Chris Matthews is right

In an incomparably revealing exchange with Tom Brokaw, the MSNBC star describes the role of our press.

By Glenn Greenwald
January 9, 2008 4:27PM (UTC)
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(updated below - Update II)

If there's a more revealing (though unsurprising) illustration of our modern press corps than this exchange last night between Chris Matthews and Tom Brokaw, I don't know what it is:

MATTHEWS: Tom, we're going to have to go back and figure out the methodology, I think, on some of these [polls].

BROKAW: You know what I think we're going to have to do?

MATTHEWS: Yes sir?

BROKAW: Wait for the voters to make their judgment.

MATTHEWS: Well what do we do then in the days before the ballot? We must stay home, I guess.

BROKAW: No, no we don't stay home. There are reasons to analyze what they're saying. We know from how the people voted today, what moved them to vote. You can take a look at that. There are a lot of issues that have not been fully explored during all this.

But we don't have to get in the business of making judgments before the polls have closed. And trying to stampede in effect the process.

Look, I'm not just picking on us, it's part of the culture in which we live these days. I think that the people out there are going to begin to make judgments about us if we don't begin to temper that temptation to constantly try to get ahead of what the voters are deciding.

All of the points Brokaw made would have been just as valid even if their Wicked Witch had been crushed last night by 15 points, just as they were all hoping, predicting, and (therefore) trying to bring about. The endless attempts to predict the future and thus determine the outcome of the elections -- to the exclusion of anything meaningful -- is a completely inappropriate role for journalists to play, independent of the fact that they are chronically wrong, ill-informed, and humiliated when they do it. It would all be just as inappropriate and corrupt even if they knew what they were talking about, even if they were able to convert their wishes into outcomes.


But Matthews' response to Brokaw is perfect in several ways. The very idea of discussing issues, examining the candidates' positions, or even analyzing voter preferences does not and cannot even occur to Chris Matthews. That -- the most elementary nuts and bolts of standard, healthy journalism -- is way, way beyond the scope of what our media stars are able to do or want to do.

Petty personality-based gossip and speculative, worthless chatter is all they know. Drudge, after all, rules their world. He's their Walter Cronkite. And they wallow exclusively in the Matt Drudge currency, what two of their most revered members -- Mark Halperin and John Harris -- described as their fixation with the "attacked-based, personality-obsessed politics" pioneered by their Ruler. Can one find more compelling proof of all of this than their juvenile, sadistic, lynch-mob savaging of Hillary Clinton over the last several days based on the pettiest and most fact-free assaults and their long-harbored desire to see her crushed?

As is so often the case, Maureen Dowd today unintentionally provides a perfect view of the core sickness of our press corps:

When I walked into the office Monday, people were clustering around a computer to watch what they thought they would never see: Hillary Clinton with the unmistakable look of tears in her eyes.

A woman gazing at the screen was grimacing, saying it was bad. Three guys watched it over and over, drawn to the "humanized" Hillary. One reporter who covers security issues cringed. "We are at war," he said. "Is this how she'll talk to Kim Jong-il?"

Another reporter joked: "That crying really seemed genuine. I'll bet she spent hours thinking about it beforehand." He added dryly: "Crying doesn't usually work in campaigns. Only in relationships."

Bill Clinton was known for biting his lip, but here was Hillary doing the Muskie. Certainly it was impressive that she could choke up and stay on message.

Dowd is describing here the conversation that took place in her "office" -- which happens to be the newsroom of The New York Times -- between what are undoubtedly very Serious Journalists, including one who covers (said with whispered reverence) "security issues." And in this one short passage, on vivid, revolting display is every repellent attribute that defines the Standard Modern Political Journalist:

*Jaded, bitterly cynical coolness masquerading as sophistication (no emotion, no passion, is even real);

* Vapid, shallow stupidity (political matters judged exclusively by Drudge-like personality distractions);

* Mindless recitation of idiotic, Kristol-like right-wing talking points (we need manly Tough Guys, not Girly Crying, for our Wars);

* The basest and most glaringly obvious strain of sexism (no mention of the endless crying episodes from GOP Warrior-Cheerleaders);

* Their self-absorbed and almost-always-wrong belief that their own insulated biases are how the Regular Folk Think (hence, Hillary's "crying," which voters apparently either appreciated or ignored, was going to doom her candidacy, just as Huckabee's press conference would doom his in Iowa);

* Herd-like adolescent malice rituals directed towards the Hated Loser (NYT reporters grouping together to chortle and cackle oh-so-knowingly at the Wicked Witch).

Brokaw's sudden, embarrassment-driven request for the media to act differently (where has his sermon been for the last 20 years?) will not have the slightest effect on what they do. It can't, because the media stars and their editors and producers who shape coverage aren't capable of anything else. They're selected and in those positions precisely because this is all they're capable of doing.

Are Gloria Borger and Chris Matthews and Howard Fineman and Wolf Blitzer suddenly going to abandon their desire to impose shallow, melodramatic narratives on our elections and spend their time, instead, analyzing the candidates' responses to Charlie Savage's questionnaire on presidential power, or the dominant, corrosive role lobbyists and large corporations play in our political culture, or the widening rich-poor gap, or the strain and stain on our country from our imperial policies? The question is so absurd, so laughable, that to ask it is to answer it. None of them could remotely do that even if they wanted to, even if they were allowed to, and they don't and aren't.


As I wrote the other day after Mike Huckabee's Iowa win, which was preceded by our media geniuses' collective, condescending declarations of his death:

It's a reminder that the political prattle that spews forth from group-think media stars without end and which consumes our political dialogue for a full year is based on absolutely nothing. Also, most predictive "analysis" from the media stars' cousins, the cogs in the right-wing noise machine, is merely self-absorbed wishful thinking masquerading as objective knowledge. . . .

One knows much more by ignoring and tuning all of this out. But for a full year, our mainstream political dialogue is filled with all of this -- in every leading political magazine and news show -- at the expense of anything that is actually real.

But none of this can be different, at least not in the short-term. Our entire media edifice is structured to operate the Drudgian Freak Show and its stars are the ringleaders, chosen for their affinity for it. In that sense, Matthews really is right and Brokaw absurdly wrong, almost delusional. If our media stars ceased spewing the type of worthless (though destructive) chatter that (when directed at Hillary Clinton) has been more apparent in the last week than it has been for a long time, they'd be left with nothing to do. As Matthews says, if they didn't do that, they might as well stay home. It's who they are.


* * * * *

TODAY'S REMINDER: If you find that one (or both) of the following thoughts is entering your brain, it may be helpful to remind yourself that they are fallacies:

* X criticizes negative media coverage of Candidate Y. Therefore, X supports Candidate Y.

* X criticizes positive media coverage being lavished on Candidate Y. Therefore, X opposes Candidate Y.

For a rational person, it is actually possible to criticize negative media coverage directed at a candidate that one does not support. It's equally possible -- for a rational person, that is -- to criticize positive media coverage being lavished on a candidate one likes.

UPDATE: On CNN last night after Clinton's victory, Hillary Obsessive Carl Bernstein -- along with Lou Dobbs and Bill Bennett -- continued to recite the standard media storyline that Bill Clinton was Dragging Her Down:

BERNSTEIN: The other thing is that Bill Clinton women see less of, that part of what she is doing -- and I talked to some people today about this -- is that...

DOBBS: Right.

BERNSTEIN: ... is that she knows that Bill Clinton is the baggage she has to deal with. This can no longer be about the restoration of the Clintons to the White House, because she cannot make it to the White House that way. And she knows it.

The question is how to do it. It's a difficult dynamic between the two. This is a very human story that we're watching. We have never seen anything like this. It goes back to this national psychodrama with the Clintons.


BERNSTEIN: That's part of the story.

That's the opposite of reality in (at least) two ways. First, Bill Clinton is wildly popular among Democrats generally and New Hampshire Democrats specifically. He just is.

Secondly, over the last week, he played a more prominent role in Hillary's campaign than ever before, not less. And then she won. That doesn't prove causation, but the "Bill-is-baggage" storyline has long been one of the media's favorites, even though there has never been factual support for it, and -- even now, with the most compelling evidence yet of its falsity (Hillary's victory in the wake of Bill's intensive campaigning), they continue to cling to it.

It has always been, and still is, the right wing, along with Carl Bernstein and his media comrades, who need and crave the "Clinton psychodrama" -- not voters -- and they will do and say anything to keep it alive.

UPDATE II: Markos Moulitsas, who is voting for Obama, explains exactly how and why -- as has been true for a long time -- the most potent asset the Clintons possess is the repulsive malevolence of their media and political enemies.

Glenn Greenwald

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