Goodbye Chris Matthews, MSNBC's reigning Ron Burgundy

We don't know how to put this, but it's kind of a big deal. People know Chris Matthews' casual sexism too well

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published March 3, 2020 6:57PM (EST)

MSNBC Commentator Chris Matthews / Will Ferrell in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004) (AP Photo/Dreamworks)
MSNBC Commentator Chris Matthews / Will Ferrell in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004) (AP Photo/Dreamworks)

"You look awfully nice today. Hmm? Maybe don't wear a bra next time. No, I was talking to you. No, not her. I don't know her name. What is it? Lanolin. La – Lanolin? Like – like sheep's wool?"  -- Ron Burgundy, waiting to deliver the news in "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy," 2004

"Can I have some of the queen's waters? Precious waters . . . Where's that Bill Cosby pill I brought with me?" -- Chris Matthews, waiting to interview Hillary Clinton in 2016

"What in the name of? . . . No!" This may have been the common reaction of MSNBC's shall we say, more traditional (read: crochety) viewership segment on Monday night when veteran MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews, host of the channel's long running yell-a-thon "Hardball," announced his retirement at the top of the hour.

His Monday evening statement is plain and devoid of bluster, and the heart of it includes conciliatory, apologetic notes.

"After a conversation with MSNBC I've decided tonight will be my last 'Hardball,' so let me tell you why," Matthews says. "The younger generation's out there, ready to take the reins. We see them in politics, in the media, and fighting for their causes. They are improving the workplace. We're talking here about better standards than we grew up with: Fair standards.

"A lot of it has to do with how we talk to each other," he continues. "Compliments on a woman's appearance that some men, including me, might have once incorrectly thought were okay, were never okay. Not then, and certainly not today, and for making such comments in the past, I'm sorry."

Matthews' retirement announcement came without warning at the top of the week, at the top of what was to be his show, and not even half a day before MSNBC's coverage of Super Tuesday was set to kick off. "Obviously, this isn't for lack of interest in politics," he mentions in his farewell.

According to multiple media reports citing anonymous sources, Matthews' MSNBC career sign-off came at the behest of management. One person "with knowledge of the situation" characterized it to CNN's Brian Stelter "as a firing that was masked as a retirement announcement."

This was disputed in the same story by another source, echoing the official NBC version cited elsewhere Matthews' exit is the result of "a mutual decision" arrived upon in his discussions with management.

Matthews ended his farewell statement by paraphrasing "Casablanca":  "We'll always have 'Hardball,'" he tells his faithful. Definitely a classy sign-off, even though that wasn't the movie on my mind.

This is only partly in jest but humor me: imagine Will Ferrell in full "Anchorman" mode reading Matthews' words in character as Ron Burgundy. An easy thing to do – too easy, truly, considering Matthews' track record. When you mull it over, the 74-year-old Matthews and vintage '70s newscaster Burgundy have a lot in common – except, you know, for the fact that only one of them is real.

Believe me, if there's one thing Ron Burgundy knows, it's women. Matthews, the anchor who actually exists, might make the same declaration. Women are supposed to be physically attractive and likable enough to get over the hindrance posed by any evidence of high intellect.

They need to have some proof of expertise – that makes them worth having on his show – but not be seen as powerful enough that Matthews can't constantly interrupt them, preventing them from weighing in with their views. You know, the reasons they were brought on the show in the first place.

Matthews spent more than two decades at the top of the news commentator game, wielding a hefty share of political influence, commanding respect across journalism and sexually objectifying women at all levels of power with such frequency and breeziness as to normalize it.

This was true in the earliest day of "Hardball," and it was true last week when he confronted Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren over believing the accusations of a woman who used to work for Michael Bloomberg and alleged him to have said, upon overhearing that she was pregnant, "Kill it."

Matthews made the mind-boggling decision to refuse to believe Bloomberg might be lying even though the woman's story has been corroborated by a third party.   

"You believe he's lying?" Matthews asks, and Warren replies, "I believe the woman."

Then Matthews goes on, "And why would he lie? Just to protect himself?" She replies, "Yes, and why would she lie?" Matthews could only respond with a sigh.

However, the proverbial straw was in the form of a GQ story written by Laura Bassett and published last Friday, in which Bassett describes inappropriate, flirtatious comments Matthews made to her in the makeup room prior to going his show, "making me noticeably uncomfortable on air."

Matthews looked over at me in the makeup chair next to him and said, "Why haven't I fallen in love with you yet?"

When I laughed nervously and said nothing, he followed up to the makeup artist. "Keep putting makeup on her, I'll fall in love with her."

When Matthews' statement refers to "the younger generation…fighting for their causes," he's talking about women like Bassett and the #MeToo movement. In turn, this has led to a number of female colleagues expressing dismay or even fury over the circumstances of his departure.

"Chris Matthews is a friend of mine," tweeted Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker in the wake of the news. "He and I have flirted unabashedly for 20 years. This is an atrocious end to a noble, happy-warrior career. I will continue to be his friend. Angry column to follow." She includes the hashtag #NoCryingInBaseball.

On Tuesday's episode of "The View" Meghan McCain co-signed this feeling. "It was one of the few things I could still watch on MSNBC, and to reduce his entire career to this segment yesterday made me really sad because I thought he deserved a better send-off than that."

The contention, I suppose, is that Matthews is no Matt Lauer – which his to say as far as we currently know, he didn't lay a hand on anyone. No doubt it's bad behavior, and McCain also points this out.  But it doesn't rise to the level of threatening-to-punch-Veronica-Corningstone-in-the-ovary levels of bad. It's bearable, as this line of thinking goes. Women are supposed to put up with stuff like this.

This fails to recognize the other high-ranking male journalists, whether peers in his age group or younger, who have somehow managed to get through their careers and hot mic'ed conversations without making jokes about a date rape drug, or evaluating the performance of a female member of a president's cabinet by calling her a "very attractive woman, very likable woman, almost, if she weren't so smart, Miss Congeniality."

Take former ABC anchor Sam Donaldson, who appeared Tuesday on MSNBC. The 85-year-old Donaldson made his share of career stumbles, but I do not recall him ever turning to Cokie Roberts mid-broadcast and saying, "By the way, Cokie, I don't usually do this, but I felt compelled to tell you something. You have an absolutely breathtaking heinie. And here's the day's top story." But you know who emitted that sort of ooze consistently enough for "Last Week Tonight" to take notice? Charlie Rose.

Since we're blasting from the past, take a journey back in the archives to 1999 when a female employee reported Matthews to his bosses at CNBC (where "Hardball" formerly aired) for making inappropriate jokes and comments about her in front of co-workers. The complaint was investigated, and the woman left the company with what a Reuters report describes as a "separation payment."

Again, this was more than 20 years ago and occurred off-camera. Meanwhile the events Bassett describes are said to have taken place in 2016, and the effects are equally as sinister. Moreover, they're precisely the type of degrading, diminishing comments women contend with so regularly that we're supposed to accept it as a part of the package deal of daring to leave the house and enter the workforce. We're all supposed to play along, and there's a price to be paid if we don't.

Bassett's story is Exhibit A: ". . . [T]here is the open secret of Matthews's everyday behavior off camera with guests, which often creeps up to the line of sexual harassment without actually crossing it, so that women can never feel that it's worth jeopardizing their own careers to complain," Bassett wrote, adding, "Many women in politics or media who have interacted with the bombastic host have some kind of story about him making them feel uncomfortable on the job."

We don't just have to take them at their word, either. Search YouTube, Google a few transcripts – it doesn't take much to find examples of Matthews' long history of sexualizing his female guests, colleagues, and subjects of conversation while the cameras were rolling.

He did it often enough that the audience treated his off-the-cuff sexism as an unavoidable trait in men who hail from a different generation, a time when a woman's worthiness to excel or hold power had to be tied to her attractiveness. Or as Matthews himself once put it, "the Chris Matthews test."

As an exhaustive list of examples constructed by Media Matters shows, no woman was beyond Matthews' leer – not the Bush twins in 2001, when they were barely legal. Not the late Elizabeth Edwards, wife of former presidential candidate John Edwards. Not Michelle Obama, nor Ann Coulter nor his own female colleagues, reporting live.

In 1999, he told Gennifer Flowers, "I gotta pay a little tribute here. You're a very beautiful woman, and I – and I have to tell you, he knows that, you know that, and everybody watching knows that; Hillary Clinton knows that. How can a woman put up with a relationship between her husband and somebody, anybody, but especially somebody like you that's a knockout? I don't quite get this relationship."

In 2004, he said to fellow journalist Janet Langhart Cohen, wife of former Defense Secretary William Cohen and a woman of color, "You're a very attractive woman, obviously. And you're very successful and you're well married and all those good things."

In 2004, he remarked to then-national security adviser and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, "I wanna say something. I'm gonna put this out there. If you like it, you can take it. If you don't, send it right back: I want to be on you."

In 2007 he said to Laura Ingraham, "You're one of the gods' gifts to men in this country. But also, you are a hell of a writer."

Also in 2007, Matthews shares with Citigroup chief marketing officer and press secretary to Hillary Rodham Clinton, "You are looking great, by the way  . . . And I just came from the Miss America contest. And you're – you are up there."

Indeed, the only woman to consistently fail the "Chris Matthews" test was Clinton, a woman he referred to as a she-devil and "witchy," and whose cheek he pinched because, you know, it's him. In 2006, Matthews asked this hypothetical about Clinton: "Is she hemmed in by the fact that she's a woman and can't admit a mistake or else the Republicans will say, 'Oh, that's a woman's prerogative to change her mind,' or 'another fickle woman'? Is her gender a problem, in her ability to change her mind?"

You may have noticed that one of those quotes is from "Anchorman," not an episode of "Hardball."* Just one though. If you can't figure out which one it is, I believe I've made my point. But even if you recognized it immediately you may perhaps concede that it isn't beyond the realm of possibility to imagine it coming out of the former MSNBC host's mouth.

And I will say this – hours into MSNBC's Super Tuesday coverage, there's a palpable downward tug in the on-air energy. Matthews was never my personal favorite for all the reasons stated above, and lately he's been quotable in all the wrong ways. It was like he became cable news' satirical version of John Madden or the late Harry Caray (apologies to fans of these beloved sportscasters) except for the news instead of football and baseball – and, you know, way more outwardly misogynistic.

News is not supposed to be entertaining, however. Its job is to inform and spark critical thinking, not distract. Matthews' career is highlighted by great moments. Those comments notwithstanding, he was seen by many as a pugilist from the left, a counterbalance to the rise of right-wing spin and disinformation during the George W. Bush administration and beyond.

And thanks to some of the same forces that protected the likes of Lauer and others, Matthews survived for long enough to be a living example of a cinematic parody. Ron Burgundy is a beloved character, we know. But his charm relies on the protective shields of fiction and comedy, the fact that he isn't real. He is a joke, and jokes don't have to answer to the consequences of their actions.

That's also true of powerful men who devolve into living satires, a truth understood and long accepted, and one that never was funny to people barred from being in on the joke. Only now, those people are empowered to say so, out loud, despite the likelihood of suffering harsher consequences than the men felled from their thrones.

The monologue cited above represented Matthews' final pitch at MSNBC. That was a shock on top of the surprise, and the look on the face of MSNBC's Steve Kornacki was that of a man who caught a gut wallop out of the blue. And that was before Kornacki was shoved into Matthews' chair after the commercial break. In that moment an emotional Kornacki stares into the camera and bites his lower lip while scrambling for the right thing to say.  

"That was a lot to take in just now I'm sure. And I'm sure you're still, um, absorbing that. And I am too." Kornacki pauses before hailing his recently ghosted colleague as "a giant…he is a legend…"

Yeah. He's kind of a big deal.

*Matthews did not say to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, "I want to be on you."  Ron Burgundy said that to Veronica Corningstone. However, the quote about the "very attractive woman, very likable woman, almost, if she weren't so smart, Miss Congeniality" is, indeed, something Matthews said about Rice.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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