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28 May 1998

Life in this celebrity press corps: When Chris Matthews speaks, his journalists listen...

Synopsis: When Chris Matthews speaks, his journalist guests listen. At THE HOWLER, we can't figure out why.

Commentary by Chris Matthews, Karen Tumulty
Hardball,CNBC, 5/19/98, 5/20/98, 5/21/98, 5/26/98

China’s space success no major threat
Lisa Hoffman, The Washington Times, 5/26/98


When The Greatest of Greeks arrived in D.C., he had never heard of a professional press corps. And, as soon as he heard the press corps described, he hoped that the corps could be guardians of the public discourse--could serve to challenge the work of sophists like those he had known in his famous first life. (See SOCRATES READS, in progress)

Well, if you’ve had a chance to play some Hardball lately, you know that it just isn’t happenin’. Night after night on the CNBC show, former journalist turned-TV-tabloid-talker Chris Matthews spins out the last-clown-from-the-Volkswagen-bus brand of buffoonery which has helped the show climb the ratings charts. Distorting facts, feigning incomprehension, inviting false witness and spinning out scandal--the tabloid talker proceeds in the manner Socrates knew from the dim distant past.

And guess what? Night after night, as the howlers pile up, compliant journalists from Time and Newsweek sit mutely by on the Matthews guest panels, as if absolutely nothing of note were occurring--acting out a “hear-no-evil” Hardball guest style that has come to define the inventive program.

As an example, let’s take the talker’s endless spins on alleged technology transfer to China--spins he’s presented on the show over the course of the past several weeks.

Was technology transferred to the Chinese in the course of our missile-launching program? The specific questions that have been raised in the standard record seem to include these:

1) It has been alleged that Loral Corporation, in April 1996, provided inappropriate help to the Chinese after a missile explosion. Loral denies that inappropriate technology transfer occurred in this case. No one has argued that this consultation occurred with the government’s OK.

2) It has been argued that President Clinton should not have given Loral a waiver to launch a second missile in China (in 1998) while the Justice Department was still investigating Loral’s conduct in 1996. The argument here is that the waiver would make it harder for Justice to prosecute; it has notbeen argued that Loral has transferred technology in preparation for this second launch.

3) Some have argued that Clinton should not have transferred authority over waivers for launches from the State Department to the Commerce Department in March 1996. But there have been no specific allegations in the standard record of technology transfers that resulted from that decision.

For the record, it doesn’t seem at all clear that massive transfers took place in the Clinton-era launches. It is only in the aftermath of the failed Loral launch that there is an existing charge of technology transfer; and Lisa Hoffman, reporting in the Washington Times, reports this assessment by “experts on the Chinese military and economy, both within the U.S. government and in outside think tanks” of what happened in that Loral consultation:

HOFFMAN: While these experts said any improper technological tip off should be cause for concern, they also said it is unlikely that China might have learned much that would pose an imminent or even long-term major threat to U.S. national security...For instance, John Pike, director of space policy for the Federation of American Scientists, told a Senate committee last week that China would have picked up information of only marginal military benefit at best.

And that, remember, would have been from the aftermath of the first Loral launch, where Loral broke with established policy by consulting the Chinese--not from the missile launches in general.

Marginal technology transfer in the one case at worst; no specific allegation of transfer in the rest of the program? Doesn’t sound like things are all thatawful. But the notion that things aren’t all that awful is a notion one rarely hears voiced on Hardball;and it’s hardly the picture that Hardball viewers received in the course of the past week. And, as a tabloid talker rattled on with comic distortions of the factual record, major journalists sat mutely by, without offering correction or comment.

Let’s look at the picture Matthews painted about technology transfer to China.

Tuesday, May 19: In his second reference to a “state-of-the-art” technology transfer of the evening, Matthews posed the following question to former Labor secretary Robert Reich:

MATTHEWS: ...Moving state-of-the-art weapons technology overseas to people who might be a problem. What do you make of that--hearing that the President of the United States granted a waiver after being told not to engage in this transfer of technology by Warren Christopher, one of the most responsible members of your cabinet in those days?

Our review:Matthews seems to be saying that Clinton chose to allow the transfer of state-of-the-art weapons technology to China; and he seems to be saying that he granted a waiver for this weapons transfer after being told not to do so by Warren Christopher. For the record, Warren Christopher opposed transfer of authority over missile launches from State to Commerce; but no missile-launch waiver is ever granted without approval from Defense and State. Meanwhile, there is no allegation in the standard record that President Clinton ever signed a waiver to “move state-of-the-art weapons technology overseas to people who might be a problem.” Hardball viewers, however, get to think that he did. Howler extraordinaire.

Wednesday, May 20:After speaking about money that was allegedly moving from China into Democratic coffers, Matthews made the following statement about “what we now know:”

MATTHEWS: ...Now you know that, at this end, there was a decision made to give a waiver on technology at a very tricky, critical level of technology, state of the art, it could be used in warfare, in delivery of nuclear weapons, etc., could be used to unsettle the balance of the nuclear arms race in South Asia, in terms of India, all kinds of implications...

Our review:Viewers are being given the clear impression that a decision was made to transfer “a critical level of technology” to the Chinese. But there is no allegation on the standard record that any such technology transfer was ever given a waiver, or even occurred. The Clinton administration denies that any technology is transferred in the satellite launches.

Thursday, May 21:By now, Hardball viewers are being told that technology is simply being sold:

MATTHEWS: And now we know, of course, that Bernard Schwartz, one of, in fact the largest contributor to the Democratic Party soft money, was in fact successful in getting a waiver to allow him to sell technology, his Loral Corporation, his technology, high technology, to the Beijing government.

Our review:Obviously enough, there is no allegation on the record that Bernard Schwartz sought or received a waiver that allowed him to sellhis technology. Loral pays the Chinese to launch their missiles; but the procedures are designed to assure that no technology is transferred in the process--let alone “sold.”

And, after a refreshing and enlightening weekend of study:

Tuesday, May 26:Matthews continued painting a picture of President Clinton simply giving dangerous technology to the Chinese. He talked about “let(ting) them in to get this incredible technology to help them launch ICBM missiles in this direction,” and then asked this question of Democratic consultant Peter Fenn:

MATTHEWS: Peter--we haven’t heard this point of view, Peter, on this program. Your argument about why the president is giving this technology to the Beijing government--how does that stop its transfer, subsequent transfer, to Iran, to Pakistan, in a way that would ratchet up the escalation in South Asia?

Again--the existing allegation is that Loral, without permission, may have given inappropriate help at one timeto the Chinese. There is no allegation on the standard record that President Clinton is “giving” or “selling” technology to the Chinese. But viewers of Hardball,over and over again, have been hearing a very different story. And all the while, panel members representing major news magazines sit mutely by, understanding the basic rule of Hardball--you don’t correct representations, however counterfactual, that are made by the show’s het-up host.

As an example of the role played by news magazine reps, let’s go back to the May 21 show, and review the entire exchange that occurred between Matthews and Time’s Karen Tumulty:

MATTHEWS: And now we know of course that Bernard Schwartz, one of, in fact the largest contributor to the Democratic Party soft money, was in fact successful in getting a waiver to allow him to sell technology, his Loral Corporation, his technology, high technology, to the Beijing government to help them guide their missiles. In fact when they had a problem with it, one of the missile crashes, he even sent some paper over there to figure out how not to crash their missiles. So he’s not only giving them satellites to put on their warheads, or put at the top of their missiles, he’s helping to get their missiles into the air! This is an amazing bit of work, given that this all required a waiver and the waiver was given by the man who benefited most from all this money coming from Beijing and other sources, President Bill Clinton. It certainly has a lot of pieces to it, Karen. Can you put them together?

Maybe with some Crazy-Glue. Matthews here completely misstates various aspects of the China missile story. First, Matthews implies that Loral, in shipping its satellite to be launched, was “selling technology” to China “to help them guide their missiles.” There is no allegation on the standard record that any such transaction was involved in the original launch; and there is certainly no allegation that Loral got a waiver to do any such thing. Sheer invention.Next, he implies that when Loral helped China after the launch, this was done with a waiver from President Clinton. No one has ever asserted this is the case; Loral, of course, is being investigated because it acted withoutgovernment knowledge. The facts here are stood on their head.The closing implication--that this conduct was related to contributions from China--is the sheerest kind of speculation. There is no evidence on the record that Clinton ever knew he was receiving money from China--and the Johnny Chung contributions to which Matthews refers came two years after the 1996 launch to which the overheated host here alludes.

One would think a journalist would be all too eager to straighten out Matthews’ various howlers. But here’s the answer reporter Tumulty gave:

TUMULTY: Well, it does have a lot of pieces. And I don’t know that anyone is ever truly going to be able to put them all together. Certainly Chris Cox, who is the head of the new special committee in the House, and who I talked to today, said, “We’re not going to get to the bottom of this.” However, the appearances are all bad...

But, one of the reasons why we aren’t going to get to the bottom of this is because front-line journalists give answers like this when confronted with counterfactual expositions like Matthews’. (And of course, the fact that journalists won’t correct such flagrant howlers helps explain why “the appearances are all bad.”) Did Socrates ever think that a press corps like this could serve as guardians of the public discourse? Whatever thoughts of that kind he may have had--well, they were put to rout when he’d turn on TV, and see Hardballplayed in this manner.

Tomorrow and Monday: Barone undone! Be there to share in the fun when two different panelists correct factual howlers on Hardball!