Friday, January 18, 2008

Tube roses & thorns V


Chris Matthews, MSNBC’s fulminator-in-chief and host of the network’s “Hardball” program, apologized yesterday for slipping his leash on a recent broadcast, a broadcast with statements that suggested a man and a television program format out of control, statements that point to someone dangerously close to committing media suicide.

In language that was hardly anodyne, Matthews made nice — after withering protests from women’s groups and pressure from his superiors at the network — for post-New Hampshire primary remarks he made on Jan. 9 on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program about presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Clinton, words he now admits were "nasty."

Matthews implied Clinton's post-White House political career got started by way of sympathy arising from her husband Bill Clinton's affair with former White House aide Monica Lewinsky. On "Morning Joe," Matthews said "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."

Slowly but steadily, a firestorm of criticism began to build. The leaders of the National Organization for Women, Feminist Majority and National Women's Political Caucus sent a letter of complaint to NBC News president Steve Capus, a man no doubt still smarting from the mea culpa he had to perform in the wake of the Don Imus scandal last year [see "Imus, Act III," "Imus, arise!?!," "Back in the saddle again"]. One group picketed NBC's offices on Nebraska Avenue NW yesterday afternoon as a protest, the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz reported today.

On the Jan. 17 edition of his freewheeling program, Matthews did his own All Apologies tour defending much of what he said as legitimate commentary, but adding: "was it fair to imply that Hillary's whole career depended on being a victim of an unfaithful husband? No. And that's what it sounded like I was saying."

Drawing an analogy of unfairness between his comments and saying that John McCain’s political success was a direct result of having been shot down in the Vietnam War, Matthews said: "Saying Senator Clinton got where she's got simply because her husband did what he did to her is just as callous, and I can see now, came across just as nasty -- worse yet, just as dismissive." Matthews said he would be "clearer," "smarter" and more respectful in the future.

With a gaffe of this magnitude, and his belated contrition for it, Chris Matthews is well on his way to becoming the Don Imus of the Beltway, a D.C. practitioner of the same bellicose, ill-conceived, towel-snapping vitriol that got Imus fired in April — dismissed from the same cable network for similar insensitivities about America.

Like Imus, Matthews has recidivist tendencies. In the joint letter, other egregious examples of Matthews’ bad behavior were catalogued. "Chris Matthews is a repeat offender when it comes to sexist attitudes toward women politicians," said Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, to Kurtz of The Post. "I wasn't really looking for an apology. I was looking for a behavior change, and for him to treat female politicians the same way as male politicians."

Kurtz reported: “As criticism from liberal bloggers and others mounted over the past week, top MSNBC officials urged Matthews to apologize, according to network officials who would not be identified discussing internal deliberations. But Matthews dug in his heels, deciding to deliver the mea culpa only after he had returned from a Democratic presidential debate sponsored by the network in Las Vegas.”

In a recent interview with Kurtz, Matthews stuck to his guns, saying he was correct in linking the Monica Lewinsky affair to Clinton's successful senate campaign. "I thought what I said was unexceptional about what happened back in '98," he said. "She was facing a trial by fire, and the fire was her husband. I knew I was speaking bluntly, but does anyone disagree?"

Toward the end of the Thursday program, Matthews sought to further get a grip on the gravity of his misstep, saying his comment "came over as dismissive, and that's my fault. Maybe I should have said it was an irony."

Note to Matthews: Maybe you shouldn’t have said it at all. Maybe you should have considered how your behavior crosses the still-bright line between reporting and opinion, and how your actions have the potential to affect the outcome of the Democratic campaign by inserting statements by the media into a national debate the media shouldn’t be so much a part of. Ya think?

Exclusionary rule

The Matthews deal was just the latest display of arrogance by MSNBC (the cable network whose online division was our former employer). Last week, the network sought to exclude Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich from the Jan. 15 Democratic debate, going so far as to petition the Nevada Supreme Court to enforce their exclusion — something entirely at odds with a free press in an open society. The state’s high court ruled in favor of the network, reversing a District Court ruling, so MSNBC prevailed in a court of law.

The court of public opinion, however, was another story. The blogosphere lit up when MSNBC won the decision, with comments decidedly against the network. It’s clear from at least some reactions that MSNBC may have won the battle but it’s beginning to lose the war for the hearts and minds of its viewers.

“Absolutely shameful. NBC is in the wrong, morally and legally. It does not serve the public interest to exclude Kucinich -- unless "public" means "corporate," one blogger wrote at the LATimes Web site.

Another: “This is a travesty, an abomination and proves that network conglomerates do not have the public interest at heart.”

Another: “This is infuriating. Pure madness. I'll never watch MSNBC again.”

Still another: “I'm astounded to hear that the candidates are not given equal opportunity to express their intentions, values, thoughts and be heard by the general public. When did everything become so calculated?”

This is bad public reaction that no amount of media spin can change, but curiously it's bad PR that MSNBC doesn't seem to much care about. Which is both strange and sad. With one needlessly calculated move, and through one program host too opinionated for his own good, MSNBC further alienates the press from the public it purports to serve, and sends the signal that it may have lost its way -- and its populist heart -- as an independent newsgathering organization.
Image credit: Matthews: Bbsrock > Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported license > Wikipedia. Kucinich: Diz28, released to public domain.

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