Say what you will about Chris Matthews—at least he’s consistent. In more than two decades as the host of MSNBC’s Hardball, he was a force of nature, plowing through each day’s news with a mix of enthusiasm, petulance and wonkish bluster. His exit on Monday was equally chaotic. “Let me start with my headline: I’m retiring,” Matthews greeted viewers. After a short monologue in which he apologized for the way he’d treated some women during his tenure and said he was ceding his platform to younger generations, the 74-year-old commentator did just that, leaving his apparently shocked 40-year-old colleague, Steve Kornacki, to cover the rest of the hour.
For those frustrated by the extent to which Matthews’ generation has shirked its responsibilities to future citizens of Earth, there was a hint of symbolism in that moment. Here was a quintessential baby boomer—an individualist who gravitates toward personalities more than policies, a journalist who’d written speeches for Jimmy Carter and books on the Kennedys, a man with no fear of publicly expressing his wildest opinions—leaving a workforce where he’d spent decades at the advantageous end of massive systemic power imbalances. Despite the scandals that preceded it, Matthews was allowed to frame his speedy departure as retirement. And as soon as he’d done so, on the eve of Super Tuesday no less, he offered a vague mea culpa and vanished into the night. “Sorry, kids! I screwed it up! Hope you do better!”
It’s true—Matthews did screw things up. The circumstances surrounding his sudden retirement, whether voluntary or not, are no mystery. Following a painful post-debate interview on Feb. 25, in which he grilled Elizabeth Warren for bringing up crass, sexist, intimidating comments Michael Bloomberg had allegedly made to female employees, GQ columnist Laura Bassett published an account of the crass, sexist, intimidating comments she says Matthews made when she was a guest on his show. After Bernie Sanders won the Nevada caucuses, just three days earlier, Matthews had to apologize for likening the Democratic Socialist’s rise to the fall of France during World War II. (Casual Nazi comparisons are rarely prudent, but it seems obvious that they’re an especially bad idea when the object of your criticism is a Jew with relatives who died in the Holocaust.)
Bassett notes, in her essay, that several other women have confided in her about Matthews’ behavior. His “whole modus operandi,” she concludes, “seems to be inviting smart women onto his show, flirting with them or otherwise making them uncomfortable before or while the camera rolls, asking them a question on air and then immediately interrupting them to tell them why they’re wrong.” The observation reminded me of Matthews’ former rival Bill O’Reilly, who was notorious during his time at Fox News for shouting down guests with whom he disagreed and who was fired in 2017 when it came to light that the network had settled multiple sexual harassment suits against him. If #MeToo has taught us anything, it’s that this kind of misconduct isn’t confined to boors. But it’s hard to believe talk-show hosts who let their anger and sexism run wild on live TV are keeping them under control, or even recognizing them for what they are, after the cameras stop rolling.
For much of its existence, cable news has been defined by vitriol on both sides of the aisle, from Donald Trump’s Fox News hype man Sean Hannity to Matthews’ short-fused former MSNBC colleague Keith Olbermann. (CNN’s calmer anchors tend to fan the flames of existing political controversies rather than ignite new ones along partisan lines. It’s the lowest-rated of the three networks.) With Matthews gone and a new election cycle revving up, it seems like the right time to ask whether the young people he talked up on his way out stand a chance at saving cable news—or if the best Gens X-Z can do is hope this monster our parents’ and grandparents’ generations created dies out now that cable is itself becoming obsolete.
If Super Tuesday was any indication—and if a bigger-than-expected night for Joe Biden didn’t inhibit any potential for colorful invective among in-house pundits who, like Matthews, seemed nervous about Sanders’ early surge—MSNBC is going to be a tamer place from now on. Anchoring a rotating panel of commentators were Brian Williams, who has carved out a role as the network’s blandly authoritative answer to Wolf Blitzer, and Rachel Maddow, whose wry delivery and fondness for background research made her its biggest Gen X success story. The only real source of amusement was Kornacki’s nervous energy as he parsed stats in real time.
But as entertaining as it could be to watch Matthews and his ilk put their feet in their mouths, it’s hard to make a case that 24/7 cable news was ever healthy for the national discourse. One of the first shows on a pre-left-of-center MSNBC, The Contributors, helped launch the careers of far-right provocateurs Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham. Jon Stewart’s unexpectedly sober observations on CNN’s Crossfire during the 2004 election cycle, when he famously chastised “partisan hack” co-hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala for treating political debates like professional wrestling, still apply.
In the 20th century, cable news channels at least served a comprehensible purpose, as forums for real-time news and on-the-fly analysis. But since the turn of the millennium, digital platforms have owned breaking news—and millions of Americans now turn to social media for political conversations in which they can actually participate. It’s hard to tell, these days, whether Twitter has adopted the tone of cable news or vice versa. Together with a President who couldn’t stop making headlines if his life depended on it, they’ve created an anxious new normal where it feels like no one is ever not obsessing over politics.
All cable news does is filter the endless feed of information through a series of TV personalities who are most entertaining when they’re mad, wrong or offensive. Which suggests that remaking the medium to suit younger viewers isn’t just a risky business proposition; it’s a dangerous one. At the risk of sounding like the oldest fossil of all, here’s an idea: Maybe news shouldn’t be entertainment. Maybe it should just be news.
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