Jan 20, 2010
This past week, grappling with the
twin top stories of Haiti's earthquake tragedy and the Massachusetts
Senate race, MSNBC's Chris Matthews personified the strange mix of
puffed-up self-importance and total lack of self-awareness that has
come to define America's media punditocracy.
During "Hardball" programs of recent days, Matthews has veered from
pontificating about how the killer earthquake in Haiti might finally
cause its people to get "serious" about their politics to explaining
how Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley deserves to lose, in
part, because she called ex-Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling "a
Not only did
Matthews's remarks about Haitian politics reflect a profound ignorance
about that country and its history, but he seemed blissfully clueless
about his own role as a purveyor of political trivia over substance in
his dozen years as a TV talk-show host in the United States, as
demonstrated in his poll-and-gaffe-obsessed coverage of the important
Massachusetts Senate race.
Indeed, Matthews may be the archetype of what's wrong with the U.S.
news media, a devotee of conventional wisdom who splashes in the
shallowest baby pool of American politics while pretending to be the
big boy who's diving into the deep end.
When the United States most needed courageous journalism in 2003,
Matthews hailed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, declaring "we're all neocons
now" and praising the manliness of President George W. Bush's
flight-suited arrival on the USS Abraham Lincoln to celebrate "mission
And today, if
Matthews's interest in political "hardball" were genuine - not just an
excuse to position himself as a relentless front-runner - he might have
used some of the hours devoted to the Haitian crisis to explain how
real "hardball" politics works. He also might have discussed the true
merits and demerits of Coakley and her Republican rival, state Sen.
Scott Brown, not just the atmospherics of their campaigns.
Instead, regarding Haiti, Matthews detected a silver lining in the
catastrophe that may have killed more than 100,000 people. He said the
horrific event might finally cause the people there to cast off their
supposedly frivolous attitude toward politics.
In a stunning display of racial and historical tone-deafness, Matthews
compared Haiti's alleged political fun-and-games with those of
Louisiana in its supposed tolerance of corrupt machine politicians who
left New Orleans vulnerable to the ravages of Hurricane Katrina.
Whether he intended it or not, there was the creepy implication that
descendants of African slaves were at fault for their own suffering in
While not quite
as weird as the remarks by right-wing televangelist Pat Robertson -
blaming the earthquake and other natural disasters that have hit Haiti
on the Haitians supposedly striking a two-century-old deal with the
devil to drive out their French slaveowners - Matthews's commentary may
have been even more troubling since it reflected a more mainstream U.S.
Matthews might have shown a touch of seriousness himself by examining
some of the real history that has put Haitians in their wretched
condition. He might have talked about the ruthless efficiency of the
18th Century French plantation system that literally worked enslaved
Africans to death for the enrichment of the pampered French aristocracy.
Or he might have delved into the hypocrisy of French revolutionaries
(and some of their U.S. sympathizers, like Thomas Jefferson) for
advocating equality for all while rejecting freedom for African slaves;
or Haiti's remarkable slave rebellion that defeated Napoleon's army and
how that victory forced Napoleon to sell the Louisiana territories (ironically to President Jefferson).
Or Matthews might have taken the story through the 19th Century,
describing how the hostility of France and the slave-owning United
States combined to devastate Haiti's hopes for a better future. The
French used military coercion in 1825 to force Haiti to agree to
indemnify France 150 million francs (about $21.7 billion in today's
value) while the United States embargoed Haiti and denied it diplomatic
recognition until the U.S. Civil War in 1862.
Or the "Hardball" host could have described how bloody U.S. military
interventions in the early 20th Century were rationalized to "restore
order" but in reality protected American economic interests. U.S. Gen.
Smedley Butler later wrote of his role in crushing a popular Haitian
uprising as making Haiti "a decent place for the National City Bank
boys to collect revenues in."
Matthews also might have explained how the United States backed the
brutal Duvalier family dictatorships from 1957 to 1986 when Haiti was
considered a frontline state against Washington's Cold War fear that
Fidel Castro's communist revolution in Cuba might spread across the
Or how Haiti's
nascent moves toward democracy through the elections of popular
ex-Catholic priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide were undermined by Republican
distaste for "liberation theology," which called on the Church to
follow Jesus's teaching and align itself with the poor versus the rich,
a position that the Reagan administration viewed as akin to communism.
Aristide's elections were overturned by coups in 1991 (during George
H.W. Bush's presidency) and in 2004 (with George W. Bush in the White
House) while the U.S. government either tacitly or directly sided with the coup plotters.
In 1993, when Democratic President Bill Clinton was seeking to restore
Aristide to office, I was in Haiti working on a PBS "Frontline"
documentary. Part of my job was to spend time with operatives of
right-wing paramilitary groups supporting the dictatorship of Gen.
Some of these
operatives told me about faxes and other messages they were receiving
from Republicans in Washington advising them how to frustrate Clinton's
initiatives for restoring Aristide to power. Those efforts, in fact,
were turned back by a violent confrontation at the Port-au-Prince docks
when the USS Harlan County tried to land, humiliating Clinton and the
Now, that was
real "hardball" politics: Republicans undercutting the foreign policy
of a sitting U.S. President to make him look ineffectual and feckless.
A year later, Clinton saw no choice but to oust Cedras through a U.S.
military invasion. Aristide was restored to the presidency but his
final months in office were tightly restricted with him serving
primarily as a figurehead.
When Aristide was elected again in 2001, he faced renewed hostility
from the Haitian elite and from the second Bush administration, which helped engineer his removal from office in 2004, airlifting him against his will to the Central African Republic.
Yet, Chris Matthews summed up this extraordinary history as a situation
in which the Haitian people just didn't take their politics seriously
Days later, without a blush for any inconsistency, Matthews was
discussing the pivotal Massachusetts Senate race in the most frivolous
terms, dividing his coverage between the latest poll numbers and
commentary over the campaign gaffes of Democratic candidate Martha
Beyond noting the
obvious impact on health-care legislation, Matthews shed little light
on the experience and policy positions of the two candidates. Instead,
watchers of "Hardball" got to hear Coakley's brief confusion over
Schilling's allegiance in the Yankees- Red Sox rivalry and learned that
Scott Brown is a photogenic guy who travels around in a truck.
Matthews dispensed with the serious stuff. He had little interest in
mentioning Coakley's history as an aggressive prosecutor, her central
role in winning settlements from contractors of Boston's infamous Big
Dig project and from Wall Street firms that engaged in deceptive
practices, including $60 million from Goldman Sachs to settle
allegations that it promoted unfair home loans.
Coakley also backs President Barack Obama's decision to try some
terrorism suspects in civilian courts and his proposed tax on financial
institutions to recoup taxpayers' assistance that bailed the banks out
of the crisis of 2008, two of Obama's positions that Brown opposes.
Plus, Coakley has taken some more progressive stances than Obama,
opposing his troop build-up in Afghanistan and seeking to overturn the
federal legal definition of marriage as a union between a man and a
For his part, Brown
favors more Reagan-Bush-style tax cuts, supports the near-drowning
interrogation method called waterboarding, and opposes same-sex
marriage, even voting for a constitutional amendment to define marriage
as only between a man and a woman.
However, Matthews's "Hardball" was more absorbed by the populist
celebrities that have stumped with Brown, including Schilling,
Massachusetts football hero Doug Flutie and actor John Ratzenberger,
who played Cliff Clavin in the TV show about a fictional Boston bar,
As the U.S.
government sinks further into dysfunction - incapable of addressing the
nation's worsening economic and social crises - as it wallows in a debt
deeper than any Third World country could dream of, historians may look
back on some of the empty-headed commentary of programs like "Hardball
with Chris Matthews" for clues as to why the United States failed.
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