Did Chris Matthews bravely stand against the war? Not exactly

Did Chris Matthews bravely stand against the war?

by digby

With all the memories floating around about the start of the Iraq war ten years ago, I think the thing that surprises me the most is the idea that Chris Matthews was some kind of stalwart opponent of the war who stood up bravely against the establishment. While it's true that he wrote a column (maybe two) in which he expressed opposition, what he portrayed on TV was something entirely different. Indeed, I thought it was well known that he was extremely nervous about being perceived as anti-war, so much so that he endorsed the firing of Phil Donohue:

Donahue’s problems only increased when Chris Matthews let it be known that he wanted Donahue off the air. Matthews was a rising force at the network, with a reported salary of $5 million. He cultivated former G.E. CEO Jack Welch and had the ear of NBC CEO Bob Wright (the two summered together on Nantucket). Matthews saw himself as MSNBC’s biggest star, and he was upset that the network was pumping significant resources into Donahue’s show. In the fall of 2002, U.S. News & World Report ran a gossip item that had Matthews saying over lunch in Washington that if Donahue stays on the air, he could bring down the network.

I think what people misunderstand about that is not that he was personally for the war, but rather that he was a careerist who didn't want to endanger his very lucrative gig.

Back before I was blogging I used to hang out on various message boards and one of them was Bartcop, who is still around. So did other early bloggers like Atrios and Avedon Carol. Anyway, I kept this post from a prolific commenter named Samela, whose insights I often quoted on this blog in the early years. This is from December of 2002, when she attended a small gathering at which Matthews and his wife spoke:

So, there we are in a room of 30 or 40 people, mostly students but a few others--including an old friend of Tweety's from their Peace Corps days in Swaziland, where he claimed a lot of "reefer" was exchanged in the middle of the night--and Mr. Matthews and his wife Kathleen (attractive woman, nightly news anchor in D.C., claims to have gotten her start listening to Al Lowenstein speak out against the war in Vietnam back at Stanford) do their shtick for 30 or 40 minutes.

Matthews tells the kids if they have a passion, go for it: "don't leave the violin in the closet" or whatever your violin is, because the only people he knows who are happy are the people who have stuck with their passions. He says watch Hillary Clinton, because this woman has passion and ambition and he has rarely seen anyone as passionate as she is. These other guys (he mentions Gephardt) are still running for class president, he sez. He says Ed Rendell is his hero, because he's one of the few out there that is really involved in service...he's in the community, he really did stuff for the people of Philadelphia, and that's why he won.

So he goes off into this rant about neocons---how the neocons are paralyzing the country. They are "like a disease" he says. The ideological base of the neocons is "scary." He comes back to this later, when someone asks a question about Iraq. And he is bitching about the neocons again--Krauthammer, Kristol, Bennett, and all their crazy front groups, as well as the people in the White House--Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Scooter Libby. Who is this guy, he yells? Who wrote that shit about the axis of evil? You think George Bush thought up that list of countries? Who here, in all honesty, thinks George Bush thought that up himself? He's yelling about the RIGHT WING. He all but calls these guys chickenhawks: he says they never fought a day in their lives, not even on the playground, and that they would never send their kids to fight. That all they do is write op-eds and think they are tough shit. And he thinks this war is UNAMERICAN, against the whole basis of the US as "reluctant warrior."

So finally this young black man, originally from Ghana, asks a question about the media, and whether the American media should be giving us better information or should we be responsible for getting it ouselves. Chris and Kathleen talk about, yeah, American media don't tell Americans about the world. Chris reminisces about listening to BBC World Service back in Swaziland and says the average, isolated American would be lost listening to it. (I am thinking, do you really think we're that dumb?) The wife mentions how she read in Washington Post about a crisis with corn seed in Africa, and how if that happened in Iowa, the rest of the world would know about it, but we don't want to know what is happening there. She mentions....ratings.

So this leads me to my question. I direct it to Chris, after acknowledging her. I say I want to ask about how ratings affect his approach to political discourse. I say I have noted, as have many others, that there is a certain disjuncture between the kinds of positions and tone he brings to discussion on his television show, Hardball, and the positions and tone he brings to his syndicated column or his appearances on other shows. I cite, as an example, how a study on media bias in election coverage done by the Project for Excellence in Journalism attributed a full 17% of all negative characterizations of Al Gore in the last election to Hardball. And yet, according to the same article in the Columbia Journalism Review, when he appeared on Charlie Rose in the post-election period, he had nothing but praise for Gore.

Who did that study? he yelled! Did you watch my coverage? Yes, I responded, I watched you in part. And how did you think it was? I said I thought he was throwing some red meat to a particular base. He quieted. Look, I said, what I'm saying is: you wrote a column for the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this year on John Kerry that was very thoughtful, especially about his energy policy. But on Hardball, are you going to talk about that or about his haircut like everyone else has been doing today?

Well, he mumbled, "his $150 haircut," mumble mumble. And he laughed. His wife was shocked. She said, is THAT what they've been talking about today? Then she turned to him and asked if he would actually change the content of his positions to respond to a particular television audience.

Look, he said, turning to me. (And I am quoting here! I wrote it down!). "You're a very smart woman. You got me." And he went on to say, look, yeah...the audience for cable is very right wing, they feel they've been left out and have nowhere else to go. Charlie Rose is not going to make it on cable.

OK, I didn't want to monopolize the time....I wanted to tell him he's wrong...that if he spoke like he did tonight in this room, or on Charlie Rose, or in his column occasionally, his ratings would go way up. That the tide has turned, and it's not the conservos who feel left out anymore. Au contraire. I wanted to tell him that it's whoring to sell your beliefs just for (perceived) ratings. But I think he knew that. He knew I had pegged it....and I don't know why he thinks no one noticed before. I'm not that smart....I just told him the truth, and he was a little shocked that someone said it.

So, you know, it's nice that Matthews said privately and in his newspaper column that he was against the war. But on his TV show he was helping the right wingers because that's who he perceived his audience to be.

This from FAIR gives a good example of just how slimy he was about it:

September 25, 2002 —MSNBC's Hardball host Chris Matthews asks of World Bank/IMF protests in Washington, D.C.: "Those people out in the streets, do they hate America?" Conservative pundit Cliff May responds: "Yes, I'm afraid a lot of them do. They hate America. They align themselves with Saddam Hussein. They align themselves with terrorists all over the world." Hardball correspondent David Shuster later adds that "anti-Americanism is in the air."

No, he didn't personally say that the protesters were anti-American. He just asked the question. And never let on that he disagreed. Ever. And he asked questions like that over and over and over again.

Of course, it's all relative. This MSNBC careerist really takes the cake:

Joe Scarborough (4/10/03): "I'm waiting to hear the words 'I was wrong' from some of the world's most elite journalists, politicians and Hollywood types…. I just wonder, who's going to be the first elitist to show the character to say: 'Hey, America, guess what? I was wrong'? Maybe the White House will get an apology, first, from the New York Times' Maureen Dowd. Now, Ms. Dowd mocked the morality of this war….

"Maybe disgraced commentators and politicians alike, like Daschle, Jimmy Carter, Dennis Kucinich, and all those others, will step forward tonight and show the content of their character by simply admitting what we know already: that their wartime predictions were arrogant, they were misguided and they were dead wrong. Maybe, just maybe, these self-anointed critics will learn from their mistakes. But I doubt it. After all, we don't call them 'elitists' for nothing."

Both Matthews and Scarborough are now leaning to the left on their shows. But I'm going to assume it's because they've decided there's money in it. I don't know what they really believe, and I don't honestly care. They proved they'll say anything for ratings, even when it's a matter of life and death. So, for some reason, I'm finding it hard to see them as liberal heroes.

Update: Alex Pareene took MSNBC downtown a couple of days ago. I hadn't seen that Joe Scarborough quote. I'm awfully glad he's got a major cable show. He has excellent judgment.