Following last year's publication of Godless: The Church of Liberalism, Chris Matthews invited Ann Coulter onto Hardball. Hosted outdoors on a stage ringed predominantly by a rabidly fawning crowd, her appearance ate up most of the hour (trumping all other news for coverage time, including the Israeli-Hezbollah war then raging in Lebanon, which received some minutes in the show's opening). Though Coulter spewed her predictable factually challenged, racist, homophobic, xenophobic, anti-democratic, slanderous, extremist and generally inhumane and inhuman views, Matthews was happy to oblige. So happy, in fact, that with the paperback version of her book scheduled for release this week, he welcomed back this charming humanitarian - dedicating the full hour to her - for an even longer slog through the cesspool of her mind.
Matthews’ shortcomings as a television journalist aside (and they’ve certainly been well documented over the years by media watchdogs), he portrays himself, and MSNBC promotes him, as one of the foremost observers of our national political landscape. So why would MSNBC and, more specifically, Matthews himself agree to keep bringing back Coulter to promote her vile books?
The usual answer is: hello…ratings. But if Matthews’ reputation is further tarnished with each of these visits, and if MSNBC does, in the end, wind up angering and losing viewers who as a result of Coulter’s appearances threaten or vow to permanently tune out Hardball and in some cases all MSNBC programming (as evidenced in comments on Hardball’s Hardblogger as well as across national online news sites and the blogosphere), then is it really worth it?
Or is something else behind these freak show appearances? (An hour-long engagement with Ann Coulter, who, if forced to stick to the facts, wouldn't have enough to say to make it to the first commercial break for stomach distress?)
Well, the night before Ann Coulter’s most recent visit, Chris Matthews promoted and justified her scheduled appearance with these words: “Say what you will, she sells books.”
On its face, the comment is clearly intellectually dishonest, though nothing you wouldn't expect from Matthews on the topic. Yes, Coulter sells books, yet not without the considerable boost in sales that appearances on Hardball and other mainstream news programs afford her. All too obvious as well is Coulter’s strategy and goal: manufacture controversy in order to sell more books, and say anything, anything, to do it. Everyone's a target for stirring this contrived outrage: a mother mourning her child from an early tragic death, wives mourning their husbands from 9/11, baseless and homophobic musings about public figures' sexual preferences, calls to target innocent civilians the world-over, encouragements to bomb the United Nations and the New York Times building, cheap shots at "chubby Jewish girls." Whatever leaps from the mind of this "brilliant writer," whatever our mainstream media regurgitates and latches onto.
But there is something else happening here, something that finally reveals why Matthews keeps going to the mat for Coulter. And that something is a direct conflict of interest that MSNBC - and especially Chris Matthews - should not only be ashamed of, but held to account for not informing viewers.
Ann Coulter’s Godless is published by Crown Forum, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, which is part of Random House. Who is Chris Matthews’ publisher for his upcoming book Life’s a Campaign: What Politics Has Taught Me About Friendship, Rivalry, Reputation, and Success? You guessed it - Random House.
But wait, there’s more.
Coulter showed up on Hardball this past Tuesday to promote the new paperback edition of Godless, which just happened to be released on the same day of her appearance. (Matthews also fails to point this out to his viewers.) And while this hour-long Coulterfest was nothing more than a deftly marketed, nationally televised promo book party posing as news, it only begins to touch on the disturbing synergy between the two. A little more digging reveals that Coulter's forthcoming book If Democrats Had Any Brains, They’d Be Republicans: Ann Coulter at Her Best, Funniest, and Most Outrageous, published by the same Random House company, is scheduled for an October 2, 2007 release. And the release date for Matthews’ Random House publication Life’s a Campaign (his first, incidentally, with Random House)? Whaddya know: October 2, 2007.
How sweet. How cozy. Matthews and Coulter’s next books, published by the same parent company, Random House, are scheduled to hit the shelves simultaneously this fall.
Who knew their fortunes were so directly linked? Essentially, with zero degrees of separation.
Now does Matthews receive compensation from Random House, or subsidiary Crown Publishing Group, or possibly even directly from Coulter herself, for helping to hock her poisonous invectives, for drumming up exposure this time around she could only dream of? (Think of it: Elizabeth Edwards calling in and John Edwards stopping by the next day turned Coulter’s one-hour appearance into, so far, at least a three-day highly visible national story. Quite a godsend for the Godless author.) Only those aforementioned parties involved, and possibly MSNBC, know the answer to that question. But whatever the arrangement, given the context that Matthews is supposed to be doing a news program, coupled with his failure to divulge this conflict of interest to his viewers, the publishing connection alone confirms journalistic malpractice.
The only question is, how deep does it go? Are there monetary incentives beyond the obvious? Stipulated clauses in book contracts, or unspoken agreements, that preclude Matthews from eviscerating Coulter’s transparent falsehoods and lame evasions? Guarantees of hour-long revivals replete with worshipping minions? Marketing buzzwords to repeat, as if from a script, over and over and over again?
We don’t know. Yet.
But now that we aware of this serious conflict of interest, it should be incumbent upon MSNBC and especially Matthews, if he cares one whit about his reputation and credibility, to come forward, fess up to his stake in her appearances and apologize for not being upfront with this viewers.
Once I discovered this conflict of interest and then reviewed comments Matthews has made during and regarding Coulter’s appearances over the last two years, I was reminded of David Chase's remark after his Sopranos series finale frustrated so many fans: “It’s all right there.” Matthews’ unusually soft touch with such a venomous defiler of truth - a woman who lies about another woman’s dead son just to sell a few more books - all makes sense.
I gathered these comments together in chronological order, highlighting Matthews' most egregious moments of fawning and salesmanship. You might even notice a slight arc in this story. By the end, after reaching new lows as Coulter's pitchman, Matthews seems somewhat conflicted, though obedient to the media machine of which he’s a part. Maybe he’s concerned this charade with Coulter might damage his career, especially if their ties are revealed. Or maybe he’s just tired of holding Ann’s water.
Whatever the case, enjoy the show (all emphasis in bold is mine):
When Matthews promoted Coulter’s July 27, 2006 Hardball appearance on Alison Stewart’s former MSNBC news program The Most, he more than clued us in on how he would conduct the interview. Stewart appears surprised at Matthews’ comments and seems to give him a chance to correct himself. But, no, he meant what he said. It’s Coulter’s show:
MATTHEWS: Well, we’ve got Ann Coulter. What can you say? She’s near the top of the best-seller list. Her book’s been selling like mad. She’s a helluva writer. I stayed up late last night with her reading the book. And it’s, uh, it’s going to be an interesting conversation. I have no idea what to expect. It’ll all be in her control.
ALISON STEWART: Well, I find that hard to believe the way you do your show, Chris.
MATTHEWS: Well, that’s the way it’ll be. Because I’m going to be a gentleman. See what she says.
Moments from Coulter’s July 27, 2006 Hardball visit (look at the big brain on Ann!):
MATTHEWS: That’s why she’s a best-seller. You are a controversial lady, you write beautifully. You have a brilliant brain.
ANN COULTER, AUTHOR, “GODLESS”: Thank you.
MATTHEWS: I stayed up last night reading your chapter on Willie Horton, which was absolutely stunning it its satire. It reminded me of the young George Will [you can hear Will choking on his martini olive].
COULTER: Thank you.
MATTHEWS: OK, I‘m just trying to figure out your—look, you’re brilliant.
Especially telling is their following exchange:
MATTHEWS: Your book is beautifully written, but you choose ethnic language.
COULTER: -- then it becomes relevant, doesn’t it, whether or not their husbands [referring to the “9/11 wives”] were going to divorce them. That shows how absurd it is to make yourself an expert or use someone as an expert because her husband died.
MATTHEWS: But the book is written so well, and then you get to these points, it’s like you said, now I’ll put it in. If I put the shiv in now, this book will really make noise and people like me will complain about it and you’ll sell another 100,000 copies.
COULTER: Right, because I need help selling books and I need more money now.
MATTHEWS: It’s not the money. It’s success.
COULTER: Look—I mean, that is the most—of all the complaints about this book—
MATTHEWS: I never said money, I said success. It sells books.
COULTER: That is still the most absurd complaint made against me. Liberals have spent eight years trying to prevent me from being published, even writing a best seller, I couldn’t get my second book published. No one in New York would publish it. Newspapers won‘t carry my column. I promise you, you want to have success in America, don‘t be a conservative.
MATTHEWS: You’re doing very well. By the way, your books are doing very well. And we’ve had you on every time you’ve had a book. And I think we’ve always gotten along, so let’s not ruin it. Okay? Let’s move on.
COULTER: No, you never had me on for “High Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Or “How to Talk to a Liberal.”
MATTHEWS: A failure in our booking. But I definitely remember “Treason”—that was a remarkable evening. I enjoyed it.
MATTHEWS: Well, thanks, Ann. You're great.
MATTHEWS: You have a book that’s going to do fabulously—it’s already doing fabulously—and it will do more because of it being on this program.
MATTHEWS: I’m going to come back and talk about more with this brilliant writer. A brilliant writer—we’ll be back with Ann Coulter.
Matthews' wrap-up almost defines his infuriating approach as a journalist:
MATTHEWS: Thanks for coming on. And a smart lady. Her book’s called "Godless." Sometimes being smart isn't enough for a civil discourse. We'd love to have her back.
Coulter & Matthews, take two. If anything, in Ann's appearance this past Tuesday, Chris amplified his role as stand-in publicist. Coulter is upgraded to “author and agent provocateur,” her writing “Emersonian” (I’m glad Ralph is dead, this would kill him) and likened to “Fitzgerald” (yes, as in F. Scott “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past" Fitzgerald). In this round, Matthews performs ever more serious stretches of the imagination to promote his publishing mate. Then, quite curiously, he sounds a tinge guilty by the end. He knows what he’s doing is wrong, and you can see him struggle, ever so slightly, to justify his actions. Ultimately, however, it’s all about moving units and collecting the clams, and journalism be damned:
MATTHEWS: Good evening. I’m Chris Matthews. Welcome to HARDBALL. Tonight, from our HARDBALL plaza, just steps away from the U.S. Capitol, we have a hot summer show for you with special guest agent provocateur Ann Coulter, author, as I said, of the new book—or actually, the paperback version of “Godless: The Church of Liberalism.”
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. We’re outside of HARDBALL Plaza with author and agent provocateur Ann Coulter.
The book is called “Godless.”
What’s the rest of it, the long title?
COULTER: “The Church of Liberalism,” out in paperback today.
MATTHEWS: “The Church of”—and it’s out in paperback today. And we are selling books.
MATTHEWS: No, it’s good. It is good to sell books.
MATTHEWS: No. Well, no. I will read the whole chapter. I have the whole chapter, if you would like.
COULTER: And, by the way, this is from the all-new afterward.
MATTHEWS: See, I know. That’s why I wanted to help you with this.
COULTER: Thank you.
MATTHEWS: We will stipulate that you did say Monica was chubby. But I can’t even find that in here. But it is somewhere in here.
No, this is what—“Hillary Clinton was especially testy about my comments about the Jersey girls, which led to another uplifting discovery. In addition to the consensus position that liberals are godless, apparently, we have all agreed that Bill Clinton is a rapist. No one made a peep about that swipe I took at Hillary, proposing that she have a chat with her husband before accusing others of being mean to women, in light of Juanita Broderick’s claim that Bill Clinton raped her. Hillary beat a hasty retreat on her chubby little legs and hid behind Rahm Emanuel for the rest of my book tour.”
So the context frees you up to say what?
COULTER: So beautiful. Could you keep reading?
MATTHEWS: I think it is Emersonian even, or Fitzgerald. Why do you refer to people’s physical characteristics to make a point?
MATTHEWS: Ann Coulter, the name of the book is “Godless.” We have sold a lot of her books tonight. I don’t know if I can go to confession fast enough. We will be right back tomorrow night with more HARDBALL. Thank you.
Matthews speaks the next morning with Joe Scarborough and anchor Chris Jansing on MSNBC Live:
JOE SCARBOROUGH (MSNBC host): The sad thing here is -- I mean, it helps the Edwards campaign but the other side of it is, the sad thing is, the sad part of it is it will also help Ann Coulter sell more books. I mean, Ann Coulter always wins. We saw it with the 9-11 widows, when she went after the 9-11 widows. Everybody went out and bought her book, even though it was just a throwaway line or two about the 9-11 widows.
CHRIS JANSING: Well, then, in a weird --
SCARBOROUGH: This is what feeds Ann Coulter. It makes Ann Coulter happy, it makes her publishers happy, it makes her much, much wealthier.
JANSING: Why are you shaking your head, Chris?
MATTHEWS: Because her paperback just came out the other day, yesterday. I mean, this is very well timed.
JANSING: Are you feeling used, Chris?
MATTHEWS: No, because we invited her on the show.
So not only is Matthews disingenuous for concealing his publishing conflict of interest with Coulter, but during another potential pang of guilt, aided by Jansing, he laughably acts as if he didn’t realize all along that the Godless paperback was released on June 26, the day she appeared on Hardball. Matthews' conduct here echoes that of a pathological liar who attempts to come clean but can’t. It’s just easier to keep the lie going. Why spoil the mutually lucrative desserts of this farce? For the sake of journalism? Fat chance.
That ever shrinking Murrow angel on Matthews’ shoulder is simply no match for the unprincipled pop news huckster into which he's evolved. Later in the show, Chris squares with his conscience, a shaky will to do the right thing that long ago blanched under the bright light of his TV star:
MATTHEWS: No, I think that her book sales are probably brisk. She's selling the paperback right now. You know, I laughed on the way -- at the end of the program last night, I said she'll probably sell a lot of books because of last night, and therefore I have to go immediately to confession. But you know --
JANSING: Good Catholic boy that you are, Christopher.
MATTHEWS: Well, I obviously was kidding, but, you know, we're all in this business, and clearly some authors do very well by being agents of provocation.
It’s all quite sad, really. And I think what disappointments most people about Matthews is that we know he knows better. He may be irresponsible now, but we're aware of his background - that once upon a time sound journalism meant something to him. We know he’s not a hateful, lying, unctuous creep. We know he’s no fascist. In other words, no Bill O’Reilly. No, well, Ann Coulter.
Yet we also can’t reward him for occasionally doing his job or for not being seismically rude and hurtful. In general, as a television journalist, he’s a train wreck and has been for years. One second he’s attacking Hillary Clinton, not because of her record but because she’s too much of a “ball-buster” and he and his boys' club cronies don’t like that in a woman…unless of course that woman is Ann Coulter. In the next second, he’s taking a guest to task for still claiming there were WMD in Iraq…unless of course that guest is Ann Coulter.
But regardless of Coulter’s appearances, this is the method of Matthews’ journalistic madness: like a besotted driver continually veering over the line before tacking back into his lane, night in and night out Matthews spends each broadcast making valid points and asking the right questions one moment, while in the next he fails to pose obvious follow-ups and guides his guests into discussions based on the most insipid, pointless observations. To say the least, it makes for frustrating viewing. Meanwhile, his analytic riffs and off-the-cuff remarks also tend to vacillate between those of an informed Washington insider and someone who sounds like he’s just making everything up as he goes along. Some nights like someone spiked his coffee with cough medicine.
And so it goes in the land of Chris Matthews.
Maybe, just maybe, he could begin to redeem himself by coming clean about his serious conflict of interest in donning kid gloves and shamelessly promoting Ann Coulter’s books on his news program.
No one expects miracles. But that would be a nice start.
How about it, Chris?