When MSNBC's Chris Matthews unmasked right-wing radio host Kevin James for mindlessly pushing White House and GOP "appeasement" talking points, Matthews also revealed the journalist he could be.
And that's what is endlessly frustrating about the longtime Hardball host.
First, Matthews deserves credit for his evisceration of James, who appeared on Hardball last Thursday with nothing more than the word "appeasement" in his shallow arsenal. James not only conflated "appeasement" with merely talking to our enemies - as President Bush, John McCain, the GOP and their minions keep doing - but attempted to trot out Bush's absurd and offensive comparison of Barack Obama to Neville Chamberlain while having not the slightest clue as to who Chamberlain was or what he did to appease Hitler. In fact, it was pretty clear James didn't even know what the word appeasement means.
But it says much about what's been lacking in our mainstream media, especially during the George W. Bush years, that James expected to drop by Matthews' show so ill-prepared. Yet James shouldn't bear the full brunt of responsibility here. The truth is, these kind of specious talking points - from this ludicrous claim of appeasement, to impugning one's patriotism over flag pins and other jingoistic nonsense, to equating calls to bring home our troops with "cutting and running" - have been the provenance of our mainstream news programs and televised debates for years now. (To be fair, Matthews acknowledges some of this while talking the next day with Countdown guest host Rachel Maddow.)
Consequently, Matthews - though warranted by James' ham-handed and fatuous talking points and stunning vacuity - did, on some level, ambush his guest. Don't get me wrong: Matthews was right to call him out. My point is that James had good reason to believe Matthews would be more tolerant of his bogus argument. James probably expected the Hardball host to listen to him and, at most, take the position of a relatively painless devil's advocate for a moment before handing it off to another guest, one on the other side of the political fence (in this case Air America Radio president Mark Green) to reply to James' assertions. Then the segment would end, a new issue to bandy about with other guests would begin and all would be forgotten.
Thus, James' belief he'd sail through his appearance didn't stem from ignorance, which he amply displayed while attempting to brand Obama an appeaser. Rather, his expectation, thoroughly justified, was based on the parade of mendacious right-wing shills who've come before Matthews over the last seven years. An endless procession of willfully misleading talking heads and Bush administration officials who used Matthews and MSNBC's airtime - as they have all the other networks and their programs - and who, almost invariably, left wholly unscathed, untouched by the scrutiny of truly probing questions or the kind of unrelenting follow-ups to which Matthews responsibly subjected James.
James had every reason to think he could repeat the words "appeaser" and "appeasement," like an infant content to utter a new phrase over and over again, with little more than a pat on the head by Matthews.
And that's the underlying issue here: shouldn't we be just as troubled, or even more troubled, by James' confidence he'd receive a free pass than by the fact that he was pushing such propaganda? Doesn't the overwhelming attention to this one incident also underscore its uncommon occurrence?
So while Matthews certainly deserves credit for upending such a duplicitous political narrative, it's not enough for him to bask in this all-too-rare instance and then allow a roster of other guests - most notably, bigger fish in the pond than Kevin James - to reappear on his show and push similar false frames without recourse.
Matthews can't have it both ways: he can't claim to be "tough" while only stomping on the occasional lightweight.
When he spoke to Rachel Maddow last Friday about his confrontation with James, he said:
MATTHEWS: The whole mind-set of the last several years, let's put it that way, since 2000, has been to shut up critics. If you don't like a war policy you get branded with a name. You are unpatriotic. You are a cut and runner, you are an appeaser. You can't argue politics in America anymore. You can't question power. Because if you question it, you're going to be drummed out of acceptable society. You are going to be called an appeaser.
These magic words are used for one purpose, to shut you up, so that they can proceed with the policy. And I think that's a real problem. I just was at Washington U. today, Rachel, and I made the point that in a society like ours, arguing over policy, arguing over what our role should be in the world shouldn't be unpatriotic or seen as unpatriotic. And many—most cases should be seen as the essence of patriotism. Giving a damn about our policy, what it ought to be, arguing, standing up and having a real debate. We didn't have that when we went to war in Iraq. Some, it's the media's fault. People were intimidated in challenging this president and his war policy. And I think we're better off with a hot debate, I think.
All true. A little late in the game to mention. But true.
Yet if Matthews is to put his words into action, if he is acknowledging, in part, his role in the insidious anti-democratic discourse of the last seven years, then he needs to hold the heavy hitters as accountable as he held Kevin James: John McCain (who immediately piled on after Bush's "appeasement" remark and has used the "cut and run" smear against Democrats on multiple occasions), Bush administration officials, and the "A-list" of right-wing pundits who happen to be his colleagues (Pat Buchanan, Tucker Carlson), his friends (Peggy Noonan), regular guests (Michael Smerconish), occasional visitors (Bill Bennett) and others who are accustomed to pushing the same type of disinformation without being effectively challenged. (Yes, they might be slightly more graceful propagandists than James. But if the only thing separating them is delivery and tactics, then Matthews should be responsible and skilled enough to also pin them down whenever they're intentionally misleading or - yes, heaven forbid - lying to his audience.)
As a TV journalist, Matthews has always been more a showman than a newsman. Is he growing disenchanted with being seen as merely the former and striving to be accepted as the latter? And is his potential disenchantment inspired by feelings that he was used by the Bush administration to enable its dictatorial agenda? Or was his dressing down of Kevin James, an easy and relatively powerless target, simply a way to raise his journalistic street cred?
It's time for Chris Matthews to play hardball. Every day. And not just against the B team.