The mess at MSNBC
Three weeks ago, in the wake of Chris Matthews' quasi-apology for one of his countless objectionable comments about women in general and Hillary Clinton specifically, I argued that Matthews' apology was not enough. Neither Matthews nor MSNBC had acknowledged that the problem ran far deeper than one comment by Matthews -- and their failure to make such an acknowledgement was an ominous sign that the apology would not be accompanied by a change in behavior, no matter how forcefully Matthews insisted: "I get it."
So what has happened in those three weeks?
MSNBC has turned Matthews' purported apology into a promotional campaign, using clips of his statement to advertise MSNBC programming. Not the parts of the statement in which he acknowledged having been "callous," "nasty," and "dismissive" toward Hillary Clinton, of course -- the parts in which he spoke of his love for politics.
Turning a forced apology into a promotional campaign seems like a pretty good sign that MSNBC and Matthews don't "get it" at all.
But it isn't the best sign. Consider what else has happened during MSNBC broadcasts since Matthews' apology.
First, Matthews' MSNBC colleagues leapt to his defense. Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough and reporter David Shuster lashed out; Scarborough declaring it "offensive" and "outrageous" that Matthews had to apologize, and Shuster adding "this is absolutely infuriating, to see the way these groups used him for pure political gain is absolutely infuriating." As I noted at the time, Scarborough and Shuster have their own history of questionable comments about women:
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.
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.
Then, after defending their colleague, it was back to business as usual for NBC/MSNBC reporters.
Tim Russert suggested that there is irony in a "self-avowed feminist" having shown "some emotion," as though feminists are the dour, humorless beings Rush Limbaugh and Tucker Carlson think they are. At least Russert stopped short of using the term "feminazis."
A few days later, Tucker Carlson mocked the idea that Hillary Clinton could have been a "victim of gender discrimination," noting that she had gone to Yale Law School. Clinton's comments about "gender equality," to which Carlson was purportedly responding, were in fact general, and not about her specifically. And his invocation of Clinton's graduation from Yale Law as evidence of a lack of gender inequity in her life was just bizarre: As Clinton noted in her autobiography, "When I entered Yale Law School in the fall of 1969, I was one of twenty-seven women out of 235 students to matriculate. This seems like a paltry number now, but it was a breakthrough at the time and meant that women would no longer be token students at Yale."
Incidentally, Carlson doesn't seem to have defended Matthews. Maybe he didn't want to draw attention to his own on-air behavior:
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.")
On January 23, an (all-male) Morning Joe panel laughed along as Mike Barnicle compared Hillary Clinton to "everyone's first wife standing outside a probate court."
Then on January 30, Joe Scarborough told co-host Mika Brzezinski, "Mika, don't make me backhand you."
On February 4, Matthews led a panel discussion of what the Associated Press described as Clinton's "emotional reunion Monday with a colleague from the early days of her legal career as a child advocate." The discussion featured a suggestion that Clinton had cried on purpose in order to win votes the next day, a statement by Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson that "with some people it's sad movies ... with Hillary Clinton ... it's an impending primary. It just breaks her down." Even Chris Matthews seemed to understand that something might not be quite right about the obsessive focus on Clinton showing emotion; near the end of the discussion, he said, "I wonder what [sic] we're focusing more on this than we would if it were a male candidate."
During MSNBC's February 5 primary coverage, correspondent Lester Holt seemed surprised that "[t]he first woman candidate with a serious shot at winning the presidency beat out her male rival" in exit polls on the question of "[w]ho would make the best commander in chief of the U.S. armed forces?" Holt even reminded viewers, "Keep in mind, this at a time the nation is fighting on two fronts." This wasn't the first time an NBC personality seemed to question whether a woman could be an effective commander in chief of the armed forces:
- On June 24, 2007, Chris Matthews asked if Clinton's "being surrounded by women" makes "a case for commander in chief -- or does it make a case against it?" Matthews went on to say, "But isn't that a challenge, because when it comes down to that final decision to vote for president, a woman president, a woman commander in chief, will be an historic decision for people. Not just men, but women as well."
- On May 30, 2005, Matthews asked retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey if "the troops out there" would "take the orders" from "Hillary Clinton, commander in chief." When McCaffrey responded, "Why wouldn't they listen to a [female] commander in chief? Sure," Matthews responded: "You're chuckling a little bit, aren't you?" When McCaffrey responded, "No," Matthews said: "No problem? No problem? No problem?" McCaffrey answered, "Absolutely not. None."
Most recently, David Shuster said on the February 7 edition of Tucker that "there's just something a little bit unseemly" about Chelsea Clinton contacting super delegates on behalf of her mother, adding, "[D]oesn't it seem like Chelsea's sort of being pimped out in some weird sort of way?"
This morning, Shuster offered a Matthews-esque quasi-apology for analogizing Chelsea Clinton to a prostitute.
But, like Matthews, Shuster didn't seem to "get it."
Shuster first claimed to have praised Chelsea Clinton on Tucker: "I said a lot of wonderful things about Chelsea. I praised her; I said Americans should be proud of her. ... as I said last night, everybody, all of us, love Chelsea Clinton." In fact, Shuster had not said Americans should be proud of her, or that "everybody, all of us, love Chelsea Clinton." Not even close.
Then Shuster reiterated that Chelsea Clinton's efforts on Hillary Clinton's behalf are "unseemly" -- though, again, he did not explain why they are unseemly, or whether it was unseemly for Mitt Romney's sons to campaign on his behalf.
Finally, Shuster got to the real issue: "[L]ast night, I used a phrase -- some slang about her efforts. I didn't think that people would take it literally, but some people have."
That's just ridiculous. Nobody took Shuster's statement that Chelsea Clinton is "being pimped out" literally. Nobody. People were bothered that he analogized her to a prostitute, not that they thought he was actually saying she has sex in exchange for money. Shuster's "I didn't think that people would take it literally" excuse is like calling someone a b*tch, then saying, "Hey, I didn't think people would think I was saying she is literally a dog." It completely misses the point.
This afternoon, NBC News President Steve Capus issued a statement calling Shuster's comments "irresponsible and inappropriate" and announcing that Shuster "has been suspended from appearing on all NBC News broadcasts" other than to make another apology, which aired tonight. Shuster then offered a more complete apology at the beginning of the February 8 edition of Tucker.
Capus' statement is the best sign yet that NBC News is beginning to take seriously the lengthy pattern of inappropriate comments about women made by NBC and MSNBC reporters. (NBC News did not issue a statement about Matthews, allowing Matthews' overly narrow, on-air quasi-apology to stand as the closest thing to an official statement.)
But apologies and statements and even suspensions don't mean anything unless they are followed by an actual change in behavior. Things didn't change at NBC/MSNBC after the Matthews controversy; hopefully they will this time.
According to Capus, "NBC News takes these matters seriously." If NBC News wants viewers to believe that, it would help if it told us how it is taking these matters seriously. What steps has NBC News taken to ensure that things like this don't happen again? Have executives given their reporters and pundits guidance about what kinds of things are not appropriate to say? Have they talked to Matthews and Scarborough and Carlson and Shuster and the rest about their lengthy history of objectionable comments to and about women?
Maybe this time they'll listen.