Two turbo TV talkers recently made news with on-air comments that seemed to broadcast genuine, unscripted emotions; comments which then set off all kinds of arguments about policy and the press. One featured a brief, disparaging remark tossed out by MSNBC's Chris Matthews and aimed at a prominent Republican, while the other consisted of a nearly five-minute anti-Obama rant, by CNBC's Rick Santelli.
But the reaction to the outbursts told us a lot more about the state of the press than the actual comments themselves.
The Matthews incident, critics claimed, offered a glimpse into the soul of the Beltway press. It came when he muttered "Oh God" contemptuously under his breath -- but into a live mic -- just as Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal appeared on television Tuesday night, February 24, to rebut President Obama's prime-time speech. (See the clip of the incident here.) In terms of journalism, that kind of thing is a major no-no and only adds to an air of unprofessionalism that all news outlets ought to avoid.
Matthews later explained the "Oh God" comment by suggesting he was struck by the "peculiar stagecraft" that went into Jindal's address and by the way he seemed to be trying to emulate a White House address to the nation.
In truth, if Matthews had made that observation in complete sentences on-air at MSNBC at the time nobody would have said boo, because it would have been a legitimate, albeit trivial, point to make. And of course, the real irony was that if Matthews had uttered "Oh God" after Jindal spoke, nobody would have cared, since almost everyone, on both sides of the political aisle, thought Jindal's address had been a failure. Matthews' "Oh God" actually captured the nearly universal reaction to Jindal's rhetorical misadventure.
But Chris Matthews did what he did, and as a practice I don't defend him, so I'm not going to endorse him in this instance either. No way, no how. And if people want to chastise him for being unprofessional in his role as quasi-news anchor that night, and if MSNBC needs to take some lumps for his embarrassing miscue, then so be it.
But that doesn't mean we should take seriously the idea shopped around by conservatives that Matthews' split-second misjudgment somehow drew back the curtain on the Beltway press corps and revealed its latent liberal bias, or that because Matthews sort of whispered "Oh God" under his breath, viewers heard what Matthews really thought. (As if Matthews actually has a filter that keeps him from saying out loud, and on the air, every thought he has in his head.)
Still, those accusations came pouring in with predictable swiftness. The "Oh God" moment represented a "naked display of bias," whined Media Research Center senior news analyst Geoffrey Dickens. "More media bias," complained the far-right site Scared Monkeys. "The fact that these people cannot provide just what would be considered common decency is amazing. This is a news network, or at least it is supposed to be."
An "embarrassment," claimed Hot Air.
But here's my point: If Matthews was an embarrassment, then what do you call CNBC's Rick Santelli? He's the B-list reporter -- and avowed John McCain supporter who last September announced the U.S. economy was "healthy" -- who, on February 19, responded to Obama's plan to rescue bad mortgages by broadcasting from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. He delivered a caustic, disrespectful harangue ("President Obama, are you listening?") about the unfairness of Americans having to bailout "loser" homeowners, in which Santelli suggested Obama's bailout plan would lead the country toward communism. All the while, nearby Chicago traders in the background cheered Santelli on.
Against the backdrop of that performance, the idea that the Matthews live-mic moment should be pounced on as an "aha" moment for the unprofessional press corps is absurd. Not when Rick Santelli, a reporter for CNBC, went on live TV and uncorked an anti-Obama rant and then paraded around on right-wing radio shows for days while concocting stories about being targeted by the White House. Despite crossing all normal bounds of journalism, Santelli was celebrated in the press as a populist. (Y'know, the Drexel Burnham Lambert kind.) And CNBC seemed to do everything it could to market and hype the rant. (Imagine if MSNBC replayed Matthews' "Oh God" clip incessantly, bragging about how Matthews had "touched a nerve" with Americans.)
In terms of revealing deep truths about the corporate media, I'd suggest Santelli's off-kilter tirade, followed by his puffed-up prancing around, and the press corps that cheered him on, told us a helluva lot more abut the press than did Matthews' split-second "Oh God" utterance.
Indeed, why did the press dub Matthews' remark a "blooper," yet Santellli's rant was crowned a "populist" "shot heard around the world?" How was it that Matthews' split-second lapse of judgment supposedly provided us with all kinds of insight into the mindset of the Beltway media (i.e. they're liberal), yet Santelli's right-wing, anti-Obama, anti-working class rant did not? Matthews made a regrettable on-air mistake, but Santelli spoke the unvarnished truth of the masses? Please.
And make no mistake, it was the corporate press that rushed in to crown Santelli the populist king. His hometown newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, reported that the CNBC rant "had given voice to many unhappy with where the bailout seems headed." But as blogger Will Bunch noted, the Tribune article didn't quote anybody, aside from Beltway pundits, to back up that claim.
Like the Tribune, NPR's Mara Liasson didn't need any actual proof to know that Santelli had tapped into a "populist backlash." The New York Times dutifully announced that Santelli's self-described rant had ignited a "populist backlash" and "sparked a new debate about assisting homeowners in danger of foreclosure." The Los Angeles Times stressed how Santelli "unleashed a spontaneous explosion of anger." Yeah, among traders. But a "spontaneous explosion of anger" among everyday Americans? No way.
Just because Santelli may have touched a nerve with a small pocket of six-figured media elites (not to mention the right-wing kooks), that didn't mean the CNBC talker spoke for most voters. Wasn't that obvious when he claimed mid-rant that the all-white, all-male traders who surrounded him on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange represented a "cross-section of America?" Or when he turned to face the trading floor, extended his arms to the six-figure salary employees and announced, "This is America!"
Rather than cringe at the advertised disconnect (only at CNBC do traders represent the "silent majority"), the press claimed Santelli spoke for the masses. That we were suddenly a "nation of Santellis," as Politico suggested. And in what may have been one of the most embarrassing news judgment calls in years, NBC's Nightly News led with the Santelli outburst, treating it as, y'know, news. (Of course, the judgment call was even creepier considering how the Nightly News shamelessly flacked for its sister channel.)
Here's how the Nightly News framed the report:
BRIAN WILLIAMS: The debate over using billions in taxpayer dollars to help homeowners in trouble spilled out onto live television today. CNBC's Trish Regan is here with us tonight for more on this. Trish, good evening.
REGAN: Good evening, Brian. It certainly did spill out onto live TV. We heard loud and clear from CNBC's Rick Santelli, who expressed something millions of Americans paying their mortgages on time may now feel. ... The day started with the populist shot heard 'round the world.
Look how Regan did her best to claim Santelli spoke for the masses with the breathless "shot heard around the world" language, as if the CNBC talker's rant doubled as some sort of clarion call for justice. Give Regan credit, though; at least she slipped in the qualifier "may" to describe how people felt, since Regan on that night had absolutely no idea what "millions of Americans" thought about the just-announced mortgage bailout plan.
That was Thursday, February 19. Three days later, while appearing on Meet the Press, Regan's CNBC colleague Becky Quick had no idea how Americans felt, and all the qualifiers were gone. Santelli had touched a nerve with Americans -- period. End of discussion, as the NBC News family went all in promoting Santelli's ignorant outburst. On Sunday, Meet the Press host David Gregory announced, "Mr. Santelli's criticism is shared by a lot of people," although he cited no proof to back up his claim. And Quick suggested that "the reason this probably picked up steam is he touched on something, touched a nerve that lots and lots of people around the country are feeling."
Did Santelli's anti-mortgage-bailout critique touch a nerve among Beltway elite insiders? It sure did. Did it touch a nerve "around the country?" There's no evidence of that. But there is polling data that suggests the exact opposite.
Critiquing the press last week, blogger Glenn Greenwald noted that, "No matter how compelling the evidence is that the country has turned decisively against Republicans and Republicanism, the establishment media will just invent storylines out of whole cloth to claim that they are widely popular."
Greenwald's use of the word "invent" was no exaggeration, because that very day, February 24, MSNBC's Norah O'Donnell, plugging the Santelli story, claimed on-air that a New York Times poll substantiated the CNBC talker's claim about simmering American anger over the White House's proposed mortgage assistance effort.
They [the Times] also pointed out that people were very skeptical about the home foreclosure plan that the president just put forth, that people are concerned that it's not fair, I mean, sort of like this rant people said was on CNBC the other day the other day, the idea that its not fair that it's benefitting some people and not other people.
In fact, the MSNBC anchor got it exactly backward: the Times poll found that a solid majority, 61 percent, favored the White House's plan to stem home foreclosures. Subsequent polls showed even stronger support for the initiative that Santelli railed against and was cheered on by the press. An ABC/Washington Post poll indicated 64 percent of Americans supported the plan. And that percentage shot up even higher, to 76 percent, following Obama's prime-time address to the country last week.
Santelli, quite literally, was completely out of touch with voters -- yet the corporate press held him up as a spokesman for mainstream America.
Now tell me again how it was Matthews' two-word "Oh God" utterance, and not Santelli's ignorant rant, that revealed uncomfortable truths about today's media mindset.