Wednesday, April 16, 2008

A Corporate Media Poster Boy At A Crossroads

I have to tell you that New York Times reporter Mark Leibovich truly performed a service here in his Sunday Magazine profile of Chris Matthews, the host of “Hardball” on MSNBC and the walking, talking, breathing, exclaiming embodiment of all that is truly wrong with what passes for news and commentary in this country (the magazine cover, with Matthews’ mug plastered menacingly on the front, is a bit of a warning of what’s to come, since our intrepid TV host looks as if he’s about to have an orgasm).

It’s all captured – the utterly narcissistic preening, desperate attempts at inclusion with others of his loathsome breed (with the notable exception of Keith Olbermann – I’ll get to him shortly) and pretense of regular-guy objectivity while dwelling practically every moment of his life inside his comfy Beltway bubble provided for him and his family by the corpocracy on whose behalf she shills so shamelessly (this has been highlighted elsewhere, but there’s much more in Leibovich's story to work with).

Where to begin? Well, for starters…

“Did you get a load of Lou Rawls’s wife?” Matthews said as he left the spin room (where the press had gathered after a Democratic debate in February). Apparently the Rev. Jesse Jackson was introducing the widow of the R&B singer at the media center. “She was an absolute knockout,” Matthews declared. It’s a common Matthews designation. The actress Kerry Washington was also a “total knockout,” according to Matthews, who by 1 a.m. had repaired to the bar of the Cleveland Ritz-Carlton. He was sipping a Diet Coke and holding court for a cluster of network and political types, as well as for a procession of random glad-handers that included, wouldn’t you know it, Kerry Washington herself. Washington played Ray Charles’s wife in the movie “Ray” and Kay Amin in the “Last King of Scotland.” She is a big Obama supporter and was in town for the debate; more to the point, she said she likes “Hardball.” Matthews grabbed her hand, and Phil Griffin, the head of MSNBC who was seated across the table, vowed to get her on the show.

“I know why he wants you on,” Matthews said to Washington while looking at Griffin. At which point Matthews did something he rarely does. He paused. He seemed actually to be considering what he was about to say. He might even have been editing himself, which is anything but a natural act for him. He was grimacing. I imagined a little superego hamster racing against a speeding treadmill inside Matthews’s skull, until the superego hamster was overrun and the pause ended.

“He wants you on because you’re beautiful,” Matthews said. “And because you’re black.” He handed Washington a business card and told her to call anytime “if you ever want to hang out with Chris Matthews.”

“People are a little impressed with themselves,” Griffin went on to say, continuing his commentary about the scene. “It’s a bit of an echo chamber.” Matthews is central to that echo chamber — at the Ritz, as in the 2008 presidential campaign. He is, in a sense, the carnival barker at the center of it, spewing tiny pellets of chewed nuts across the table while comparing Obama to Mozart and Clinton to Salieri. At one point, Matthews suddenly became hypnotized by a TV over the bar set to a rebroadcast of “Hardball.” “Hey, there I am — it’s me,” he said, staring at himself on the screen. “It’s me.”
God, I just started this post, and I already think that I’m going to be ill.

Let’s discuss K.O. then…

Matthews told me that the interview (about his book “Life’s A Campaign”) was a painful experience. Not only did (Jon) Stewart humiliate him, but the interview exposed an essential truth that people by and large don’t want to hear advice from politicians, a breed that, in many ways, has defined Matthews’s value system. “I think Stewart was right in that he caught the drift of antipolitics,” Matthews said.

So has Olbermann, the host of MSNBC’s “Countdown.” While Matthews is clearly a stalwart on the MSNBC menu, he is hardly a flavor of the month, or the year. Olbermann is. “Countdown,” on at 8, is getting good ratings, usually second in its slot to “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox News. Olbermann draws considerably more viewers than Matthews — about one million a night, compared with 660,000 for the 7 p.m. broadcast of “Hardball” (which typically runs third in its time slots after Fox News and CNN but is up in the ratings this year). There is a view within the TV industry that MSNBC is positioning itself as the younger, edgier, left-tilting cable network, and no one there embodies this ideal better than Olbermann. NBC executives have been promoting him heavily, and three network officials asked me why I was writing about Matthews and not Olbermann.
But that clearly did not prevent scenes such as this…

The morning after the Cleveland debate, Matthews was walking through the airport to catch his flight home to Washington. People kept squinting at him, double-taking, stepping in and out of his monologue.

“I like the fact that people don’t think of me as famous, but that they know me,” Matthews said. “They come up to me and say, ‘Chris, what do you think?’ There’s no aura. It’s a different kind of celebrity. People assume they have a right to talk to me. They want to know my take.”
Ugh (and not surprising here)…

He’s big into the Pennsylvania primary, talks a lot to “Eddie Rendell” and urged me repeatedly to call the Pennsylvania governor’s office and “talk to Eddie Rendell about me.”

“By the way, have you figured me out yet?” Matthews said at the end of another phone conversation the following day. “You gotta understand, it’s all complicated. It’s not like Tim.”

Tim — as in Russert, the inquisitive jackhammer host of “Meet the Press” — is a particular obsession of Matthews’s. Matthews craves Russert’s approval like that of an older brother.
The article points out that Russert said some uncomplimentary things about Matthews that came out in the “Scooter” Libby trial, by the way (with Matthews viewing Russert as No. 1 in the pecking order of T.V. talking heads, while he views himself as approximately No. 36) …

Matthews has berated Russert to several people at NBC and has told friends and associates that Russert is like John F. Kennedy while he is more like Richard Nixon. Kennedy was the golden boy while Nixon was the scrapper for whom nothing came easily. It’s an imperfect comparison, certainly (Matthews is Irish Catholic, for starters, and Russert is not charismatic by any classic Kennedyesque definition), but it does offer a glimpse into how Matthews perceives himself, especially in relation to Russert. It’s also worth noting that Nixon was obsessed with Kennedy, and Kennedy could be dismissive and disparaging of Nixon.
So, can we then envision a day when Matthews will appear on “Hardball” making a plea for his job telling everyone that “All my wife has is this cloth coat, and we just bought this little dog named Checkers”?

(By the way, I’m very sympathetic to people facing job difficulty, but Chris Matthews has many options available to him that others don’t. If his $5 million - !!! – a year contract isn’t renewed, he’ll only have himself to blame if he doesn’t land comfortably somewhere else.)

But at least K.O. has Matthews pegged, as noted here…

“There is a sense at times that we are always joining Chris Matthews already in progress,” Olbermann told me. Matthews has been on 10 years, he went on to say, “and he has no idea when it stops and starts. My responsibility sometimes is to grab the wheel when he doesn’t hold it.” Matthews has also called their joint appearances “Hardball,” which annoys Olbermann and which he has not been shy about correcting on the air. “No, this is not ‘Hardball,’ I will say, and in those instances, a correction is appropriate.”

Sometimes during commercial breaks, Matthews will boast to Olbermann of having restrained himself during the prior segment. “And I reward him with a grape,” Olbermann says.
God, that’s funny; and as far as whether or not the people whose names are dropped by Matthews really appreciate it…

As I began researching this article, Jeremy Gaines, an MSNBC spokesman, gave me the names of about a dozen people that Matthews recommended I speak to, all famous — everyone from Nancy Pelosi to Marvin Hamlisch. But gatekeepers for more than one of these people expressed confusion as to why Matthews would refer me to them. “Please keep us out of this,” pleaded a spokesperson for one prominent politician whom Matthews had recommended via Gaines.
And as far as any of Matthews’ alleged journalistic skills are concerned…

In a recent interview on “Morning Joe” with Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, who had just endorsed Obama, Matthews described the “stunning picture” of a Latino governor (Richardson) standing with an African-American candidate and how inspiring it was for so many voters. “That is where we should be putting our focus, not on the feelings of the Clintons, about what people owe them and their sense of entitlement,” Matthews said.

Richardson tried to say something, but Matthews just kept going. “We’ve got to stop talking about this as if this were a sitcom,” Matthews continued. “We had eight years of the sitcom. . . . It’s a sitcom, and it’s gotta end.” He lamented that 4,000 people are dead in Iraq “because of decisions made by politicians like the Clintons.”

Mika Brzezinski, a co-host of “Morning Joe,” then asked Matthews whether he was endorsing Obama.

“Why would you say that?” Matthews said, looking dumbfounded.
This man truly is not playing with a full deck, ladies and gentlemen.

It can be amusing if slightly painful to watch Matthews’s facial expressions and body language on the set of “Hardball” when others are talking; he will, at times, bounce in his seat like a Ritalin-deprived second-grader who is dying to give an answer but has been admonished too many times for interrupting. He appears to go through the same pained exercise in his own home. Indeed, as I learned at Sunday brunch there, the degree to which the cadences of the Matthews dining room mimic “Hardball” is striking.
The article gets into a lot more detail of Matthews’ family life, including the reaction to the episode where Matthews shamelessly ogled correspondent Erin Burnett; Leibovich said that when he mentioned her name, “it landed like a brick on the dining room table.”

As I mentioned earlier, the article notes that MSNBC isn’t quite sure what to do with Matthews at the moment, since his contract is about to expire (I was surprised to learn that he’s 62). One possible option that was discussed is taking the job replacing Bob Schieffer as host of “Face The Nation” on Sunday mornings, which doesn’t matter to me personally since those shows have descended into parody of what they once were for the most part anyway.

Given the status of Little Katie Couric’s contact at CBS, I’d suggest putting Matthews in her slot when she departs. It would be at least somewhat interesting to watch Matthews gyrate, twitch, and spew forth with uninformed and bellicose non sequiturs (name dropping as much as possible, of course), as opposed to Couric’s obsequious compliance to her interview subjects and authority figures in general.

(And Eric Boehlert has much more here.)

Update 5/16/08: To be fair, kudos to Matthews for this (h/t Atrios).

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