The Media Today

Chris Matthews times out at MSNBC

March 3, 2020

Last night, Chris Matthews went on his MSNBC show, Hardball, and dropped some personal news: Hardball is done, because he’s retiring. “Obviously, this isn’t for lack of interest in politics,” Matthews said; rather, “The younger generation’s out there, ready to take the reins.” Matthews was alluding to recent reports about his history of inappropriate remarks toward women, a link he soon made explicit. “Compliments on a woman’s appearance that some men, including me, might have once incorrectly thought were okay were never okay—not then, and certainly not today,” he said. “For making such comments in the past, I’m sorry.” Matthews said he would miss his viewers—“But remembering Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca: we’ll always have Hardball.” He grinned. “So let’s not say goodbye, but, until we meet again.” With that, there was a commercial break. When the show returned, Matthews was gone.

The sudden on-air departure called to mind that of Shep Smith, who dramatically walked out of Fox News in October without saying his goodbyes; Matthews’s crew reportedly was given some advance warning, though not much. After Smith quit Fox, programming cut to Neil Cavuto and John Roberts, who were visibly taken aback; last night, Steve Kornacki looked similarly stunned as he came on air to anchor what was left of Matthews’s show. “Erm… that was a lot to take in just now,” Kornacki said. “I’m sure you’re still absorbing that, and I am, too.” At the end of the hour, Kornacki delivered an emotional monologue paying tribute to Matthews.  “Of all the television personalities I’ve ever known as a viewer, Chris is the most human,” Kornacki said, choking up. “I’m sorry. I think you got him. And I think he got you.”

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The comparable drama aside, Smith and Matthews were out for very different reasons: whereas Smith reportedly grew frustrated with the opinion side of his network, and with management, Matthews had been under pressure for weeks following a string of controversies, on- and off-air. As the primary season heated up, he made numerous intemperate remarks about Bernie Sanders—comparing him, variously, to George McGovern, an old guy with some socialist literature, and “Castro and the Reds,” and likening his victory in the Nevada caucuses to the Nazi defeat of France. Last Monday, he apologized for the latter comment and said he would “strive to do a better job of elevating the political discussion” going forward—but the next day, he courted criticism again, for a tone-deaf post-debate interview with Elizabeth Warren. On Friday, the journalist Laura Bassett called that interview sexist in an article for GQ; in the same piece, Bassett wrote that, on more than one occasion, Matthews had made inappropriate comments about her own appearance, including asking, prior to an appearance by Bassett on his show, “Why haven’t I fallen in love with you yet?” Also on Friday, Matthews mixed up two Black South Carolina politicians—Tim Scott, a Republican US senator, and Jaime Harrison, a Democratic Senate candidate. On Saturday, he was absent from MSNBC’s coverage of that state’s primary.

The writing, it seems, was on the wall. According to the New York Times, Phil Griffin, MSNBC’s president, who is close to Matthews, held face-to-face talks with him over the weekend, though reports vary as to their upshot. One inside source told CNN’s Brian Stelter that Matthews’s departure was “truly a mutual decision”; another said he’d been told to jump before he was pushed. An MSNBC spokesperson acknowledged that recent events played a role, but noted that Matthews, who is 74, was due to retire soon anyway. Whatever the exact rationale, Matthews’s exit ends a long stretch for his show, which debuted in 1997. In some ways, he’s lucky to have lasted so long. Bassett noted last week that his history of inappropriate remarks is “long, exhausting, and creepy”—and that’s just on air. In 1999, Matthews was reprimanded for off-air comments he made about a female staffer, who received a separation payout. MSNBC acknowledged that incident in 2017, at the height of #MeToo, following a story in the Daily Caller; according to the same piece, Matthews would rank female guests on his show on a numerical scale. In 2016, Matthews said, before an interview with Hillary Clinton, “Where’s that Bill Cosby pill I brought with me?” The list goes on.

In his interview with Warren last week, Matthews pressed her for raising a claim that Michael Bloomberg once told a pregnant employee to “kill it.” Noting that Bloomberg has denied saying this, Matthews asked Warren if she was accusing him of lying. “I believe the woman, which means he’s not telling the truth,” Warren said, of Bloomberg. Matthews responded: “Why would he lie? Just to protect himself?” Warren responded, “Yeah. And why would she lie?” Matthews, temporarily, was lost for words.

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Afterward, Bassett wrote that Matthews, perhaps, “has made so many sexist comments over the years that he has a vested interest in Bloomberg being let off the hook.” The exchange certainly was revealing of other truths about his coverage style. In the eyes of his fans, Matthews—an experienced politico who worked for Jimmy Carter and Tip O’Neill, the former Speaker, and who once seriously considered running for the Senate himself—has been valuable for his inside insights into the nature of power. Kornacki said as much on air yesterday, brandishing a copy of Matthews’s 1988 book, also called Hardball. Its subtitle: “How politics is played—told by one who knows the game.”

In this moment of upheaval, our old ideas of power—who has it, who doesn’t have it, who should have it, and how it is used—are being challenged, from the workplace to the media to the White House. If some of his recent commentary is any guide, Matthews’s understanding of “the game” does not appear to have evolved as much. “Why would he lie? Just to protect himself?” is hardly a hardball. Last night, Matthews at least acknowledged a passing of the reins.

Below, more on Chris Matthews:

  • What’s next?: Matthews said on air last night that he isn’t going away altogether—he plans to continue “talking about politics,” including via another book. MSNBC, for its part, plans to fill his time slot, for now, with a rotating cast of hosts—much as Fox did as it searched for a permanent replacement for Smith. (Incidentally, according to the Daily Beast, MSNBC recently expressed an interest in hiring Smith into a prime-time role once his Fox non-compete expires. One to watch, perhaps, now that there’s a vacancy.)
  • “About time”: Last night, Bassett tweeted, of Matthews’s exit, “All I gotta say is… it’s about time.” Then, she followed up: “No, I have more to say than that. Since calling out Chris Matthews, this week has been really rough. The harassment has been invasive, cruel and personal,” she wrote. “And it’s all worth it if he will never have the platform to demean and objectify us again.”
  • The reaction on the right: Numerous commentators criticized Matthews’s exit. Writing for Reason, a magazine that describes itself as libertarian, Robby Soave argued that “it shows the punitive power of a #MeToo movement that has often failed to draw important distinctions between genuinely disturbing behavior and mere boorishness.” On Twitter, Ann Coulter called Matthews’s departure “utterly embarrassing for the #MeToo movement.” On Fox News, Tucker Carlson said Matthews’s “real sin” was being “old and unfashionable,” then accused other MSNBC personalities of “moral crimes” that didn’t get them fired.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.