DID WELCH MAKE A CALL? We wondered if NBCs coverage was fixed. Watching CNN, Shafer asked the same thing:
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 8, 2004
OVERVIEW: Today, we offer a lengthy report on the NBC/MSNBC coverage of Tuesdays Cheney-Edwards debate. How strange did we find the networks coverage? Simply put, we found ourselves wondering if the coverage had simply been fixed. As youll see, we werent the only ones entertaining such thoughts. At Slate, Jack Shafer had the same reaction as he watched CNNs coverage.
At any rate, we thought NBCs performance deserved recording. MediaMatters was also struck by the networks oddball conduct. For one detailed overview, just click here. Other reviews of the networks odd conduct can be found at the site.
Before we start, though, a note on this mornings newspapers. How utterly foolish can your Pundit Corps be? Read Charles Krauthammer as he pretends that he can explain Osama bin Ladens view of our current election. Well probably offer more tomorrow. And to see the great New York Times as it finally respond to the endless dissembling of Bush-on-the-trail, read Adam Nagourneys welcome report. (Headline: Bush Pushes Limit on the Facts.) Almost surely, well offer more on this piece tomorrow. But before we do, the obvious question: What took this paper so long?
DID WELCH MAKE A CALL: By Wednesday morning—the morning after—Chris Matthews seemed to be taking it back. Maybe we were all wrong about last night because we all thought it was definitely a Cheney night, he said, telling Don Imus about the bender he and his Hardball cohort had gone on (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/7/04). Ive watched Cheney for about twenty-five years now, Matthews said, and I think I got snookered again too by the guy. Of course, Matthews comments to Imus didnt really make sense. Moments earlier, he had described the VP debate in much the same way his gang had done the night before:
MATTHEWS (Wednesday morning, 10/6/04): Well you know, I kept looking at the reaction shots last night, like we did last Thursday, and Edwards, fairly or not, always looked like he had just been smacked. He had this look on his face that he had been smacked, he was hurt, he didnt know what to do—hes almost like crying! It didnt look too good for him last night.According to the crackpot pundit, Edwards looked almost like he was crying. But that was very much the tone his gang had adopted the night before. Heres the way this mixed-up man had opened his 11 PM hour:
MATTHEWS (Tuesday evening, 10/5/04): I am stunned! I wish everybody would show an equal exclamation point after their thoughts here tonight! Dick Cheney was prepared! He was loaded for bear tonight! He was out on a hunting trip looking for squirrel!In Edwards, Cheney found squirrel, Matthews said. Of course, the newspapers—largely run by sane people—werent sharing that view the next morning. So there was Matthews, on with Imus, saying he may have gotten it wrong. Except, of course, when he was saying that Edwards looked like hed been smacked. Like a squirrel.
A reasonable person would question this mans mental balance. But then, all the pundits on Matthews panels had ridiculed Edwards the night before—part of one of the strangest evenings ever turned in by a network. From top to bottom—from Brokaw on down—NBC and MSNBC personnel had seemed to be working from one single script. If you watched their coverage and didnt wonder if the networks performance had simply been fixed, then you will never—never in your life—entertain a conspiracy notion.
By Wednesday morning, Matthews seemed to realize that no one else was playing this evening the way his gang did. So he went on Imus and almost took it back. But where had the lunacy come from?
In real time: On Hardball, the gang-bang started up instantly. The Cheney-Edwards debate ended just after 10:30 Eastern, and Matthews came on the air with his gang. With apologies for the length of our excerpt, here are the opening comments:
MATTHEWS (10/5/04): There it was, the big debate! It ran a bit over, about 10 minutes late, but let's talk about it right now. And I think we can come up with a jury decision rather quickly.Reagans modest attempt to dissent was steam-rolled by Matthews and Scarborough. I think we can come up with a jury decision rather quickly, foreman Matthews originally said. And despite a feeble protest by Reagan, the Hardball gang quickly judged—Cheney had rolled over Edwards. Edwards looked like he was crying. Cheney had hunted him down like a squirrel. Cheney put Edwards in his place. The analogy would be a water pistol against a machine gun, Matthews said. With the exception of Reagan, all other pundits shared this view. Weak-willed Newsweek lacky Jon Meacham quickly joined the pleasing consensus. I think that the vice president did very, very well, he affably said. He turned in a strong and serene performance, compared to Edwards, who I think seemed like Kerry-lite.
There was only one problem with this outlook, of course. Matthews, Mitchell, Scarborough and Meacham spent the next 90 minutes trashing Edwards. But alas—Reagans first statement turned out to be right. I don't think we saw...a pretty clear winner that would be obvious to anybody, he said. And despite the fraternal uproar of Matthews crew, that assessment by Reagan turned out to be right. No other set of network pundits saw the debate as this half-drunk gang did, and polling by ABC and CBS suggested that average voters had come out fairly even when asked to say which man had prevailed. On MSNBC, the abusive imagery and mocking laughter would only build as the evening wore on. But no one else had seen it this way, and, seven hours after he went off the air, Matthews was stupidly sitting with Imus, saying I think I got snookered again and saying that maybe we all were wrong. Of course, Matthews is becoming famous for endless flipping on his assessment of White House debates (links below). Our question: Why does this half-drunk, erratic man still serve as a steward of our discourse?
No, it didnt take long for this jurys decision—and it didnt take long for its foreman to renounce it. But oddball assessment of this debate wasnt restricted to MSNBC. Even as Matthews jury hung Edwards high, Tom Brokaw and Tim Russert were assessing the debate on NBC. Eventually, the pair of Great Men would show up with Matthews and add their less-than-two-cents to the clowning. But the odd review of this debate wasnt confined to the cable channel. There was much more decorum at NBC as Brokaw and Russert assessed the debate. But conduct there was a bit puzzling too. It fed our conspiracy theory.
The state of affairs at NBC: Give him credit. For once in his life, Brokaw didnt come right on the air and instantly trash the Dem candidate (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/1/04). Yes, the NBC anchor would soon describe Edwards as a political novice whod been punched by George Foreman (full quote below). But to his credit, his instant summary played it right down the middle:
BROKAW (10/5/04): Vice President Cheney and Senator John Edwards, the vice-presidential candidates, get only one debate, but they get an extra eight minutes altogether...The vice presidential candidates demonstrated tonight that you could have hand-to-hand combat while seated. These are the sharpest, most cutting personal and policy attacks of the campaign so far. They were commanding and tough adversaries, Dick Cheney saying at one point that he does not believe that John Kerry has the conviction to carry through the fight against terrorism. And he said about the two of them, You couldn't stand up to Howard Dean, how can you stand up to terrorism? And for his part, John Edwards said, A long resume doesn't mean good judgment, and you've not been straight with the American people.True, Brokaw cited two Cheney zingers versus only one for Edwards, but, for him, thats quite fair-and-balanced. And co-host Russert played it straight too—although youll note he instantly cited a statement by Cheney which he knew to be factually bogus:
RUSSERT (10/5/04): Both men played very much to their political base, Tom. John Edwards came out of the gate and said, You're not being straight about Iraq. He wanted this debate to be about Iraq. How did Dick Cheney counter? If you want to win the war on terror, big macro war on terror, you need George Bush.I never met you until tonight. As we have seen, Russert already knew that this statement by Cheney was false (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/7/04). But so what? As well see, Russert would cite this statement all night, never revealing that it was false. Indeed, when he went over to comment on Hardball, Russert got in the half-drunken spirit that prevailed on that air. He offered an heroic account of what Cheney meant by this statement, never revealing that he knew that Cheneys slam had misstated the facts.
Yes, Brokaw and Russert were fair-and-balanced in their opening summaries. But then the microphone went back to Brokaw, and Brokaw began to show tilt:
BROKAW (10/5/04): Sixty-three-year-old Dick Cheney from Wyoming, a veteran in Washington of the Congress, the White House, secretary of defense, now a vice president against a 51-year-old political novice, effectively. Two different styles: Dick Cheney reminded me of George Foreman, kind of a slow gait but a powerful right hand when he unleashed it in a number of areas as he went after the Kerry-Edwards ticket. John Edwards, for his, for his sake, you can see the folksy courtroom style that he had that was so successful for him as he played out against what he says is more of the same of this administration, suggesting to the American people with, It's time for a change.Imagery? Cheney was now an impressive Washington veteran, working against a political novice. And Cheney had been like George Foreman, with a powerful right hand, working against a guy with a folksy style. Compared to the clowning over at Hardball, this was very minor tilt. But as well see, Brokaw would later embellish these images, and theyd be hyped at Hardball—big-time. On MSNBC, Brokaw would make his point abundantly clear: Powerful Foreman had won.
And others would seem to say this on NBC, even in this first half-hour. Were NBC personnel reading from script? The troubling thought first crossed our minds when Brokaw threw to two reporters in the Spin Room. Each reporter would ask one question of a campaign spokesperson. But take a look at what David Gregory said when he question Bush aide Mary Matalin:
GREGORY (10/5/04): Thanks very much, Tom. I am with Mary Matalin. And, Mary, obviously, you're feeling good about the debate. But I want to challenge you on one point about Iraq.Obviously, youre feeling good about the debate? Karl Rove couldnt have typed this prologue better; Gregory seemed to be saying that Cheney had won. But then, thats exactly what Campbell Brown seemed to say, too! Gregory threw it over to Brown, who posed her one question to Kerrys Joe Lockhart:
BROWN (10/5/04): Thank you, David [Gregory]. I'm here with Joe Lockhart, adviser to Senator Kerry. It was a tough performance tonight by the vice president. There were sharp attacks against John Edwards, especially with regard to his Senate record, his absence from the Senate, missing votes. Did you lose some of the momentum that you had gained after the last debate?Brown seemed to be saying that Cheney won too! And then Brokaw threw to his pair of bloggers. How did that fair-and-balanced segment turn out? John Hinderaker, the conservative blogger, said that Cheney clearly won. Then Brokaw threw to the vacuous Ana Marie Cox. And, in between her silly giggles, Cox said that Cheney won too! See THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/6/04.
Was something wrong with NBCs half-hour? That is clearly a matter of judgment. But no one could ever cry liberal bias as this odd half-hour unfolded. Both reporters seemed to suggest that Cheney had won the debate. And both guest bloggers came right out and said so. (As we all know, its a standard Fox trick—match a straight-ahead conservative guest with a simpering liberal like Cox.) Meanwhile, Brokaws descriptions favored Cheney, and Russert was failing to mention the fact that Cheneys Great Line had been a misstatement. No, NBCs half-hour didnt begin to compare to the clowning underway on its sister channel. But are NBC reporters so poorly skilled that they dont know how to ask two questions without twice telling viewers that Cheney had won? Are Brokaws producers really so dense that they matched those two bloggers in good faith? On Fox, youd know what a match like that meant. Is it really so different with Peacocks?
And is Brokaw unable to restrain his opinions? Shortly after 11, the undisciplined man went over to MSNBC. And once he got there, he stated what he previously only implied—Dick Cheney won the debate.
Brokaw and Russert unbound: Over at MSNBC, the great, brilliant anchor could let his hair down. Shortly after 11 oclock, Brokaw and Russert joined the half-drunk Hardball gang. And make no mistake—the frat party really was poppin by now. With dissenter Reagan long since put in his place, heres the way Matthews and Scarborough started the 11 oclock hour:
MATTHEWS (10/5/04): I am stunned. I wish everybody would show an equal exclamation point after their thoughts here tonight. Dick Cheney was prepared. He was loaded for bear tonight. He was out on a hunting trip looking for squirrel.Yes, no doubt about it, Scarborough said. While weak-willed Meacham affably agreed, Edwards was compared to a squirrel and to a little kid. Cheney was hitting home runs.
And then, nirvana! Great Brokaw came on! Want to see a weak-willed man in action? Then read through Brokaws two-sided statement, in which he says that he shouldnt opine—and then immediately does just that, sharing the view of the crew:
MATTHEWS: Let's go right now to some experts. NBC Nightly News anchor, Tom Brokaw, and NBC News Washington bureau chief and moderator of Meet the Press, Tim Russert, join us right now.Its always premature to make a decision, the Great Man said. But so what? As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he made a decision anyway! And yes, he voiced the Great Motto of his disturbed fraternal order. I absolutely agree, he said, as he openly stated the view he had only implied on NBC. Cheney had beaten up Edwards, Brokaw said. And when he threw to his side-kick, Russert, Russert pimped that Great Cheney Statement—the statement he knew was untrue:
RUSSERT (continuing directly): I thought Senator Lindsey Graham, the Republican from South Carolina, had a very interesting point, Tom. He said that last Thursday was not George Bush's best night.Good boy! Cheney was saying he was steady and resolute. And Cheney was saying the people could trust him. And oh yes, one other thing—Cheney was lying in the faces of the people. But Russert knew he mustnt say that. After pimping Cheneys Great Statement all night, he said that to Couric the next morning.
Oh what a night: For ourselves, were not sure weve ever seen an odder performance by a whole network. Lets review what happened when NBC/MSNBC covered the VP Debate.
At NBC, things were surely a trifle strange, though they kept the lid on. Anchor Brokaw implied that Cheney had won, a view he would openly state on MSNBC. Anchor Russert quickly pimped Cheneys Great Statement, forgetting to say that the statement was wrong. Both reporters, asking only one question, clearly implied that Cheney had won. And then they brought on two expert bloggers—one a conservative, one just an idiot. Both bloggers said Cheney won.
No, liberal bias was hard to find as NBC worked its magic,. But over at MSNBC, the drunken frat boys were just running wild. John Edwards? He was a squirrel, a little kid, who George Foreman Cheney had put in his place. When Reagan attempted to voice an alternative view, he was loudly shouted down. The endless group [LAUGHTER] riddles the transcript as this half drunken crew voiced its wisdom. And eight hours later, its unbalanced leader was wringing his hands with Imus. I think I got snookered again, he now said. Why is this man on the air?
No, the newspapers werent sharing their view the next day; the newspapers werent calling John Edwards a squirrel. And there were no empirical data—none at all—that suggested that voters had judged the debate the way this strange group of frat boys had done. For ourselves, as we watched this gangs strange evening, we found ourselves entertaining a thought for the first time. We found ourselves thinking, for the first time, that the explanation for the conduct was obvious. Jack Welch must have jumped on the phone and told these strange people just what they must say. Their Instant Verdict was so odd and so wildly asserted that you couldnt help wonder about that.
Do we think Jack Welch made that phone call? Only a fool would guess about that. But lets say this: If a Martian visitor had watched this exhibit, that would be his first supposition. We all assume that it just cant be true. But try watching the tape as Matthews wildly emotes all night and then, the next day, takes it back.
POSTSCRIPT: Needless to say, Matthews has been flip-flopping wildly since Wednesday morning, revising his stand on Cheney/Edwards with every new TV appearance. For example, read Eric Boehlerts latest at Salon to see the erratic Hardball host as he keeps pimping Cheneys false statement.
Matthews is erratic, unbalanced, unstable. Why is so wildly erratic a man a steward of our precious public discourse?
VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: Matthews has reinvented his take on the Bush-Gore debates too (for example, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/15/02). Why is so erratic—and so dishonest—a man stewarding your public discourse?
SHAFER IMAGINED A PHONE CALL TOO: Did someone tell CNNs pundits what they had to say? As he watched CNNs coverage of Cheney v. Edwards, Slates Jack Shafer asked himself that very same question—the same question we asked about MSNBC! We think that Shafer raises very good points; we strongly suggest that you read his report. Free people dont all reach a uniform judgment when confronted with an event. Of course, uniformity of judgment is the press corps great hallmark; it almost defines this press corps dysfunction. But uniformity of judgment ran rampant Tuesday night. We found ourselves wondering if Welch made a call. As he sat and watched CNN, Shafer asked himself the same thing.