The end of Chris Matthews
Why TV news always eats its own
When the end comes in TV news, it often comes quickly and without grace.
Monday night's on-air retirement of MSNBC's Chris Matthews was shocking — a clearly stunned Steve Kornacki was left to fill airtime after Matthews walked off the set — but not very surprising: He had come under fire several times in recent weeks for his commentary on the Democratic presidential primary, and GQ over the weekend ran a first-person article accusing Matthews of sexual harassment. The end was clearly nigh for Matthews. We just didn't know how nigh.
"Compliments on a woman's appearance that some men, including me, might've once incorrectly thought were OK were never OK," Matthews pronounced. A few minutes later, he was gone.
The end of Matthews' two-decade run at MSNBC will no doubt be remembered for the spectacle — more on that later — but it was reminiscent of a number of high-profile flameouts in the TV news industry in recent years. Dan Rather was dumped at CBS after a shoddy reporting job on a story about President George W. Bush's Vietnam-era service. Bill O'Reilly was forced out by Fox News in the wake of sexual harassment accusations, and the same happened for NBC's Matt Lauer. Brian Williams lost his post as NBC's chief anchor after telling tall tales about his reporting adventures, while Megyn Kelly lost her perch at the network for defending blackface costumes on-air.
What did all of them have in common? They were stars for their respective networks — until they weren't. But they weren't stars because they were particularly talented at uncovering or explaining the news. They were stars because — as TV news often demands — they put on a great show. They weren't just journalists; they were personalities.
Rather reportedly tied himself to a tree during a hurricane before such gimmicks became standard — then entertained on election nights with corn pone aphorisms and an offbeat personality that inspired an REM song. Williams hosted Saturday Night Live. O'Reilly was a talented blowhard. Lauer was a smiling face while we ate our Cheerios. Kelly had a penchant for getting in the middle of the story.
And Matthews? He certainly had a good background that could help him clarify the world of politics and governance for his audience — he had worked for President Jimmy Carter and House Speaker Tip O'Neill, and as late as 2008 there was talk of him running for Senate — but that's not why his show, Hardball, drew attention in the late 1990s.
"When Matthews' program was first shown in 1994, on the short-lived America's Talking channel, it was called In-Depth, a name that already sounds quaint," The New York Times reported in a 1998 profile of Matthews.
Instead of depth, Matthews offered his audience a show — political news as entertainment, American Gladiator, but with suits and ties and a sense of its own importance. "The gladiatorial combat that gives Hardball its faintly sadistic appeal is not, interestingly, between the guests but between the host and his guests," the Times observed. "Matthews is a gleeful warrior, by turns mocking, witty, high-minded, and bullying. Even if he doesn't know more than his guests, he can generally out-argue them; and when he can't do that, he can just talk them into the ground."
That approach wasn't necessarily enlightening or informative — two things you hope that a so-called "news" program will offer — but it was entertaining, and good for ratings. When his show moved from CNBC to MSNBC, the Times lamented that Matthews was replacing a show hosted by John Hockenberry, "an experienced, Emmy-award-winning journalist with obvious intelligence." The implicit contrast was clear. (Hockenberry, incidentally, was forced out of his subsequent public radio job in 2017 after sexual harassment allegations emerged against him.)
Sexual harassment was the nominal reason for Matthews' departure. NBC, which has faced questions about its internal handling of similar cases, as well as its coverage of the Harvey Weinstein case, will no doubt face a fresh round of questions about its culpability in this matter. But Matthews was vulnerable, too, because his shtick had curdled and grown sour after 20 years.
No doubt, MSNBC viewers will soon be given a fresh face to shout at them nightly. In the meantime, Americans looking to learn more about politics should do themselves a favor and turn off the TV.
"My biggest piece of media advice would be for people to stop watching cable news," Oliver Willis, a progressive journalist, wrote on Monday before Matthews announced his retirement. "A lot of you on here do it a LOT and it isn't good for you. As someone who has watched it 'professionally' for years, I can tell you it doesn't inform or illuminate."
He added: "I learn more from a quick 15 minute headline scan than I do from 5-6 hours of cable news."
Amen. TV news very often isn't "news" but just one more piece of content competing for your attention in an endless media universe. Matthews was a hell of a competitor. But it really isn't surprising that the end of his run on MSNBC was such a spectacle, a masterpiece of sound and fury. After 20 years, it was clear that spectacle was all Chris Matthews had to offer.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.