Naturally, the Washington press corps is having conniptions over the sparks that flew between MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews and Democratic Senator Zell Miller after the latter’s bull’s-eye of a barn-burning keynote address at the Republican convention Wednesday night. The indignation, though, is as phony as the notion that what Matthews was engaged in was an “interview.”
The news here is not that the game is rigged; media bias is a shock to no one. The news is that there are now enough alternative media–the Internet, the blogosphere, the multiple cable-news outlets, talk radio, etc.–that people are empowered with choices and no longer have to shrug their shoulders and tacitly tolerate the old arrangement. In turn, the liberation of the viewing world perforce frees all the Zell Millers (would that there were more of them) from the once-chafing restraints of monopoly-media politesse. They needn’t worry that, upon exposing a Chris Matthews for what he is, they’ll never again see the sunshine.
Chris Matthews is a partisan. No one should have a problem with that. The people on our side are partisans too. Being a partisan is good. It means you believe in something. It should mean you’re willing to take that conviction into the arena and allow it to be challenged, its mettle tested. Indeed, given that we are a hyper-litigious society, it’s worth bearing in mind that the very dispute resolution system we increasingly prefer for all of life’s quarrels is premised on the single theory that partisanship leads to truth–that both sides, armed with their ablest communicators, should confront each other in what is unapologetically called an “adversarial” setting. The best arguments are made by each, dissected by the other, and the truth–what we are supposedly trying to get at–is revealed.
Neither is partisanship dishonorable. Far from it. An honest partisan gives ground when the other side has a point, not only because it is the right thing to do but because it is in his interest to do so. Aristotle held that the most significant aspect of rhetoric is the perceived authority of the speaker, an axiom immutable as ever in our information age. Continuing to argue one’s conviction, but giving ground when a position is no longer defensible, preserves–even enhances–one’s credibility, an incalculable asset for future battles.
Many of us, for that reason, admire Matthews as a partisan even if we routinely disagree with where he’s coming from. For what it’s worth, I like him a lot. He is no blind ideologue. He honestly appreciates the skill and occasionally even the wisdom of his opponents, and he was singular among what were mostly lemmings of the Left in harshly criticizing President Clinton’s baleful abuse of the public trust.
Matthews in the anchor chair of straight news coverage, however, is a different story. And that’s where NBC has consciously opted to ensconce him for the Republican convention. In the center seat, Matthews is not an objective raconteur: He is a partisan with a transparent interest in the outcome–in this instance, the outcome of the election.
It doesn’t matter what he says or believes about his ability to be dispassionate. We all probably think ourselves capable of switching off ideology and interest, of objectifying the task at hand. But anyone who has watched Matthews canoodle with Kerry while grilling the Bushies and go positively postal discussing the Swift vets cannot have the slightest doubt about his agenda.
It is fine for Matthews to have an agenda. But it is a charade for him to slide into the driver’s seat of MSNBC’s coverage. And it is worse than a charade for NBC News, fully aware of the circumstances, to give him the gig. Last night, they both got called on it.
Miller’s keynote aimed to dwell on something virtually unmentioned in 96 hours of Democratic conventioneering and the dutiful coverage thereof: Kerry’s relentless 20-year record of gutting national security.
Let’s not forget context here. For about six weeks we have been barraged with panegyrics about the 9/11 Commission Report–with NBC and its fellow mainstreamers at the front of the amen-corner. Well, what did that report tell us? Our intelligence was shriveled after the Cold War; we lacked military imagination and options; and we treated terrorism as if it were simply a law-enforcement problem rather than a declaration of war by an arch enemy. So here we have Senator Kerry, who claimed, about a nanosecond after the report’s release, to endorse it and its recommendations completely. Kerry, the primo-shriveler of the post-Cold War intelligence apparatus, has for two decades been against the weapons systems that provide the military with its most imaginative options, and has maintained in this campaign that what he called the “exaggerated” problem of terrorism is one best suited for law enforcement.
So what did Miller do? He had the temerity to discuss this record and these facts, and to do it with style and soul.
Particularly upsetting to Matthews was Miller’s metaphorical suggestion that–having opposed the B-1 and B-2 bombers, the Tomcat, the Apache helicopter, the Patriot missile, the Aegis air-defense cruiser, the F-15 Eagle aircraft, the Trident missile, and, for that matter, the entire strategic-defense initiative–Kerry’s idea of the “armed forces” of which he’d be commander-in-chief must be forces armed with “spitballs.” It was a great line because it was deadly accurate in what it rhetorically intimated: that Kerry’s instinctive wariness of strength would be perilous for a moment in history when strength is most sorely needed.
Matthews is a smart enough guy to know it was effective. And he is a partisan, not an anchor, so he went confrontational, not exploratory. Did Miller really mean spitballs? Did Miller really think Kerry and fellow Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy do not believe America should be defended? Wasn’t Miller really guilty of the same sort demagoguery about which Republicans moan, concerning Democratic tropes about cutting social-welfare programs? Hadn’t Miller really gone off the deep end here?
Now mind you, Matthews is not a babe in the woods. He was a speechwriter for some very formidable, articulate Democrats. He is an accomplished writer. He has heard of metaphor and simile and allegory and all those flourishes of language so familiar to solid practitioners of the craft. In fact, his cable program is not called “Occasionally Aggressive Interviews By Chris Matthews”; it’s called Hardball. The expression is meant to be metaphorical, evocative. Matthews doesn’t think you expect to tune in and find him toting cleats and a 32-ounce club any more than he actually thinks Miller meant Kerry and Kennedy were at a parapet on Boston Harbor readying saliva chunks for al Qaeda.
Matthews’s attack-dog line of questioning was entirely reasonable . . . for a partisan. If this had truly been an objective news program, however, Matthews would have been sitting in a debater’s seat with a different, neutral anchor between him and Miller. Then, it would have been fine for him to press Miller–who was more than up to responding–because Matthews would have then been reciprocally grilled on his own baggage, not fraudulently portrayed as if he didn’t have any. But Matthews, in the shameless mainstream network practice, was slated as both partisan and anchor, prosecutor and judge. When he didn’t like Miller’s answers, he stepped on them. He snidely suggested that Miller had attacked Kerry’s love of country, though Miller had insisted–and the rhetoric bears out–that he was challenging Kerry’s judgment, not his patriotism.
And Miller didn’t stand for it. At 72, he has been around the block and seen more than his share of this blustering routine before–the nightly delusion where the partisan pretends he is just a detached truth-seeker with no axe to grind and the rest of us are expected to play along as if it were all on the up-and-up. Miller declined to be bullied, and, better yet, declined to pretend that Matthews wasn’t fully aware his interrogation tactics were disingenuous rather than disinterested.
Miller gave back with both barrels: Don’t try the bully routine with me, he warned. Matthews, Miller asserted, knew precisely what Miller had meant. No, the “spitball” critique was not comparable to the slanders that cause Republicans to complain about being accused of starving children and the elderly. It was the metaphorical copestone of an argument whose building blocks were not distortions of a single vote or two by Kerry but an unremitting 20-year record of aversion to American might–the might that, it turns out, is not passé as one-worlders like Kerry have supposed, but the last line of defense between civilized society and barbarism.
Matthews, plainly aware he’s been shellacked, is spinning. This is a post from his blog made early this morning:
I questioned [Miller] about some of his remarks. Knowing what I know about how they vote on Capitol Hill, I tried to get him to talk about how senators all the time, for legislative reasons, vote “No” as a legislative tactic because too much money is being spent, when they couldn’t have backed the bill otherwise. This goes for conservatives voting against social programs just as it does for liberals voting against weapons systems.
Senator Miller didn’t buy what I was saying. I can’t tell you why. And I was pretty surprised with his reaction. . . .
This spin is telling, no doubt more than Matthews the “anchor” would like it to be. “Knowing what [he knows] about how they vote on Capitol Hill,” Matthews is well aware that a multi-term senator’s record is a trajectory, not a series of isolated episodes. Yes, legislation is an exercise in compromise, meaning that lawmakers occasionally vote in favor of what they generally oppose or against what they generally favor, guided by what they perceive as a higher purpose. Nonetheless, over time, a senator’s higher purpose becomes manifest. As Matthews knows, it was that higher purpose Miller targeted. In Kerry’s case, the higher purpose is an overall suspicion of American power.
There is no affront in Kerry’s having such a higher purpose–it is an ideology of which he is hardly the lone adherent, a vestige of the era in which he came of age. There is great affront, though, in masquerading Kerry’s higher purpose as if it were merely a lawmaker’s occupational hazard–a disconnected series of circumstances in which Kerry happens to have voted against the military, and the intelligence services, and national security. Matthews knows that. So why would he, as anchor, be “tr[ying] to get [Miller] to talk about” how legislators occasionally vote at odds with their core positions?
Because he’s shilling for Kerry. With America under siege, the Kerry camp doesn’t think the record is defensible. So the strategy is either to suppress mention of it (the Democratic convention approach) or, should it inconveniently come up, to argue absurdly that it may not mean what it appears to mean (the, ahem, Hardball approach).
“Senator Miller didn’t buy what I was saying. I can’t tell you why. And I was pretty surprised with his reaction.” Memo to Chris: He didn’t buy what you were saying because even you don’t buy what you were saying. And what galls you is that he knows that . . . and most everyone watching knows that now, too.
Matthews and NBC, of course, are not alone. All the mainstream outlets do the same thing. Highly opinionated, highly motivated liberals are broadly licensed to wear the pretend hat of unbiased reporter–to steer the coverage where they want it to go, to decide unilaterally who gets the hot-seat and who gets the puff-piece, to editorialize on what’s purported to be the straight-news page, and to construct the world and then try to sell us on the notion that it’s something more authentic than a concoction. They’re all “pretty surprised” now that we’re turning the page and changing the channel.
I’d watch Chris Matthews the honest partisan anytime. But Chris Matthews the anchor? Click.
–Andrew C. McCarthy, who led the 1995 terrorism prosecution against Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and eleven others, is reachable through www.benadorassociates.com.