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Chris Matthews’s misogyny shaped political journalism for a generation

Let’s not lionize a journalist who demeaned women on air and in office.

Chris Matthews received criticism for his interview with Sen. Elizabeth Warren following the ninth Democratic primary debate where he pressed her on her line of questioning toward Mike Bloomberg and his treatment of women.
Bridget Bennett/AFP via Getty Images

Since Chris Matthews announced his retirement from MSNBC Monday night, his friends and colleagues are praising the now-former Hardball host as a lion of the field of political journalism, as if he were leaving the network for a reason other than on-air sexism.

“Chris Matthews is a giant. He’s a legend; it’s been an honor for me to work with him,” MSNBC journalist Steve Kornacki said on air after Matthews announced he was stepping down.

Morning Joe host Mika Brzezinski agreed:

Other guests and colleagues joined in their support of Matthews, including former Democratic National Committee Chair Donna Brazile, George W. Bush’s communications director and now MSNBC anchor Nicolle Wallace, and MSNBC host Andrea Mitchell.

But this was no ordinary retirement. CNN media writer Brian Stelter confirms that Matthews preempted being fired by departing voluntarily. The proximate cause was a string of recent controversies, including making an on-air comparison between Sen. Bernie Sanders (who is Jewish) and the Nazi advance on Europe, getting into an embarrassing back-and-forth with Sen. Elizabeth Warren over Mike Bloomberg’s history of sexist comments, and then finding himself the subject of a piece in GQ by journalist Laura Bassett, who described how he made creepy, suggestive comments to her in the MSNBC green room — an experience many women on Twitter said they shared.

All these instances are part of a pattern with Matthews, particularly those related to gender. For years, he’s used his daily televised platform to undermine women — sizing up his female guests’ looks and belittling politicians like Hillary Clinton, whom he’s called “witchy,” “anti-male,” and “uppity” over the years.

Matthews is not accused of criminal behavior like other men in his field who’ve been called to task in the Me Too era. But he shares a set of sexist attitudes that have profoundly shaped political journalism and attitudes that are just beginning to be confronted.

Matthews’s supporters are right that he was a giant in political journalism. They are right that he left a mark on how we understand politics. But his departure isn’t a loss. It’s an opportunity to rethink how we should and should not cover politics and power.

Matthews has made misogynistic remarks on TV for many years

The hallmark of Matthews’s on-air behavior over the years was to diminish the credibility of a female guest by commenting on her looks. During his sign-off Monday night, Matthews offered this apology:

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, and for making such comments in the past, I’m sorry.

Matthews’s poor treatment of his female guests is well-known: Media Matters has tracked his conduct for years.

One particularly egregious example comes from 2007. Amid a turbulent moment for the economy, Matthews had on respected financial journalist Erin Burnett of CNBC. Instead of treating her as a serious guest, he toyed with her and demeaned her:

“Could you get a little closer to the camera?” Matthews said to Burnett. “My — what is it?” Burnett asked, seeming to think something was wrong with the equipment. Matthews then said: “Come on in closer. No, come in — come in further — come in closer. Really close.” As Burnett adjusted, he said: “Just kidding! You look great! Anyway, thanks, Erin, it’s great to — look at that look. You’re great.”

He concluded “you’re a knockout.”

In the video Burnett looks a bit annoyed, but she mostly smiles through the ordeal. She’s a professional and there to advance her career, not to make an enemy out of Matthews. But by allowing these types of scenarios to play out again and again, MSNBC was telling TV viewers that this behavior was okay.

There are many, many examples of similar behavior by Matthews. Media Matters has documented him commenting on the looks of many women in public life.

During a post-debate night panel during the 2008 primary, for example, Matthews responded to MSNBC host Joe Scarborough’s point about Clinton’s Iraq War vote problem among the Democratic base by changing the subject.

“The cosmetics tonight are very important,” Matthews said. “First of all, her pearls, Grace Kelly. Dynamite. The pearls were great!”

In the next breath, he moved on to Michelle Obama:

“Whatever you say about [Barack] Obama, his wife looked perfect! Perfect for the occasion. Perfect-looking wife. She had the pearls as well. Another Grace Kelly, well turned out, very dignified, not dignified, attractive, classy.”

He uses the same language with conservative women. Here’s how he spoke to Laura Ingraham, according to Media Matters:

On the September 12, 2007, edition of Hardball, Matthews began an interview with right-wing radio host Laura Ingraham by stating: “You are — I’m not allowed to say this, but I’ll say it — you’re beautiful and you’re smart. And you’ve got a huge radio audience.” When the interview ended, Matthews asked: “Can I sing your praises?” 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.”

Repeating these stereotypes over and over contributed to a culture in political journalism that devalues women, that puts their looks before their smarts or intellectual contributions. And doing it on TV just makes it worse — presenting an image to viewers that goes completely unchecked.

Matthews routinely smeared Hillary Clinton

Matthews also disparaged female candidates and officeholders. On the night Nancy Pelosi led Democrats to a historic victory in the House in 2006, he pointed out that she would have to go head-to-head with George W. Bush on all kinds of policies. “How does she do it without screaming? How does she do it without becoming grating?” he wondered.

Hillary Clinton was a continual target.

He once pinched her cheek after an interview.

In 2006, Matthews attempted to compliment Clinton, saying, “she was giving a campaign barnburner speech, which is harder to give for a woman; it can grate on some men when they listen to it — fingernails on a blackboard, perhaps.”

Before an interview during the 2016 Democratic primary, footage posted by The Cut captures Matthews making a joke about drugging her with a “Bill Cosby pill,” shocking his staff:

Network footage obtained by the Cut shows Matthews, during the interview setup, making a couple of “jokes” about Clinton. He asks, “Can I have some of the queen’s waters? Precious waters?” And then, as he waits for the water, he adds, “Where’s that Bill Cosby pill I brought with me?” Matthews then laughs, delighted with the line, for an extended moment, as the staffers around him react with disbelief, clearly uncomfortable

Clinton’s loss in 2016 was so narrow that it’s difficult to point to any single issue as the reason she lost. But it’s nonetheless true that Clinton had to deal with media figures who were eager to embrace old, sexist tropes that signal to their audiences what leadership doesn’t look like.

In the Me Too era, women have called out serial harassers Leon Wieseltier, the influential culture editor of the New Republic; and Mark Halperin, the former head of ABC Politics and co-author of the best-selling Game Change series. Halperin pioneered a style of politics-as-sports journalism embraced by Matthews and other cable news hosts. These men claimed they were looking down on politics from the stands, objectively assessing the plays of the game.

But we are starting to see the reality of this “objectivity.” Halperin dismissed sexual assault allegations against Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign. Matthews got into a fight last week with Warren over whether to believe a well-supported claim by a former Bloomberg employee that he told her to end her pregnancy. Matthews became indignant with Warren, essentially calling the accuser a liar:

“Do you believe that the former mayor of New York said that to a pregnant employee?” Matthews said to Warren. “You believe he’s that kind of person who did that? You believe he’s lying? You’re confident of your accusation?”

Warren is confident of her accusation. And unlike for so many years when women felt they couldn’t confront Matthews, Warren did. Then something else happened — journalist Laura Bassett said “me too,” publishing a scathing account of Matthews’s green room behavior. Then Bassett’s Twitter replies lit up with more “me too” accounts of Matthews’s conduct.

The dynamic that forced Burnett and others to smile through Matthews’s indignities shifted under his feet this week — a change for the better for political journalism and for our culture as a whole. Perhaps Matthews’s friends who are lauding him as a great American journalist should look to the women who stood up for truth as the real heroes of this story.

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