Thursday, January 17, 2008

David Brock Issues Open Letter to NBC News President Steve Capus

Brock raises serious questions regarding the on-air conduct of MSNBC's Chris Matthews
 
Washington, D.C. -- Today, Media Matters for America President & CEO David Brock issued an open letter to Steve Capus, the president of NBC News, raising serious questions about the on-air conduct of MSNBC Hardball host Chris Matthews. Given Matthews' long history of degrading commentary, Brock has urged Capus to protect the network's trusted reputation for fair and equal coverage and, as Capus himself articulated, "continue the dialogue about what is appropriate conduct and speech" on the air.
 
Highlights from the letter include:
 
"Senator Clinton's candidacy aside, Matthews' degrading attacks on women constitute a broader and more troubling pattern that has unfolded over the years. During his coverage of the 2000 presidential race, Matthews repeatedly referred to author Naomi Wolf as "the political equivalent of Viagra." His on-air treatment of CNBC anchor Erin Burnett ("Could you get a little closer to the camera? ...You're beautiful. …You're a knockout.") has been described by Emily's List President Ellen Malcolm as "sexual harassment brought to you by MSNBC."'
 
[…]
 
"[A]s you well know, programs like Hardball define wider media narratives and agendas and shape public perceptions about public affairs, especially, as is the case now, when the nation is poised to make critical choices about its future direction. Given Matthews' record detailed above, I fear that he will continue to insult, misinform, and ultimately disserve the public as we continue to engage in a basic process of our democracy in the coming months."
 
Below is the full text of the letter:

 
January 16, 2008
 
Steve Capus
President, NBC News
NBC Television Network
30 Rockefeller Plaza
New York , NY 10112


Dear Mr. Capus:
 
I'm writing today to express urgent concern over the appalling on-air conduct of MSNBC Hardball host Chris Matthews and to ask that you engage Media Matters for America and other concerned parties in the broader community of NBC viewers in a constructive dialogue about appropriate remedies to this most unfortunate state of affairs at NBC's cable news channel MSNBC.
 
As you know, the event precipitating the current firestorm surrounding Matthews' conduct occurred on MSNBC last week in the wake of Senator Hillary Clinton's victory in the Democratic primary in New Hampshire . During MSNBC's coverage that night, Matthews said he would "never underestimate Hillary Clinton again" -- an apparent reference to his long-standing pattern of on-air denigration of Senator Clinton's candidacy and persona -- documented in a Media Matters survey of Hardball with Chris Matthews published December 18, 2007 (attached). The following morning, on the MSNBC program Morning Joe, Matthews said of Clinton , "the reason she may be a front-runner is her husband messed around" and that "she didn't win [ New York ] on her merits." These statements were demonstrably false, utterly disrespectful, and, as the ensuing controversy has revealed, deeply offensive to many Americans.
 
Given Matthews' history of animus toward both Senator Clinton and President Bill Clinton, these remarks might be seen as just par for the course. After all, MSNBC has entrusted Matthews -- as Hardball host, frequent on-air news anchor for MSNBC, and host of the syndicated Chris Matthews Show run on the NBC broadcast network -- with a prominent role in political campaign coverage throughout the last year, despite his 2001 statement referencing Clinton reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer magazine: "I hate her. I hate her. All that she stands for." To my knowledge, Matthews has not disputed the quote, which betrays an ugly and unprofessional personal bias that unfairly skews political coverage of one of the leading candidates for President of the United States night after night on MSNBC.
 
Matthews has referred to Clinton as a "She Devil," compared her to a "strip-teaser" and referred to her as "witchy." He has referred to men who support her as "castratos in the eunuch chorus." He has suggested Clinton is not "a convincing mom," and said "modern women" like Clinton are unacceptable to " Midwest guys." Even Matthews' journalistic guests have called out Matthews for using sexist rhetoric. On one episode of Hardball devoted to what Matthews repeatedly referred to as Clinton 's "cackle," Politico reporter Mike Allen broke in and said, "Chris, first of all, 'cackle' is a very sexist term." Matthews has hosted right-wing radio host Michael Graham, who said on Hardball:
 
"Anyone listening to Hillary Rodham in her speech last week about patriotism, that screaming, screeching fingernail, I wanted to bludgeon her with a tire iron. That's what I wanted to do." (Matthews is quoted on the jacket of one of Graham's books endorsing the radio host as "the funniest political observer in the country. The guy turns the truth into a punch.")
 
According to a Media Matters count, over the course of two weeks in 2006, Matthews barraged his guests with 90 separate questions about what Matthews has variously described as Bill Clinton's purported "lifestyle," "social life," "personal behavior," and "personal life." This pattern of obsessive personal attacks on the Clintons has, of course, been glaringly on display for years; back in 1998, Salon memorably described Hardball as the "official cable club house for Clinton-haters."
 
But last week -- with America engaged in an invigorating democratic process, in a moment freighted with the potential for historic progress and promise in the hearts and minds of millions of Americans as, for the first time in our history, both a woman and an African-American are leading candidates for the presidency -- Matthews' sexist attack struck a nerve.
 
Senator Clinton's candidacy aside, Matthews' degrading attacks on women constitute a broader and more troubling pattern that has unfolded over the years. During his coverage of the 2000 presidential race, Matthews repeatedly referred to author Naomi Wolf as "the political equivalent of Viagra." His on-air treatment of CNBC anchor Erin Burnett ("Could you get a little closer to the camera? ...You're beautiful. …You're a knockout.") has been described by Emily's List President Ellen Malcolm as "sexual harassment brought to you by MSNBC." Matthews once ended an interview with right-wing radio host and author Laura Ingraham by saying, "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."
 
During coverage of a presidential debate last spring, NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell appeared compelled to remind Matthews that Democratic Senator Barack Obama's wife, Michelle, is a Harvard-educated lawyer as Matthews focused obsessively on her physical appearance, stating she "looked perfect," "well-turned out ... attractive -- classy, as we used to say. Like Frank Sinatra, 'classy.' "
 
Why NBC apparently believes such conduct and speech to be informative, appropriate or responsible broadcasting in the public interest is a question for you and for General Electric's management and Board of Directors. In this regard, I should note that gender-based attacks have also been documented by Media Matters on MSNBC's show Tucker, hosted by Tucker Carlson. Carlson invoked Lorena Bobbitt to claim that Clinton is tapping into women's anger toward men, and on another broadcast of Tucker, said of Clinton : "[W]hen she comes on television, I involuntarily cross my legs." During a discussion of how gender might play into Senator Clinton's candidacy, Carlson's right-wing guest Cliff May said, "At least call her a Vaginal-American."
 
My concern about your network's broadcast standards is not limited to sexism. In 2006, Matthews hosted right-wing pundit Ann Coulter the day after she had posited on another NBC cable network, CNBC, on The Big Idea with Donny Deutsch, that Bill Clinton is gay. Questioned about the remark by Matthews, Coulter offered a bizarre theory to conclude Clinton "shows some level of latent homosexuality." She continued, "I don't know if he's gay, but Al Gore -- total fag." Matthews concluded the interview with, "Well, thanks, Ann, you're great."
 
In Warp Speed: America in the Age of Mixed Media, the esteemed media critics Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel wrote, " 'Hardball' has no grounding in reporting, no basic news function, is not designed to elicit facts or explore issues with policy-makers."
 
That judgment notwithstanding, as you well know, programs like Hardball define wider media narratives and agendas and shape public perceptions about public affairs, especially, as is the case now, when the nation is poised to make critical choices about its future direction. Given Matthews' record detailed above, I fear that he will continue to insult, misinform, and ultimately disserve the public as we continue to engage in a basic process of our democracy in the coming months.
 
My concerns are based in fact. According to a study by the nonpartisan Project for Excellence in Journalism of political media coverage in 2000, Hardball accounted for 12 percent of all media reports that discussed presidential candidate Al Gore's purported "tendency to exaggerate," a false campaign narrative perpetuated by the Republican National Committee. Indeed, Matthews seemed so unfair in his treatment of Gore that NBC Today show host Matt Lauer upbraided him on the air, saying, "Let's be honest here. Al Gore irritates you." "The public has been saying that too," Matthews replied.
 
The aforementioned Media Matters study examined Matthews' statements on Hardball about  the two then-front-running candidates in each political party, Clinton and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, in the months of September, October, and November 2007. The results showed Matthews made 10 negative remarks about Clinton for every negative remark he made about Giuliani. Moreover, Matthews made nearly three times as many positive remarks about Giuliani as about Clinton .
 
In addition, Matthews has said on Hardball that he believes Republican Senator John McCain "deserves to be president."
 
Mr. Capus, during the controversy last spring surrounding Don Imus' racist and sexist remarks broadcast on MSNBC -- remarks first documented by Media Matters -- we commended your acknowledgement that NBC has a responsibility to protect the network's trusted reputation for fair and equal coverage and to "continue the dialogue about what is appropriate conduct and speech" on its air. In the case of Chris Matthews, I implore you to once again consider the gravity of that responsibility.
 
I look forward to your reply.
Sincerely,
David Brock

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