Saturday, January 19, 2008
'When politicians are having difficulty getting themselves out of a controversial situation, pundits like Chris Matthews are quick to offer a diagnosis: The politician, they tell us, should immediately come clean, take responsibility and, if necessary, apologize. Get it over quickly; don't let it drag out -- and don't make it worse with evasive answers or half-hearted explanations.
Chris Matthews and MSNBC should have followed that advice.
Amid growing outrage over Matthews' comments about Hillary Clinton and other women, the Hardball host spent the first five minutes of his show last night delivering his version of Richard Nixon's Checkers speech.
Acknowledging that he had been "callous," "nasty," and "dismissive" toward Hillary Clinton, Matthews insisted "I get it."
Matthews' acknowledgement is a welcome first step -- and a victory for those who have spoken out against his misogynistic comments, from Media Matters and other media critics to national leaders such as Gloria Steinem and Kim Gandy to scores of writers and bloggers to countless concerned Americans who contacted MSNBC to express their concern. The idea of Chris Matthews publicly admitting he has made inappropriate comments about Hillary Clinton -- a politician who he openly hates -- would have been nearly unthinkable just a few weeks ago. But it happened, demonstrating that the sorry state of our nation's media isn't inevitable: Concerned citizens who take responsibility for speaking out against behavior like Matthews' can bring about change.
But Matthews' speech last night isn't enough. As Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, said of Matthews' comments: "Chris Matthews is a repeat offender when it comes to sexist attitudes toward women politicians. ... I wasn't really looking for an apology. I was looking for a behavior change, and for him to treat female politicians the same way as male politicians."
Maybe last night's Matthews speech will mark the beginning of such a behavior change. But based on their response to the controversy so far, it seems that neither Matthews nor his MSNBC colleagues really "get it" at all.
Matthews' five-minute speech focused exclusively on one comment he made about Hillary Clinton -- and suggested he made that comment only one time. Early in Matthews' speech, he noted that his comments are "almost always without a script." Later, he pointed to the "heated, fast-paced talk we have here on Hardball." But Matthews' assertion that the only reason Clinton is a leading presidential contender is that Bill Clinton had an affair wasn't a one-time mistake resulting from a fast-paced, scriptless television show. Matthews has said largely the same thing at least 10 times dating back to 1999.
And Matthews has made countless other comments about Hillary Clinton that he completely ignored last night. He has called her a "She devil" and "witchy" and said that men who support her are "castratos in the eunuch chorus" and compared her to a "strip-teaser" and questioned whether she is a "convincing mom" and said she speaks in a "scolding manner" and described her laugh as a "cackle" and suggested that "being surrounded by women" might "make a case against" Clinton being "commander in chief" and called her an "uppity" woman and described her as "anti-male" and obsessed about her "ambition" while ignoring that of the (all male) Republicans running for president.
Matthews didn't address any of those comments in his speech last night; he didn't even acknowledge that they existed, or that the criticism he has faced recently has anything to do with any comments other than what he said about Clinton being a presidential contender because her husband cheated on her.
Nor did he address or even acknowledge his lengthy history of highly questionable comments about other women, like his suggestion that Nancy Pelosi would "castrate" Steny Hoyer and that she would have difficulty disagreeing with President Bush without "screaming" and "without becoming grating." Or his suggestion that the Des Moines Register endorsed Hillary Clinton because the paper's "female editors and publisher" succumbed to "lobbying" by Bill Clinton.
And Matthews completely ignored his pattern of objectifying women, particularly women who are guests on his show. He has told Elizabeth Edwards, "You've got a great face, Elizabeth. I love your smile," adding "I don't want to patronize you." He once began an interview with Laura Ingraham by telling her, "I'm not allowed to say this, but I'll say it -- you're beautiful and you're smart," and ended it by adding, "I get in trouble for this, but you're great looking, obviously. You're one of the gods' gifts to men in this country. But also, you are a hell of a writer." He has asked guests if they find Ann Coulter "physically attractive" and declared that she "doesn't pass the Chris Matthews test." Coulter and Ingraham may have odious ideas, but they deserve to be judged on those ideas, not on whether they're "beautiful" or how they fare on "the Chris Matthews test" of physical attractiveness.
Matthews famously urged CNBC reporter Erin Burnett to "come in -- come in further -- come in closer. Really close" and told her she is a "knockout" and "beautiful." He engaged in an extended commentary about "beautiful" CNBC reporter Margaret Brennan," noting "she's 6 feet tall" and telling her, "You're gorgeous." He has described the stars of online videos as "gorgeous creatures of god" and told one of them, "You're giving me the peepers. I can tell. ...You are doing it. You are flashing your incredible eyebrows at me. Look at that. It's awful what you're doing." And he told another: "[B]e careful with the advances you are making with your eyes right now. I'm not a casting agent." He has commented on Michelle Obama's appearance so extensively, NBC colleague Andrea Mitchell was moved to remind him that he was talking about a Harvard-educated attorney.
EMILY's List president Ellen Malcolm has described Matthews' comments as "sexual harassment brought to you by MSNBC."
But during his five-minute speech last night, Matthews pretended none of this exists.
And so it seems that he doesn't really "get it."
Worse, MSNBC doesn't seem to get it, either. The cable channel's executives have remained silent on the matter, lending their tacit approval to Matthews' behavior.
And some of Matthews' MSNBC colleagues have leapt to his defense.
On Morning Joe this morning, host Joe Scarborough said it is "offensive" and "outrageous" that Matthews "has to apologize." Like Matthews, Scarborough focused only on Matthews' comment about Hillary Clinton's success resulting from Bill Clinton's affair.
At the end of his rant, Scarborough insisted, "This ain't about Hillary Clinton's campaign."
Scarborough got that part right. This isn't about Hillary Clinton's campaign. This is about a consistent pattern of misogynistic comments by Chris Matthews. Comments about and directed toward a variety of women. A consistent pattern of Matthews objectifying women. And a consistent pattern of MSNBC looking the other way.
It's about an MSNBC host saying things like this: "I've been trying to call Alessandra Stanley with The New York Times for some time just to have lunch with her, and she thinks it's because I'm trying to influence her -- that's not the case at all, it's because, I was surprised, I saw a picture of her and I thought she was kinda hot!"
That one wasn't Chris Matthews, though. That one was ... Joe Scarborough.
It's about things like a male MSNBC host describing a woman running for president as "shrill" (and "very shrill") and asking, "[W]hat about her housekeeping skills?" Those were Joe Scarborough, too.
MSNBC's David Shuster also chimed in with a defense of Matthews: "[T]o see him have to go through this is absolutely infuriating, to see the way these groups used him for pure political gain is absolutely infuriating."
But this isn't about political gain. This isn't about one comment about Hillary Clinton, or even 30 comments about Hillary Clinton: This is about Chris Matthews' pattern of inappropriate treatment of women, and about MSNBC's continued acceptance of it. It's about things like a male journalist doing a mocking "impersonation" of the women who host The View - an impersonation that featured a high-pitched, whiny voice.
That one wasn't Chris Matthews, either. That one was ... David Shuster.
And then there's MSNBC host Tucker Carlson, who has described Hillary Clinton as "whining" and suggested the reason there are so few women in Congress is that "most women are so sensible, they don't want to get involved in something as stupid as politics" and said of Clinton, "[W]hen she comes on television, I involuntarily cross my legs," and described her as "castrating, overbearing, and scary." (MSNBC can't say they didn't know what they were getting when they hired Carlson; before joining the cable channel, he said women "want to be spanked vigorously every once in a while" and told Elle magazine that Clinton is his "guilty fantasy," explaining: "Every time I see her I think I could, you know, help. ... She seems tense.")
MSNBC's Mika Brzezinski weighed in on Matthews' behalf, too. Brzezinski defended Matthews by referring to comments Matthews made in response to criticism of his misogynistic remarks -- not to his January 9 comments that "the reason" for Hillary Clinton's political success is that "her husband messed around -- and by complaining that "the websites isolated one portion of what he said."
But the only people who have "isolated" Matthews' comments are Matthews himself -- and his MSNBC colleagues like Mika Brzezinski. They have pretended that the entire controversy is about one statement Matthews made about one person, one time. That isn't it at all. It's about many comments about many women, many times.
If Mika Brzezinski thinks Chris Matthews is being taken out of context, she's free to explain what context makes it acceptable to refer to Hillary Clinton as "witchy" and to describe Clinton and Nancy Pelosi "castrating" males and to depict Clinton as a "strip-teaser" and to describe the women on the Des Moines Register editorial board succumbing to "lobbying" by Bill Clinton. Then she can explain what context makes it OK for Matthews to leer at female guests over and over and over again.
As Joe Scarborough said: "This ain't about Hillary Clinton's campaign."
This is about what Ellen Malcolm described as "sexual harassment brought to you by MSNBC."
It's about whether MSNBC -- the cable channel that hired Ann Coulter, that gave Michael Savage a television show (then had to take it away when he told a caller to "get AIDS and die"), that hired Don Imus to spew insults until one day he went too far in talking about the Rutgers women's basketball team -- has learned from its previous mistakes, or whether it will continue to tolerate sexist comments from its hosts and reporters.
Last night, Matthews told us that he "get[s] it." Now he -- and his on-air colleagues, and MSNBC executives -- have to show us that they really do. And a speech won't do it; they have to change their behavior.
A week ago, MSNBC had a Chris Matthews problem. If things don't change, the cable channel may have a much bigger problem.
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