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The Pitfalls of Pundit Boxing

Posted in Politics and Public Affairs

The YouTube clip featuring MSNBC shouter Chris Matthews taking down hapless conservative talk show host Kevin James has been everywhere, most notably promoted by MSNBC itself. As an Obama supporter, and hater of content-free punditry, you’d think I’d get a kick out of that, wouldn’t you?

Actually, no.

The clip represents everything I dislike about political “analysis” done by talking head pundits of whatever stripe.

In the clip, Matthews, trying out for the role of teacher-pundit, asks the clearly over-excited, over-matched James to explain exactly what Neville Chamberlain did in 1938 to appease Adolf Hitler. James can’t answer, but continues to blather senselessly, digging himself deeper and deeper.

What’s the problem? Start with the structure of televised political conversation. A moderator, often projecting himself into the discussion, asks questions of talk show hosts, party hacks, ex-oficeholders who are assigned to act as spokesmodels for “the left” or “the right”. Their very appearances on these shows are based on their prefab associations, not on their personal expertise, or even their own true opinions. The conversation is structured to elicit left versus right arguments.

Fortunately, there is a ready supply of ambitious local talk show hosts looking for a big break, or perhaps enhanced book sales. For the cable shows, these people are perfect, because they understand the speed and pithiness demanded of TV dialog, and are often unburdened by the need to do research, or provide nuanced analysis. They are walking, talking sound-bites.

In the absence of bigger names, or perhaps to mix it up a bit, cable shows book people like James on to run through the right’s talking points. Last week, it was a defense of Bush’s appeasement comments in Israel. “On the left” as they say, was Air America honcho Mark Green, who occupied his little box onscreen, but had very little to do, once Matthews went all pitt bull on James. Standard operating procedure on Hardball would normally be for Matthews to ask leading questions of the two guests, let them argue a little, and maybe throw his lot in with one of them, just for fun. Little information is transmitted to the audience, and guests aren’t often challenged on their facts, but everyone leaves entertained, secure in their preconceived notions of whether conservatives or liberals are right.

But this time, Matthews pounced on a clearly clueless guest; not for his “ideas”, but for his lack of in-depth knowledge. He did so for two reasons: because he could, and because he apparently feels the sting of recent criticism. James is no great thinker, and his delivery is one loud, shrill note. He ain’t very good as a cable show guest, and he isn’t famous enough to throw a successful tantrum if Matthews picks on him. And then there’s Matthews own recent bad PR; his seeming disdain for Hillary Clinton/tongue kissing of Barack Obama, a demonstrable tendency toward creepy sexism, and a recent New York Times Magazine profile that makes him look far from Murrow-like in his conduct or motivations. Picking on Kevin James, in short, is a win-win for Matthews on the left, because as we ridicule the talk show host’s performance, we elevate Matthews to straight-talking hero status.

I’m not losing any sleep over Matthews using Kevin James as a punching bag, only the state of political discourse it symbolizes. What I do find troubling is the extent to which MSNBC itself has exploited the clip. You can find it featured on the networks Web site, of course, but it was Matthews being feted on Countdown (guest-hosted by my favorite pandit, Rachel Maddow, unfortunately) that really got under my skin. Maddow dutifully introduced a replay of the clip, then talked to Matthews in-studio about it. Come on now! How much self-congratulation are we expected to stomach? OK, Matthews had a good night, and the lesson to be learned from this should be to hold more guests accountable, or to choose better guests in the first place. Perhaps MSNBC could even produce a show where pundit-boxing is not the main event. I nominate Rachel Madow to hos it.

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