MSNBC anchor Brian Williams apparently felt Chris Matthews’ absence during the network’s coverage of the Super Tuesday Democratic primaries.
But for viewers tuning in to MSNBC, much was the same as on previous election nights: Williams and Rachel Maddow anchored the coverage, throwing to correspondents in the field and commentators on the set for their takes on election results, while Steve Kornacki broke down incoming vote and projected delegate totals on his screen.
Maybe you enjoy that sort of thing, maybe you don’t, but it’s hard to argue that what it was missing was a septuagenarian invoking Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders amid a rant about how he would have been executed in Central Park if the communists had won the Cold War.
Matthews, who has helped set MSNBC’s tone and direction for decades, wasn’t really bringing much to the table. He “didn’t listen, didn’t do his homework and treated politics as a game in which noisy confrontation was a necessity,” as The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan noted in a typically astute column.
His brand was conflict and the political horse race, and the shoutfests he oversaw became, for a time, the staple of cable news programming. But his particular version of that generally mediocre content was notably hollow, powered by stale and surface-level insights he gleaned from a career in politics now three decades past.
None of this is to underplay the toxic mix of relentlessly misogynistic commentary and casually sexist comments to women who went on his show that led to his departure. MSNBC seems to have shown him the door in light of his confrontation last week with Sen. Elizabeth Warren over her criticism of Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg for reported gender-based discrimination at his company, together with GQ columnist Laura Bassett’s essay about Matthews inappropriately flirting with her in MSNBC’s makeup room.
These controversies were the latest examples of Matthews’ long history of such behavior. He frequently commented on the physical appearances of female politicians and journalists, and regularly objectified women who came on his show. This spurred situations that were uncomfortable for the viewer and must have been unbearable for the recipients of his comments. This rampant misogyny constantly spilled over into Matthews’ political coverage, particularly his treatment of Hillary Clinton. Hardball viewers learned that Clinton was a “witchy” and “fickle” “she devil” and “strip-teaser” whose laugh was a “cackle” and whose voice sounded like “fingernails on a blackboard.” He termed her male supporters “castratos in the eunuch chorus.”
But as Sullivan pointed out, Matthews was a particularly lazy exemplar of a type of commentator whose value to viewers is already marginal. He was more concerned with who was up and who was down than what they had to offer the country. And he shot from the hip, convinced that his gut reactions were evidence of broad trends.
And so President George W. Bush, circa 2003, was an “effective commander” who “won the war” (“Everybody recognizes that, I believe, except a few critics,” he claimed). Bush “glimmers” with “sunny nobility,” and “everybody sort of likes the president, except for the real whack jobs,” Matthew added a couple years later.
Matthews’ 2008 commentary is largely remembered for his sexist Clinton remarks and his claim that he got a “thrill up my leg” from Barack Obama. But he was hardly in the tank for the then-Illinois senator -- as Jamison Foser noted for Media Matters at the time, he was constantly arguing that Obama couldn’t relate to “regular people,” by which he meant “white people.” Matthews ridiculed Obama for ordering orange juice in a diner, claimed that his lack of bowling prowess “tells you something about the Democratic Party,” said he was out of touch for playing pool, and complained that he wasn’t “beefy” enough. By contrast, Matthews repeatedly said that the Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, “deserves to be president.”
In 2016, the Hardball host boiled the choice voters faced down to this: If “you want to keep all this the way it is, vote for Hillary Clinton,” but voting for Donald Trump would “shake the system to its roots.”
And his commentary this cycle has been marred by a string of bizarre and offensive remarks. Beyond the aforementioned Warren confrontation and his weird comments about Sanders and alternate universe Cold War executions, Matthews compared the rise of Sanders, who is Jewish, to the Nazis conquering France (he later apologized) and mixed up Jaime Harrison, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in South Carolina, with Republican Sen. Tim Scott (both Scott and Harrison are Black).
MSNBC and its viewers will be able to move on without Matthews. They’ve done something similar in the recent past. As the network’s senior political analyst, Mark Halperin helped drive the conversation during the 2012 and 2016 elections. Like Matthews, Halperin fixated on horse-race minutiae and the tactical acumen of candidates rather than their positions or policies. He was known for his mathematically incoherent candidate performance scorecards and his books, which literally described elections as a game. Halperin was considered indispensable to MSNBC -- right up to the minute he was fired after women came forward to detail his history of sexual harassment and assault.
Few people look at the coverage of the 2020 election and say, “I wish we had Mark Halperin’s take.” In a couple of months, the same will be true of Matthews.