The TV talking head format has never represented the best and brightest of political journalism, but conditions may have reached new depths yesterday when MSNBC host Chris Matthews repeatedly insisted vice president Dick Cheney's most devastating line in Tuesday night's debate was that Sen. John Edwards had accomplished so little during his brief stay in Washington, D.C. that before Tuesday night Cheney had never even met him in person. Again and again, Matthews cheered the line, despite the fact the accusation was completely false. Matthews is part of the same chattering class that four years ago helped swing election momentum towards Bush following his first debate with Al Gore when pundits howled that Gore had made some trivial factual missteps during the debate, therefore revealing his true, flawed character. Tuesday night, Cheney made up accusations about Edwards -- "The first time I ever met you was when you walked on the stage tonight"-- and Matthews cheered.
The clowning (to borrow a phrase from the Daily Howler) began immediately following the debate when Matthews not only announced Cheney had clobbered Edwards ("Dick Cheney was loaded for bear tonight. He went looking for squirrel and he found squirrel"), but singled out Cheney's quote of never having met Edwards as a rhetorical homerun that highlighted Edwards' thin resume. Of course, less than an hour after the debate it was clear Cheney's charge was untrue, that he had met Edwards at a 2001 prayer breakfast and that Edwards was also present on the floor of the Senate, along with Cheney, for the 2003 swearing in of Elizabeth Dole as the news senator from North Carolina. The two men also met when they were both guests on "Meet the Press." Virtually every news organization in the country made mention of Cheney's misstep.
On Wednesday morning, appearing on NBC's "Today Show," Matthews dutifully acknowledged Cheney's error, and even seemed to chastise him for it: "It turns out that the vice president was wrong in saying he'd never met John Edwards before. That's an established fact now." Asked if the truth of the statement should matter, Matthews said, "It should matter. Our responsibility [as journalists] is to let people know what actually was said last night. That is our reporting responsibility." Matthews also made a big deal about how Cheney's debate statement that he'd never said Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9-11 did not jibe with a statement Cheney had made on NBC's "Meet the Press," years earlier.
Thirty minutes later, appearing on MSNBC, Matthews again laid out again in detail how Cheney had misled viewers about his statement about Saddam Hussein and 9-11. "This is a question of honesty. Why did the vice president deny something [that he'd said], which is on the record?" said Matthews, who then promptly announced that Cheney had "clobbered" Edwards in the debate. That's right, Matthew suggested Cheney lied (our words) about two key assertions in the debate, but then credits Cheney with winning the debate, as if honesty plays no role in the final scoring.
But the clowning didn't stop there. In a segment that ran on MSNBC Wednesday afternoon, Matthews reported Cheney had succeeded in damaging Edwards. How? By claiming he'd never even met Edwards before. "The vice president was pretty clear and I think he succeeded [in] discredit[ing] John Edwards as a lightweight, someone who simply arrived recently in politics, that he had never even met him before," said Matthews. "The message was that Dick Cheney is a heavyweight and this new kid on the block hasn't made a name for himself to the point [Cheney] hasn't even met him yet. Now that was a powerful swipe and I think it was the most powerful swipe of the night."
The fact that "the most powerful swipe of the night" was false -- as was reported on MSNBC throughout the day -- didn't seem to stop Matthews. By the time his evening "Hardball" program aired last night, Matthews was convinced Cheney's fictional accusation was the highpoint of the debate. "I thought Edwards got slammed on the issue of, 'I've never met this man before,'" he announced. Later he called Cheney's charge "a thunderous blow against a new arrival on the scene."
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