On TV News, “Right” Makes Right

Apparently conservatives aren’t the only ones expected to sound like conservatives on TV news—liberals are, too, writes Eric Alterman.

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Former Bush strategist and pollster Matthew Dowd on the floor of the 2004 Republican National Convention. (AP/Charles Dharapak)
Former Bush strategist and pollster Matthew Dowd on the floor of the 2004 Republican National Convention. (AP/Charles Dharapak)

So ABC News apparently thinks it’s appropriate to invite former political advisor to George W. Bush, Matthew Dowd, to guest host ABC’s “This Week” next week. Dowd found himself on the outs with Bush when he joined ABC in 2007, but he has never denounced the political principles that led him to join the most right-wing administration in American history to begin with. Nor insofar as I am aware, has he demonstrated any particular commitment to the principles of journalism. According to The Huffington Post, he remains a corporate consultant for ABC, and an ABC spokesperson says that Dowd can be depended upon to provide “independent and fair analysis on issues confronting the country…He has tremendous ability to speak to and understand all sides of an issue.”

Well, perhaps. I really could not say. But he’s the first person that ABC has asked to host the program who is not a journalist. Recent temporary hosts have included Elizabeth Vargas, Jake Tapper, Terry Moran, Barbara Walters, and Jonathan Karl—not a Bush administration official or a corporate consultant among them. So the question is why Dowd? And what about his potential conflicts of interest with his previous clients among Republican power brokers or his current ones in the corporate world?

We’ve seen this movie before. MSNBC had to drop Richard Wolffe as a substitute host for Keith Olbermann over this issue exactly. Wolffe had a consulting business going, and he touted his role as an MSNBC analyst on the firm’s website. (Of course when you’re hosting “This Week,” you don’t need to tout it to clients. It’s known.)

And again, I haven’t seen enough of Dowd’s analyses to make an informed judgment about whether he has dropped a lifetime of political beliefs and can remain neutral—or at least appear to on TV. But it’s been an unfortunate rule of thumb that when right wingers are hired as news analysts, they are hired to propound their beliefs, and when liberals get the nod, they are expected to denude themselves of any previous insight into the way the world works.

Consider as a couple of not-so-random examples two appearances on two networks with two famous hosts by the extremist and occasionally delusional Republican ex-presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani. The man who likes to call himself “America’s mayor” went on ABC’s "Good Morning America" and insisted, “We had no domestic attacks under Bush; we’ve had one under Obama.” Alas, this nutty statement went entirely unchallenged by the show’s host George Stephanopoulos, who happened to be a long-time Democratic aide to various congressmen and to President Clinton.

I was reminded upon hearing Giuliani’s statement of another of his appearances, this one just before Christmas in 2001. He was on NBC’s “Meet the Press” to discuss America’s response to the 9/11 attacks with First Lady Laura Bush and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of the Archdiocese of Washington. Rudy found himself being ask by Tim Russert, a former aide to liberal Governor Mario Cuomo and Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whether George Bush had been given the election in 2000 despite having lost the popular vote by divine intervention. I swear I’m not making this up. There was no mention of the antidemocratic shenanigans of the likes of Katharine Harris and Antonin Scalia and the mobs who interfered with Florida vote counting. Interestingly Mrs. Bush demurred at this crazy question, but Rudy took the bait. “I do think, Mrs. Bush, that there was some divine guidance in the president being elected,” was his expert opinion.

Chris Matthews, who was also an aide to a top Democratic politician Tip O’Neil, has demonstrated a similar tendency to fall in love with right-wing politicians. George W. Bush reminded him of Ernest Hemmingway, he said. Really. Here’s Matthews’s tough-minded critique of Bush’s ability to throw a strike at Yankee Stadium: “There are some things you can’t fake,” he explained breathlessly. “Either you can throw a strike from 60 feet or you can’t. Either you can rise to the occasion on the mound at Yankee Stadium with 56,000 people watching or you can’t. On Tuesday night, George W. Bush hit the strike zone in the House that Ruth Built…This is about knowing what to do at the moment you have to do it—and then doing it. It’s about that ‘grace under pressure.’

Then there was Bush’s now infamous “Mission Accomplished” moment. Matthews loved that one too. “He looks great in a military uniform. He looks great in that cowboy costume he wears when he goes west,” he cooed. “We’re proud of our president. Americans love having a guy as president, a guy who has a little swagger, who’s physical, who’s not a complicated guy like Clinton…women like a guy who’s president.”

And don’t think that this was just a one (or two) night stand with a single conservative pretty boy. Matthews found himself love struck over and over. He found himself among those who pondering, “like the cut of John McCain’s jib, his independence, his maverick reputation.” Of Mitt Romney, he observed, “He’s got a great chin, I’ve noticed.” And don’t get him started on Rudy. The guy, insisted Matthews, is a “perfect candidate”—the one who “looks like a president,” who “acts and talks like a president,” who “rises to the occasion” and is “the one tough cop who was standing on the beat when we got hit last time and stood up and took it.” And top it all off, Matthews said, he got “that pee smell out of that subway.”

OK, just one more example: Remember that nutty speech Sarah Palin gave in Alaska last summer when she said she was quitting the job she had been elected to do because, well, it had become inconvenient, what with all her other opportunities on Fox and such? Most people’s response to this strange sight was either laughter or bafflement. But if you happened to be watching “Morning Joe”—as I was in an airport that morning—what you saw was the former conservative Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough, now host of the show, and his sidekick Mika Brzezinski, explaining that old Bush line about who and what was a “real American.” Brzezinski said people attended Palin rallies during the campaign because “they agree with her.” Brzezinski added, “Look at the polls out there. Look at where people stand on life. Look what real Americans think…In the cities where there are a little more liberal elite populations, you’re not going to find what’s representative of America.”

In fact, if you look at the polls today Sarah Palin is one unpopular lady, both with real Americans, and the apparent fake kind. But remember also that Brzezinksi is supposed to be the liberal counterweight to Scarborough—who is actually a quite credible potential Republican presidential candidate in 2112—on a network that is treated in the media as a liberal counterweight to the crazies at Fox, where Palin is now employed. And yet even here, we have ex-Republican politicians promoting other ex-Republican politicians and insulting the patriotism of everyone who dares to disagree. So the rule is apparently that when liberals go on TV they are expected to sound like conservatives, and when conservatives go on TV they are expected to sound like conservatives.

This problem is actually increasing in importance because, as a recent New York Times article noted, more and more politicians are playing the role of media analysts for networks eager to blur the line between commentary and propaganda. Brian Stelter noted that in addition to Scarborough—who appeared on a podium with George W. Bush in 2004 while working for MSNBC, and the far-right presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan, who also works for the allegedly over-the-top liberal MSNBC—“Fox News employs Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich, and MSNBC until recently employed Harold Ford. A former Fox analyst, Angela McGlowan, recently entered a House race in Mississippi.” CNBC’s Larry Kudlow might run for Senate. And Lou Dobbs is thinking of running for president.

“It’s a little awkward,” admitted David Bohrman, the Washington bureau chief for CNN to the Times. These networks “probably ought to realize that they’re being taken advantage of a little bit.” Another network official, this one demanding anonymity added, “Some like to joke that every time Fox puts them on TV, they are making a de facto in-kind contribution to their future campaigns.” Yeah well, in the meantime, someone might want to take note of the fact that with just a few exceptions, all of those contributions are going to only one party.

Anyway, best of luck, Matthew. I’m sure you’ll feel right at home.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His most recent book is, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals. His “Altercation” blog appears sporadically here and he is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.

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