MSNBC. Even as Matthews’ “jury” hung Edwards high, Tom Brokaw and Tim Russert were assessing the debate on NBC. Eventually, the pair of Great Men would show up with Matthews and add their less-than-two-cents to the clowning. But the odd review of this debate wasn’t confined to the cable channel. There was much more decorum at NBC as Brokaw and Russert assessed the debate. But conduct there was a bit puzzling too. It fed our conspiracy theory.

The state of affairs at NBC: Give him credit. For once in his life, Brokaw didn’t come right on the air and instantly trash the Dem candidate (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/1/04). Yes, the NBC anchor would soon describe Edwards as “a political novice” who’d been punched by George Foreman (full quote below). But to his credit, his instant summary played it right down the middle:

BROKAW (10/5/04): Vice President Cheney and Senator John Edwards, the vice-presidential candidates, get only one debate, but they get an extra eight minutes altogether...The vice presidential candidates demonstrated tonight that you could have hand-to-hand combat while seated. These are the sharpest, most cutting personal and policy attacks of the campaign so far. They were commanding and tough adversaries, Dick Cheney saying at one point that he does not believe that John Kerry has the conviction to carry through the fight against terrorism. And he said about the two of them, “You couldn't stand up to Howard Dean, how can you stand up to terrorism?” And for his part, John Edwards said, “A long resume doesn't mean good judgment, and you've not been straight with the American people.”
True, Brokaw cited two Cheney zingers versus only one for Edwards, but, for him, that’s quite fair-and-balanced. And co-host Russert played it straight too—although you’ll note he instantly cited a statement by Cheney which he knew to be factually bogus:
RUSSERT (10/5/04): Both men played very much to their political base, Tom. John Edwards came out of the gate and said, “You're not being straight about Iraq.” He wanted this debate to be about Iraq. How did Dick Cheney counter? “If you want to win the war on terror, big macro war on terror, you need George Bush.”

Then we had a very interesting exchange where, as you noted, John Edwards saying, “Just because you have a lot of experience, Mr. Vice President, doesn't mean you have good judgment.” Cheney countered by saying, in effect, “You're a young man in too much of a hurry. I preside over the Senate, and I never met you until tonight.”

“I never met you until tonight.” As we have seen, Russert already knew that this statement by Cheney was false (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/7/04). But so what? As we’ll see, Russert would cite this statement all night, never revealing that it was false. Indeed, when he went over to comment on Hardball, Russert got in the half-drunken spirit that prevailed on that air. He offered an heroic account of what Cheney meant by this statement, never revealing that he knew that Cheney’s slam had misstated the facts.

Yes, Brokaw and Russert were fair-and-balanced in their opening summaries. But then the microphone went back to Brokaw, and Brokaw began to show tilt:

BROKAW (10/5/04): Sixty-three-year-old Dick Cheney from Wyoming, a veteran in Washington of the Congress, the White House, secretary of defense, now a vice president against a 51-year-old political novice, effectively. Two different styles: Dick Cheney reminded me of George Foreman, kind of a slow gait but a powerful right hand when he unleashed it in a number of areas as he went after the Kerry-Edwards ticket. John Edwards, for his, for his sake, you can see the folksy courtroom style that he had that was so successful for him as he played out against what he says is more of the same of this administration, suggesting to the American people with, “It's time for a change.”
Imagery? Cheney was now an impressive Washington veteran, working against a “political novice.” And Cheney had been like George Foreman, with “a powerful right hand,” working against a guy with a “folksy style.” Compared to the clowning over at Hardball, this was very minor tilt. But as we’ll see, Brokaw would later embellish these images, and they’d be hyped at Hardball—big-time. On MSNBC, Brokaw would make his point abundantly clear: Powerful Foreman had won.

And others would seem to say this on NBC, even in this first half-hour. Were NBC personnel reading from script? The troubling thought first crossed our minds when Brokaw threw to two reporters in the Spin Room. Each reporter would ask one question of a campaign spokesperson. But take a look at what David Gregory said when he question Bush aide Mary Matalin:

GREGORY (10/5/04): Thanks very much, Tom. I am with Mary Matalin. And, Mary, obviously, you're feeling good about the debate. But I want to challenge you on one point about Iraq.

MATALIN: What a surprise!

“Obviously, you’re feeling good about the debate?” Karl Rove couldn’t have typed this prologue better; Gregory seemed to be saying that Cheney had won. But then, that’s exactly what Campbell Brown seemed to say, too! Gregory threw it over to Brown, who posed her one question to Kerry’s Joe Lockhart:
BROWN (10/5/04): Thank you, David [Gregory]. I'm here with Joe Lockhart, adviser to Senator Kerry. It was a tough performance tonight by the vice president. There were sharp attacks against John Edwards, especially with regard to his Senate record, his absence from the Senate, missing votes. Did you lose some of the momentum that you had gained after the last debate?
Brown seemed to be saying that Cheney won too! And then Brokaw threw to his pair of bloggers. How did that fair-and-balanced segment turn out? John Hinderaker, the conservative blogger, said that Cheney clearly won. Then Brokaw threw to the vacuous Ana Marie Cox. And, in between her silly giggles, Cox said that Cheney won too! See THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/6/04.

Was something wrong with NBC’s half-hour? That is clearly a matter of judgment. But no one could ever cry “liberal bias” as this odd half-hour unfolded. Both reporters seemed to suggest that Cheney had won the debate. And both guest bloggers came right out and said so. (As we all know, it’s a standard Fox trick—match a straight-ahead conservative guest with a simpering “liberal” like Cox.) Meanwhile, Brokaw’s descriptions favored Cheney, and Russert was failing to mention the fact that Cheney’s Great Line had been a misstatement. No, NBC’s half-hour didn’t begin to compare to the clowning underway on its sister channel. But are NBC reporters so poorly skilled that they don’t know how to ask two questions without twice telling viewers that Cheney had won? Are Brokaw’s producers really so dense that they matched those two bloggers in good faith? On Fox, you’d know what a match like that meant. Is it really so different with Peacocks?

And is Brokaw unable to restrain his opinions? Shortly after 11, the undisciplined man went over to MSNBC. And once he got there, he stated what he previously only implied—Dick Cheney won the debate.

Brokaw and Russert unbound: Over at MSNBC, the great, brilliant anchor could let his hair down. Shortly after 11 o’clock, Brokaw and Russert joined the half-drunk Hardball gang. And make no mistake—the frat party really was poppin’ by now. With dissenter Reagan long since put in his place, here’s the way Matthews and Scarborough started the 11 o’clock hour:

MATTHEWS (10/5/04): I am stunned. I wish everybody would show an equal exclamation point after their thoughts here tonight. Dick Cheney was prepared. He was loaded for bear tonight. He was out on a hunting trip looking for squirrel.

[LAUGHTER]

MATTHEWS: And he found squirrel. Does anybody share that? Because I think the newspapers are going to share that tomorrow. He had tremendous ammunition at his disposal, tremendous opposition research on the absentee ratings of both candidates on the Democratic ticket. He was able to defend, almost, almost, his position as former CEO of Halliburton.

But on every other topic, he seemed like he was in to hit home runs and he did so. Joe Scarborough.

SCARBOROUGH: Yes, no doubt about it. And, again, I will go back to what I said before the debate. This guy, Dick Cheney, is so comfortable in his own skin. There aren't a lot of people that, when you ask him a question, will stand there and—

MEACHAM: Like George Bush.

SCARBOROUGH: Look down for a second, and look, and basically say, I cannot believe I am going to have to educate this little kid on how government really works.

“Yes, no doubt about it,” Scarborough said. While weak-willed Meacham affably agreed, Edwards was compared to a squirrel and to a “little kid.” Cheney was hitting home runs.

And then, nirvana! Great Brokaw came on! Want to see a weak-willed man in action? Then read through Brokaw’s two-sided statement, in which he says that he shouldn’t opine—and then immediately does just that, sharing the view of the crew:

MATTHEWS: Let's go right now to some experts. NBC Nightly News anchor, Tom Brokaw, and NBC News Washington bureau chief and moderator of Meet the Press, Tim Russert, join us right now.

Gentlemen, what did you think?

BROKAW: Well, I think that it's always premature for us to make a decision about who won the debate, Chris. I know that it's part of the sporting moment after the debate, but people really will decide in the next couple of days, and they will piece it together with last week and what they see again on Friday night.

But I absolutely agree. And I was not surprised by this, having covered him for more than 30 years now, that Dick Cheney was extremely well prepared. And earlier on NBC here, I compared him to George Foreman. He kind of shuffles across the ring and then he unleashes a powerful right hand. He had any number of memorable lines: You couldn't stand up to Howard Dean. How can you stand up to terror?

He doesn't believe that John Kerry has conviction to carry through on the war on terror. He said, you were for the war when the headlines were good. You were against it when the polls were bad.

Those are not only memorable lines, but those are sound bites that are going to get repeated again and again, Tim.

“It’s always premature to make a decision,” the Great Man said. But so what? As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he made a decision anyway! And yes, he voiced the Great Motto of his disturbed fraternal order. “I absolutely agree,” he said, as he openly stated the view he had only implied on NBC. Cheney had beaten up Edwards, Brokaw said. And when he threw to his side-kick, Russert, Russert pimped that Great Cheney Statement—the statement he knew was untrue:
RUSSERT (continuing directly): I thought Senator Lindsey Graham, the Republican from South Carolina, had a very interesting point, Tom. He said that last Thursday was not George Bush's best night.

BROKAW: Right.

RUSSERT: And they were very much afraid that if this debate went the same way as last Thursday's, there would be an extraordinary momentum for the Kerry-Edwards ticket going into Friday.

They do believe that tonight they blunted some of that momentum, because Dick Cheney was able to rally the Republican base, at least, by putting forward a very instructive and heartfelt case for the Bush-Cheney administration. I think John Edwards, when he said, you are not being straight on Iraq, was trying to frame this campaign on Iraq, and Dick Cheney kept saying, it's broader than Iraq. It's the war on terror. And if you want to win the war on terror, you have got to reelect George Bush.

And then when he turned to John Edwards and basically said to him, you know what, you are a young man in too much of a hurry. I never met you before in my life until you walked on the stage tonight, it was basically saying to the American people, you may disagree with me, but I am steady and I am resolute, and I have a lot of experience, and you don't have to worry about the government if I am a heartbeat away.

Good boy! Cheney was saying he was steady and resolute. And Cheney was saying the people could trust him. And oh yes, one other thing—Cheney was lying in the faces of the people. But Russert knew he mustn’t say that. After pimping Cheney’s Great Statement all night, he said that to Couric the next morning.

Oh what a night: For ourselves, we’re not sure we’ve ever seen an odder performance by a whole network. Let’s review what happened when NBC/MSNBC covered the VP Debate.

At NBC, things were surely a trifle strange, though they kept the lid on. Anchor Brokaw implied that Cheney had won, a view he would openly state on MSNBC. Anchor Russert quickly pimped Cheney’s Great Statement, forgetting to say that the statement was wrong. Both reporters, asking only one question, clearly implied that Cheney had won. And then they brought on two expert bloggers—one a conservative, one just an idiot. Both bloggers said Cheney won.

No, liberal bias was hard to find as NBC worked its magic,. But over at MSNBC, the drunken frat boys were just running wild. John Edwards? He was “a squirrel,” a “little kid,” who “George Foreman” Cheney had “put in his place.” When Reagan attempted to voice an alternative view, he was loudly shouted down. The endless group [LAUGHTER] riddles the transcript as this half drunken crew voiced its wisdom. And eight hours later, its unbalanced leader was wringing his hands with Imus. “I think I got snookered again,” he now said. Why is this man on the air?

No, “the newspapers” weren’t sharing their view the next day; the newspapers weren’t calling John Edwards a squirrel. And there were no empirical data—none at all—that suggested that voters had judged the debate the way this strange group of frat boys had done. For ourselves, as we watched this gang’s strange evening, we found ourselves entertaining a thought for the first time. We found ourselves thinking, for the first time, that the explanation for the conduct was obvious. Jack Welch must have jumped on the phone and told these strange people just what they must say. Their Instant Verdict was so odd and so wildly asserted that you couldn’t help wonder about that.

Do we think Jack Welch made that phone call? Only a fool would guess about that. But let’s say this: If a Martian visitor had watched this exhibit, that would be his first supposition. We all assume that it just can’t be true. But try watching the tape as Matthews wildly emotes all night and then, the next day, takes it back.

POSTSCRIPT: Needless to say, Matthews has been flip-flopping wildly since Wednesday morning, revising his stand on Cheney/Edwards with every new TV appearance. For example, read Eric Boehlert’s latest at Salon to see the erratic Hardball host as he keeps pimping Cheney’s false statement.

Matthews is erratic, unbalanced, unstable. Why is so wildly erratic a man a steward of our precious public discourse?

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: Matthews has reinvented his take on the Bush-Gore debates too (for example, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/15/02). Why is so erratic—and so dishonest—a man stewarding your public discourse?

SHAFER IMAGINED A PHONE CALL TOO: Did someone tell CNN’s pundits what they had to say? As he watched CNN’s coverage of Cheney v. Edwards, Slate’s Jack Shafer asked himself that very same question—the same question we asked about MSNBC! We think that Shafer raises very good points; we strongly suggest that you read his report. Free people don’t all reach a uniform judgment when confronted with an event. Of course, uniformity of judgment is the press corps’ great hallmark; it almost defines this press corps’ dysfunction. But uniformity of judgment ran rampant Tuesday night. We found ourselves wondering if Welch made a call. As he sat and watched CNN, Shafer asked himself the same thing.