The Disconnect, Part 2: The End of the Affair
The Media Research Center used to love Chris Matthews. Why is it attacking him now?
By Terry Krepel
A few months back, we noted the Media Research Center's disconnect on media criticism and its habit of ignoring facts inconvenient to its point of view. We cited as an example of the latter its determination to paint Chris Matthews as an unrepentant Democrat despite his history of advancing conservative talking points and saying complementary things about President Bush.
Could that be changing? A June 14 NewsBusters post by Tim Graham begins this way:
In the Clinton years, the Clintons [sic] fans loathed Chris Matthews, locating him firmly inside the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. In the Bush years, Matthews is whacked regularly by the left and by the right.
Graham then declared that Matthews was "sounding just like another disgruntled member of MoveOn.org." So reality-based treatment of Matthews may still be some time in coming.
But if "Clintons fans loathed Chris Matthews, locating him firmly inside the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy," that would mean that the MRC -- proud courtier to the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy and loather of the Clintons -- praised him during that time, right?
Right. Matthews regularly earned MRC kudos for his Clinton-bashing work in 1997 and 1998, when various Clinton controversies came to a head.
The MRC also highlighted Matthews' dismissal of a 1998 Time magazine interview with President Clinton as a "puff interview"; noted that Matthews' "Hardball," then on CNBC, "has focused all or part of every show" on a 1997 congressional hearing into a Clinton campaign finance scandal; expressed pleasure that, in 1998, "Hardball" "finally makes it into CNBC's prime time"; wrote that "When U.S. News reporter Matt Miller smeared ex-Presidents in arguing they did what Clinton did, CNBC's Chris Matthews got mad"; and touted that Matthews "proved Clinton's claim, that he afforded JFK Jr. his first chance to visit the White House since 1963, was false."
The MRC did note in a 1998 article that in 1995, Matthews said of Newt Gingrich: "Newt Gingrich seems like some crazy guy. A car bomber who wants to blow the country up! With that sort of idiot grin on his face!" -- but described him only as an "ABC pundit," not noting his "Hardball" gig. We could find no instance of the MRC singling out any Matthews comment made in 1997, 1998 and most of 1999 for being anti-conservative or pro-liberal, though surely he must have made some.
In late 1999, though, there were rumblings of what was to come; the MRC claimed that Matthews was offering "standard liberal analysis." In 2000, the MRC was split both praise and attack: While noting Matthews' claim that "press seems to be totally pro-[John] McCain" and portraying him as an "open-minded journalist" who nonetheless believed that questioners at a presidential debate were "special pleaders for Democratic causes," the MRC was also attacking Matthews because he didn't "know any pro-life reporters who are women" and listing him as part of MSNBC commentators' purportedly "relentless badgering from the left about how Republicans were too conservative and would scare away voters."
Matthews may sometimes be contrarian, but the former aide to liberal House Speaker Tip O'Neill is no conservative. Just last week, for instance, on the June 10 Imus in the Morning, he tagged Vice President Cheney as "far right," noting: "I don't like him so much politically."
Three whole years, from 1997 to 1999, is quite a long time for someone to be "contrarian" -- and, therefore, essentially immune from MRC attack.
And thus endeth the MRC's love affair with Matthews. Its Matthews coverage began to swing much more negative after this -- a July 2002 CyberAlert called him "former liberal political operative turned cable shoutmaster," and other CyberAlerts later that year highlighted his status as a registered Democrat. and his vote for the "liberal Democratic candidate for Governor in Maryland."
In October 2003, Bozell praised Matthews for giving him the softball treatment in an interview over the news of Rush Limbaugh's prescription-drug addiction -- or, as Bozell put it, "conducted what was a difficult interview with a level of professionalism and grace that one rarely finds in the media today." That marked a resurgence of laudatory Matthews items, such as one that noted Matthews' description of John Kerry as a "big, tall, French-looking, Yankee-looking, Yankee-talking aristocrat who has this strong liberal voting record to the left of Teddy Kennedy."
By April 2004, such unqualified praise for Matthews at the MRC was becoming the exception. Matthews was being taken to task for asking "easy cue-up questions" of Kerry, and when Ronald Reagan died in June 2004, the MRC unearthed a 1995 Matthews quote daring to note that Reagan ran up a $3 billion debt while president. And by July, Matthews' questions about the legitimacy of the Iraq war was dismissed as a "rant" and his observation that he has "just seen the first black President" after Barack Obama's speech at the Democratic National Convention was listed as an example of "the heights (or depths) of liberal media bias" in convention coverage. Even saying "Bingo!" to John Edwards' convention speech was enough to draw derision.
As 2004 wore on, saying anything remotely positive about Kerry -- such as rejecting "the notion that Kerry 'was out to promote himself' " when he shot 8mm footage of himself while serving in Vietnam -- was enough to draw the MRC's ire. Because Matthews was now no longer reliably spouting conservative talking points, he went from being a source to a target.
That animosity toward Matthews continues today. Of the 12 CyberAlert items thus far in 2006 that singled out comments made by Matthews, 11 of them highlight comments the MRC perceived to be anti-Bush, anti-conservative or pro-liberal. (The twelfth referenced an 1998 item in which he questioned a Time magazine contributor who said she "would give the President [Clinton] the kind of sex that he got from Monica Lewinsky." And a February NewsBusters post by Noel Sheppard denounced Matthews as a "San Francisco liberal" with an "ultra-left, San Francisco Chronicle columnist side" (despite the fact that he is a Philadelphia native).
So, what happened? It certainly isn't because Matthews suddenly switched from hard-nosed reporter holding Clinton's feet to the fire to raving Bush-basher. In fact, he's on record as doing all sorts of conservative-friendly things over the past several months:
Yet these quotes appear nowhere in any CyberAlert item (or anywhere else on the MRC website) or on the NewsBusters blog, according to a search of those sites. Why?
It appears that, with a hated Democratic president replaced by a beloved Republican, Matthews ceased to be useful to the MRC. Selective quoting has turned Matthews from an ally to an enemy; the MRC has offered no evidence that he has targeted Democrats any less or Republicans any more than he did during the Clinton administration.
Graham is being a bit disingenuous in his brief history of Matthews-bashing, leaving out the fact that his employer went from loving Matthews to loathing him for no other apparent reason other than political expediency.
It's the political version of the "it's not you, it's me" relationship bromide: Matthews didn't change, but the MRC did.