Sunday, April 13, 2008

TV: The Big Blather

An announcer intones this week, "The Chris Matthews Show is brought to you by Miracle-Gro. It's time to get outside and grow something. It's gro-time." At last, Matthews' entire career makes sense!

Just as Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke would smoke on the commercial spots, during the broadcast of The Dick Van Dyke Show, to back their corporate sponsor Kent cigarettes, Matthews serves up non-stop manure to back up his corporate fertilizer sponsor.

And some say there's no truth in advertising.

Of course, most fertilizer is used outdoors so you may need to move your TV to the backyard when Matthews is on. On with him this week is The New York Times' Elisabeth Bumiller (reporter) and David Brooks (columnist) as well as The Chicago Tribune's Clarance Page (columnist) and NBC's Kelly O'Donnell (TV product indistinguishable from the network's other O'Donnell, Norah). If that seems like a limited range for a roundtable program, consider the host's limited range and you can argue the whole thing was chasing its tail long before guests were ever selected.

To be a TV pundit, you're never required to be accurate. They're like the folks delivering the weather, no one holds them accountable. They predict the political equivalent of rain and, when it never comes, everyone pretends not to notice. They mainly serve to gas bag in order to increase their own name recognition/brand and to provide cheap programming. Consider the chat & chews the original 'reality' shows -- and about as real as anything else the genre offers.

It's gas bag, gas bag, gas bag over and over and the format never changes. So when some very minor changes are made, The New York Times treats it as though it's revolutionary. That's just how stuck in the mud these shows are (and have been for years). Watching this week's episode, we saw another major change has been made.

Clarence Page was on the program and he's become something of a fixture on the chat & chews but we'd never caught the performance before. We knew he looked like Urkel (Family Matters) and that he has a tendency (which comes off prissy) to pop his eyes to make a point. We really weren't prepared for what we encountered.

A gas bag, to be successful, must summon a commanding presence and make opinions sound like edicts. Never going to happen with Clarence who should stick to the printed word. "My umph"? No, the word wasn't "umph" but who can tell what he's trying to say half the time. It's not a stammer, it's not a stutter and it's certainly not a spoken language that can be easily communicated. Possibly that explains the over-reliance of popping his eyes? (Or maybe he just really did grow up wanting to be Diana Ross back when she led the Supremes?) Of the Olympics, Clarence declared "and -uh -hand uh." What is that? A country we never heard of? (Nod to Samuel L. Jackson's speech in Pulp Fiction.) He also offered up "and-and-and" when, strangely, we thought only one "and" was required. There were so many times when he was offering something other than a spoken language. As a general rule, look at Cokie Roberts, when you want to intone in that 'all knowing' voice, you have to be able to assemble and speak proper sentences.

In the show, no one disputed Lord Matthews. Some did offer a question of a point he raised or expand it in another direction. Not Clarence. He sucked up like crazy -- as though he knew he couldn't afford to offend a host because he really didn't belong in a broadcast medium. If that was the belief Clarence was operating under, let us congratulate him on his wisdom.

Now Chris Matthews, knee deep in Clinton hatred, got so giddy at one point that to describe his voice as "girlish" would be an understatement. He was tossing to David Brooks about a point Brooksy made in one of his columns and Matthews stated, "You wrote a great column" -- his voice was rising on every word and after "column" it probably broke the sound barrier. A dog may be able to decipher what Matthews was saying, but we couldn't.

Most of America doesn't watch The Chris Matthews Show. NBC syndicates it around the country (most stations say "pass) and it's a weekly half-hour of gas baggery. We feel it's important to note that because some may wrongly think we're speaking of Hardball With Chris Matthews (which appears to exist in order to provide Matthews with multiple on air orgasms). During that show, Chris screams and screams some more. In fact, anyone wanting to stand out on that show should probably consider whispering. It would shock not only Chris but whatever audience is left for that show. (David Gregory is being groomed to take over the slot Chris never quite earned. Chris knows that, we're not repeating tales of out of school.) But some familiar only with Hardball might assume that Clarence sputtered so often because it was time for the high melodrama, high screaming Hardball offers. That's not the case. Chris doesn't yell or bark on The Chris Matthews Show. So there was no reason for Clarence to feel put on the spot. No one is put on the spot, it's the most insular yes-man show in existence.

It was meant to provide Chris with a non-confrontational approach that would eventually prepare him for Meet the Press when Tim Russert steps down. But no one's buying it. The ratings are miserable and get worse each year. While Hardball also struggles these days, it's thought that Chris' appeal is strictly as a carny barker: Shouting and shouting some more. We loathe his 'politics' but this isn't about that. It's about a one-trick pony riding his trick to fame and having nothing else to offer. NBC has caught on -- that's why Gregory is now next in line for Russert while Chris has fallen to fifth on the list. (Lester Williams and Andrea Mitchell are among those ahead of Matthews.) Russert has no plans to step down currently but networks always prepare contingency plans for the future. To keep Conan O'Brian, NBC announced a few years ago that Conan would take over The Tonight Show from Jay Leno. As the time for that approaches and Leno's ratings remain solid, some NBC suits are grumbling about that arrangement.

But no one's grumbling about Matthews being pulled from the "on deck" status regarding Russert. As one friend in programming noted, "We didn't damage him, he damaged himself." That's putting it mildly.

On this morning's Today Show (yes, it broadcasts on Sunday -- yes, we know no one watches) amidst taste testing for Lester (a step-up from last weekend's 'revelations' that Lester Williams loves a good crying jag at the movies), Tim Russert appears to do a promo for Meet the Press airing later today. (If the 'tense' is confusing, we heard the promo -- while on the phone with a friend on the Today set -- we didn't see it. It hasn't aired in our area as we write this at 5:00 a.m. PST.) Russert notes that among the topics he and four other gas bags will be addressing is Barack Obama's attack on Small Town America. For those who missed it, that was big news late Friday afternoon and here's what Barack said:

You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. It's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

That is the sort of topic the chat and chews live for. By Friday afternoon, Hillary Clinton had already issued a response to Barack's comments:

I saw in the media it's being reported that my opponent said that the people of Pennsylvania who faced hard times are bitter. Well, that's not my experience. As I travel around Pennsylvania, I meet people who are resilient, who are optimistic, who are positive, who are rolling up their sleeves. They are working hard everyday for a better future, for themselves and their children. Pennsylvanians don't need a president who looks down on them, they need a president who stands up for them, who fights for them, who works hard for your futures, your jobs, your families.

We're going through the above slowly. The Chris Matthews Show is appalling and bad television and we're more than happy to lay the bulk of the blame on Chris himself; however, there are other reasons.

Among them is the fact that this half-hour program which first starts airing on Sunday (and airs throughout the week) is recorded on Friday. Matthews wanted to talk about a gaffe on the campaign trail and he naturally went to Bill Clinton because he's hated the Clintons for years. But equally true is that the non-journalist Matthews doesn't grasp news. He grasps what is making big headlines and, on Hardball, those are the topics he gas bags on. His half-hour program is always behind the times because you can't do a show on 'current events' that starts broadcasting two days after you taped it. You can't offer up the equivalent of headlines when they're two days old by the time they reach a viewing audience. On stations today, The Chris Matthews Show will begin airing and those tuning in will wonder, "What's with Bill Clinton? What about Barack's attack on Small Town America?" Some will wrongly assume that Chris' Clinton hatred blinded him to the topic. That is a mistake because there's nothing Chris likes more than pretending he is part of Small Town America and just a 'working stiff'. Had Matthews known of the gaffe and known it would make big headlines, it would have been included in the program.

The show is dead on arrival. You cannot be timely on Sunday morning (and some stations air it later in the week) with a show you tape on Friday. You cannot rely on what was in Friday's new cycle (Friday's starting news cycle) and expect to pull in a large number of viewers on Sunday. Today, Tim Russert will address Barack's attack on Small Town America. Some NBC stations pair the two programs and viewers catching both, one after the other, will scratch their heads wondering why Chris Matthews didn't address it? Tim's got the big gaffe this week. Chris has nothing.

We don't care for Chris, we're not going to defend him. But part of the reason the show runs off viewers is because it is taped too far in advance for what is a round-table on daily headlines.

The other big problem for the show is its insulated nature. Now all the chat and chews are insulated. You never think for a moment that Noam Chomsky or Gore Vidal's about to stroll on set and take a seat. You have an extremely limited range of views that goes basically from the center to the soft-right. (A few years back, it was the hard right but that ran off viewers. You can't out-Fox Fox.) But The Chris Matthews Show is even more insular than the rest.

In this week's program, he references polls. You may say, "Good. We need to know what the average Americans think." If that was your thought, abandon it. Chris Matthews doesn't care about ordinary Americans and, in his polling, won't even pretend to. The 'polls' Chris cites are "The Matthews Meter" and that's a survey of Page, Brooks, O'Donnell, Gloria Borger, Andrea Mitchell, Norah O'Donnell, Howard Fineman, Andrew Sullivan, the aptly named Katty Kay, Joe Klein, Tucker Carlson and David Gregory. You may have quickly spotted some of the limitations of the polling (for example, women and African Americans are underrepresented while other people of color don't even register). But, if you take a moment to think about it, you quickly grasp that Andrea Mitchell (married to Alan Greenspan) isn't worried about the cost of tomatoes. You quickly grasp that, outside of Tucker, no one's worried about employment or how they will make the next house payment.

You should be grossly offended by "The Matthews Meter" because it's a "poll" of the entitled who already have forums to speak to the American people. If the bulk of broadcast and cable chat and chews offer a very limited scope, consider "The Matthews Meter" and the show itself to be the panic room of the pontificators.

Is there anyone in the world who is challenged by the current 'free thought' offered in the already existing chat & chews? If so, Chris Matthews is happy take the A to D limited range of opinion down to just point A. If two gas bags agreeing that Social Security needs to be dismantled (a popular gas bag topic and, during the 90s, ABC's This Week frequently managed to serve up four and five gas bags a week who would say that Social Security needs to be dismantled) is too much for your mind because it's the same opinion opinion twice, The Chris Matthews Show exists for you. There is no give and take, there is only Chris. Chris asks a question -- to one guest -- and the guest replies and Chris has to speak. At the end of the show, as the credits roll, Clarence, seated right next to Bumiller, leans in to hear what she's saying to him and it's honestly the first time any of the guests spoke to one another. Chris filters every topic for the ultimate in viewer safety. Should someone disagree with him in their reply to him, he will immediately correct them and everyone knows not to say another word on the matter.

By contrast, Washington Week looks like a free for all. On that show, Gwen asks a question and then the panelists start weighing in. Gwen doesn't interject after each comment to offer her own opinion and generally lets each person speak and add to what was already said before changing the topic.

Everything offered was useless. It was as though you were at a cabbie convention (although cabbies are more in touch than this crowd). Bumiller did a little better than the rest but she's a trained and practicing reporter. (That said, some of the remarks came close to skirting the paper's policy on reporters offering opinions. Yes, she was asked, but The New York Times' policy is very clear.) We took notes throughout and, looking over them now, we wonder why we even bothered? Fact checking the statements would require Al Franken's research team and more space than we have here.

We believe it was Chris Matthews, and not the over-the-counter sponsor Hydroxycut, that claimed, "This program, I am proud to say, is tough." But who can really tell? They're both providing corporate messages.

Elisabeth Bumiller told you Obama was "a golden boy." Kelly O'Donnell vouched for Barack's ability to reach out to women on the hilarious grounds that, "He lives with a woman and two daughters." Well if that's the test, Kelly, might we suggest that, considering The Family set-up, Charles Manson must have the women's vote sewn up as well?

To stay on O'Donnell's ludicrous claim, prior to Hillary Clinton's campaign, can anyone think of candidates from the two major parties who has gotten this far in the last 100 years that hasn't had a wife? As 'insight' goes, it's right up there with the GOP's claim that Dan Quayle would help attract women voters because he was 'pretty.'

Clarence sounded smitten as he declared of Barack, "I think he's a charmer." He was so amused by his own nosense that he immediately began chortling. Leave that to the audience, Clarence, they will no doubt provide you with your laugh track. Clarence went on to lament that Barack "has not attacked Hillary more." If you're surprised by that remark, Clarence anticipates you reaction and pops his bug eyes as if to say, "Boo!"

The panel operated under the belief that Barack would get the nomination. That's a prediction not a conclusion. The two campaigns are in a dead heat and, as two who are lobbying super delegates, we'd argue the dead heat among the electorate isn't taking place among the super delegates. Barack's attack on Small Town America only increased the tilt towards Hillary who remains the best one for the rest of the ballot (her voters have voted for other offices -- in primaries thus far, a large number of Bambi's groupies show up, vote for their dream date, and leave the rest of the ticket blank) and she's also the only one who can win the big states. Having put foward their personal desire (Barack) as the sure thing, they then operate under the belief that Hillary will try to destroy him if she doesn't get the nomination. Only Bumiller scoffed at that notion ("Of course, she'll help him. . . . Why would she sit this one out?").

Last week Bill Clinton did not make a gaffe. Our hands are tied in how we can talk about this so bear with us. What Bill Clinton did was planned. And it was effective and he took a hit for the Hillary campaign. That didn't register online but you don't have a lot of in touch people online. Matthews chose to highlight the gaffe. And paired it with a clip of George Burns and Gracie Allen. It was all ha-ha-ha funny -- or he thought it was. But funny was hearing the panel discuss John McCain.

He is making a lot of mistakes, Chris agreed. And he wondered "how does his straight talk reputation" survive that? But Chris quickly added, "Everybody likes John McCain because he makes mistakes." As 'proof,' Chris offered up the Bomb-bomb-bomb Iran 'joke' and the '100-years' in Iraq remark. Kelly O'Donnell rushed in to say that these mistakes are a plus for McCain, because they "dilute" expectations and future mistakes -- "he'll make more mistakes" -- thereby building up "immunity" for him in the future. Chris was so pleased with that remark he felt the need to get in touch with his feminine side on air and offer that women "may like the cut of his chin." Chris, that would be chins and we'd assume, having seen you onscreen and in the flesh, that you'd quickly grasp that fact.

But isn't it cute the way they can 'see' a strategy in McCain's flubs but an actual intended flub by Clinton (the Hillary campaign sent out two strong messages via Bill's intended mistake) is cause for hilarity. We don't know anyone in the McCain campaign but we do know two of his former advisors and we called to ask, "Do you think that McCain intentionally makes mistakes as part of a campaign strategy?" No, they didn't. (One intends to vote for McCain in November, the other is undecided at this point. Both expressed alarm at his repeated mistakes on the campaign trail and wondered if his temper was brought up? Yes, by Bumiller.) That's due to the fact that Chris sees McCain as "strategic" and the Clinton's (both of them) as "carnal." That judgment is the reality of why Chris has offered his hatred of both Clintons, non-stop, for years and years. Word to Chris, glass houses, you know the drill.

David Brooks predicted that Hillary will be the next governor of New York and people are wondering where that's coming from? (Real people, not anyone on the show.) That bit of nonsense is coming from the Obama campaign. They think it will get people on the fence over to their side. "Well, Hillary can be governor! And then she can run for president!" Hillary may or may not decide to pursue being the governor of New York at a later date. For that matter, Bill Clinton might elect to pursue it. Anything's possible. But the rumor is being spread by the Obama campaign -- just as they spent weeks and weeks last month assuring reporters that, any day now!, John Edwards was going to endorse Barack. That never happened. But it did create a press buzz that Bambi was closing the race, sealing the deal. One panelist on Chris' show this week was told that very rumor -- repeatedly. We'd love to see a chat & chew where reporters spilled the beans on all the false hype that the campaigns sell them but we won't hold our breath on that.

Hillary Clinton is running for the Democratic Party's nomination for president. She is not running for the vice-presidency, she is not running for a governorship, she is not running to be the president of M.I.T. That's the reality. But the chat & chews don't exist to provide reality, they exist to manage public opinion. Though Chris fails repeatedly on so many levels, The Chris Matthews Show is a remedial effort: repetitive and redundant week after week.
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