AlterNet; by Eric Boehlert, Media Matters for America; April 17, 2008
Tongues are still wagging over The New York Times Magazine’s cringe-inducing cover story about MSNBC talker Chris Matthews. The cringes came courtesy of the name-dropping Matthews, whose raging insecurities danced across nearly every page of the piece. As Digby noted after reading the opus, “He fulfills every single Village media cliche: obsessive social climbing, deep personal insecurity, primitively sexist and racist and just plain dumb.”
Question: Is Chris Matthews the Michael Scott of political talk show hosts? And if so, does that make MSNBC the Dunder Mifflin of cable news?
Matthews has harvested a bumper crop of outrageous remarks during this extended primary season. Specifically, fueled by his obsession with the Clintons (he can’t recall attending a single Beltway party where the couple has not been discussed), Matthews has unleashed a flood of sexist commentary.
On that front, of course, the Hardball host has not been alone. This election season, we’ve seen a cavalcade of white, middle-age men express their deep, personal contempt for the first serious female contender for the White House. Contempt, of course, that has nothing to do with Sen. Hillary Clinton’s policies or her beliefs. Instead, it’s been an oddly personal disdain dressed up as political analysis.
The way Mike Barnicle on MSNBC said Clinton “look[ed] like everyone’s first wife standing outside a probate court.” The way Bill Kristol on Fox News said that among the only people supporting Hillary Clinton were white women, and “[w]hite women are a problem, that’s, you know — we all live with that.” The way CNN’s Jack Cafferty likened Clinton to “a scolding mother, talking down to a child.” The way Fox News’ Neil Cavuto suggested Clinton was “trying to run away from this tough, kind of bitchy image.” The way MSNBC’s Tucker Carlson announced that “when [Clinton] comes on television, I involuntarily cross my legs.” The way Christopher Hitchens on CNBC described Clinton as being “sort of alternately soppy and bitchy.'”
That’s all taken place in open view. And while a blog swarm did engulf Matthews in January, followed by a forced, pseudo-apology by the host — and his attacks did prompt some women activists to carry picket signs outside the MSNBC studios — the openly sexist comments have produced very few condemnations from within the industry and even less soul-searching from the (mostly male) press corps. In fact, in Matthews’ case, the sexist outbursts have helped propel his career. That’s how he landed on the cover of the Times magazine.
Why? Because misogyny pays.
Question: If Chris Matthews had been forced to apologize to Sen. Barack Obama for divisive, personal comments the host had made about the candidate, and if the comments had prompted civil rights groups to protest outside the MSNBC studios, do you think Chris Matthews, three months after the fact, would be photographed on the cover of The New York Times Magazine with an uproarious grin on his face?
For me, there were two key takeaways from the Times opus. The first was that Clinton-bashing — and specifically, misogynistic Hillary-bashing — pays off in the form of magazine cover stories. And second was that political journalism is a farce.
It’s a farce because Matthews has clearly been crowned the Hot Journalist of this election cycle. He’s already received loving, Page 1 treatment from the media-centric New York Observer, as well as a February “valentine” from The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz. And now the Times piece, which clocked in at 8,000 words, the type of space the prestigious magazine usually sets aside to profile presidential candidates and heads of state. Keep in mind that within the Beltway’s ego-driven media culture, with its all-publicity-is-good-publicity view of the world, there’s no question that kind of cover treatment by the Times is seen as a coveted status symbol, no matter how many cringes the actual article may have induced. The cover story conferred a very simple message: Chris Matthews has been anointed a media star.
It’s just so sad. Remember when campaign cycles generated Hot Journalists who actually accomplished something? Who actually practiced the craft and helped change journalism for the better by providing us with a deeper understanding of unfolding campaigns, who painted vivid portraits of the players involved? For instance, the way Richard Ben Cramer famously captured the 1988 race and how Sid Blumenthal and Joe Klein left their marks on the 1992 contest?
Other than to insult Hillary Clinton, what, exactly, has Chris Matthews done during 2008 to be crowned some sort of hot media property? It’s a serious question. What kind of journalism does Matthews practice? Because I don’t recognize it when I watch his program or see him on the nights the primary returns come in.
What’s so depressing for the journalism profession is that the Times profile barely takes a moment to even ponder what contribution, if any, Matthews is making to journalism. The article certainly doesn’t suggest Matthews has a unique talent. Yes, he’s ubiquitous on television and appears to have no filter between his brain and his mouth. He’s also obnoxious and self-centered, which the article makes perfectly clear. But those are personality flaws, not journalism skills.
Nor is Matthews’ misplaced self-importance, like when he compared his role in this campaign to Eric Sevareid and Walter Cronkite covering the 1968 White House race, or when he likened himself to Howard Cosell chronicling Muhammad Ali. (Elsewhere, Matthews compared himself to Richard Nixon and NBC’s Tim Russert to John F. Kennedy. Ugh, just stop it already.)
But where are the examples of Matthews’ leading insights during this campaign? The Times offers no examples, and I’m not sure anyone can find any. And even more depressing, the Times doesn’t seem to think it’s important or even relevant.
The uncomfortable truth is that the Times helped tap him the Hot Journalist, but Matthews doesn’t really display journalistic skills, let alone produce journalistic achievements, that the Times can point to. Why? Because, today, it’s beside the point.
The sad fact is the article itself, inadvertently, acknowledges that there really are no standards for campaign journalism anymore. Why else would the article, in all seriousness, compare Hardball with Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and The Colbert Report? Those are comedy shows, professional parodies. Hardball is supposed to be a premier political talk show. The Times sees no difference between the two. Then again, perhaps news consumers shouldn’t either.
And, no, in case you’re wondering, Matthews is not generating huge ratings during the campaign, so that’s not why he’s been designated hot. Despite the Times’ claims about how the “thrilling 2008 presidential campaign has been a boon” for MSNBC and “something of a heyday” for Matthews, Hardball’s ratings are rather middling this year compared with the mighty gains others have posted during the historic White House campaign. CNN, for instance, has ridden the Obama/Clinton wave into first place in prime time, beating Fox News for the first time since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Also note that MSNBC recently canceled Tucker Carlson’s show, which aired at 6 p.m. ET, right before Hardball, and replaced it with a weekday campaign show hosted by NBC’s David Gregory. Almost overnight, the Gregory show has been able to secure an audience similar in size to Hardball, which has been on the air for more than a decade.
No wonder the NBC brass is considering cutting Matthews, and his $5 million salary, loose.
So if Matthews doesn’t display any actual journalism skills in terms of unearthing scoops or edifying the race, and if his ratings are just so-so, what explains Matthews’ Hot Journalist status?
Matthews is hot because he dumps all over Hillary Clinton, saying rude, sexist, and demeaning things about her week after week, and the Beltway media crowd thinks its edgy and insightful and loves to watch. (As the Times noted, “Some of [Matthews’] most devoted followers are Washington media figures.”) Matthews, desperate for attention and approval, sees that media elites love his sexist shtick so he lays it on thicker and thicker. Media elites then turn around and anoint him the Hot Journalist.
For Matthews, his boorish behavior is simply an outgrowth of his profession as a Clinton-hater. His television career was first built on obsessive disdain for Bill Clinton during the impeachment years. That pattern of contempt extended into Matthews’ gruesome, dishonest attacks on Al Gore in 2000 (he would “lick the floor” to be president, Matthews used to joke), and has now continued with his 2008 coverage, which is laced with sexist commentary.
But if he says wildly offensive and sexist things on the air, why isn’t Matthews shunned instead of toasted? Why would the so-called liberal New York Times lavish so much attention on him?
Simple: The press plays dumb about the misogyny, and the Times magazine article was a perfect example. (The political press hates the word misogyny and considers the idea to be cuckoo. Click here to watch Keith Olbermann jump down Elton John’s throat for even daring to utter the word in the context of the Clinton campaign.)
Yes, the Times profile acknowledged the fact that critics, including Media Matters for America, have accused Matthews of sexist behavior. But the Times quickly cordoned off that discussion to mostly mean that Matthews leers at women.
In a typical passage from the Times profile, Matthews tries to flirt with actress and Obama supporter Kerry Washington, whom MSNBC head Phil Griffin invites on Hardball at an event. “He wants you on because you’re beautiful,” Matthews said. “And because you’re black.” Matthews handed Washington a business card and told her to call anytime “if you ever want to hang out with Chris Matthews.”
New York Magazine’s Daily Intelligencer blog, in an item praising Matthews, picked up on that passage and suggested:
Places like Media Matters will doubtless point out this interaction as further evidence of Matthews’s demeaning attitude toward women, but they’d be missing the point. Matthews is a sexist in the same benign way your grandfather is, but at least he tells the truth.
First off, “benign” sexism? That’s an interesting notion. Is that sort of like “benign” racism? (Just asking.) Secondly, New York Magazine completely misses the point, because it adopts the same premise The New York Times does: this idea that Matthews is sexist because he ogles women both on and off the air.
Yes, that sort of behavior is problematic and inappropriate for the host of a political news program. (Am I not stating the obvious here?) But what the media conveniently ignore is the hateful, gender-based language Matthews uses to describe prominent (Democratic) women. It’s behavior commonly referred to as misogyny.
In the Times article, Matthew claims he’s completely innocent to the charge of demeaning women on the air: ”I don’t think there’s any evidence of that at all. I’ve gone back and looked. Give me the evidence. No one can give it to me. I went through all my stuff. I can’t find it.”
Actually, the evidence that Matthews was looking for remains hidden in plain sight. As Media Matters’ Jamison Foser noted, examples of the host’s sexist and demeaning comments are plentiful. It’s just that the Times politely chose to ignore them. So readers still probably have no idea that Matthews:
featured a Photoshopped image of Clinton sporting “She Devil” horns while discussing Republican efforts to demonize her;
repeatedly likened Clinton to “Nurse Ratched,” the scheming, heartless character from the mental hospital drama One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest;
described her laugh as a “cackle,” suggested she was “anti-male,” “witchy,” and was on a “short … leash”;
referred to Clinton as “Madame Defarge” and described male politicians who endorsed Clinton as “castratos in the eunuch chorus”;
compared Clinton to a “strip-teaser,” wondered whether she was “a convincing mom,” referred to Clinton’s “cold eyes” and the “cold look” she supposedly gives people;
claimed that “some men” say Clinton’s voice sounds like “fingernails on a blackboard.”
But oops, those aren’t funny or clever or “benign.” Instead, they’re offensive to people who at least pretend to care how women are portrayed in the press. So The New York Times plays dumb and pretend Matthews is just a tad horny. That’sthe extent of his sexism; he’s incorrigible. And c’mon, what’s more adorable than watching powerful men in their 60s publicly lust after women often half their age?
Please note this odd, yet crucial, point: Matthews’ openly sexist streak extends only to Democratic and liberal women, and that’s another reason the press plays dumb. Because media elites would never anoint Matthews the Hot Journalist if he went on and on about how Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) was too ambitious, or how Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was “witchy,” or how the voice of Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) sounded like fingernails being run across a chalkboard, or how Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-NC) had “cold eyes.”
That would be considered offensive and out of bounds. But to suggest Clinton’s a “witchy,” “anti-male” Nurse Ratched? That’s deemed by the Beltway elites to be shrewd, astute, and fearless.
See, misogyny pays. And according to the Times, Matthews has three Mercedes in his driveway to prove it.