A letter to Chris Matthews

Dear Mr. Matthews,
I want to write to you regarding MSNBC’s post debate coverage. I have chosen you because I like you, I often find you entertaining, and I respect your experience for both its breadth and depth.

I am a professor of communications (PhD in Mass Communication) and a scholar with an interest in political media, particularly online media, and the discourse of ordinary citizens in online forums.

I noticed a disturbing theme in the post-debate coverage. I fear it is a theme that has often been prominent in my own discipline. It is a theme my mentor, Robert Ivie, has called “the distempered demos.” This is the attitude that questions the ability of the citizenry to fulfill the role required of them in a democracy. It paints them as uninformed, shallow, emotional, and easily swayed by the superficial. It perpetuates a patronizing attitude towards the public. For example, in the MSNBC analysis of the debate, there were many such references. Although Mr. Romney prevaricated, sandbagged, and revealed that he has no specific policies to offer, several of the MSNBC panelists concluded that some imaginary audience of noobs (to use an Internet term) would respond in a visceral way to Mr. Romney’s “aggressiveness,” ergo, he wins. But after more than a decade watching regular people discuss politics online, I can tell you that we no longer live in the same world that existed in the early days of television, when Nixon was sweaty and Kennedy confident (one example that perpetuates the myth). This was an era of communication research in which the “hypodermic” theory of media effects was still prominent. Since that time we have come to understand media effects and interactions as a complex and highly contextual process. There are visceral reactions, there are cognitive reactions, there are narrative interactions, and longitudinal effects.

I know there is an interest in a close race when your business is attracting viewers for hours of political coverage, but I am writing to suggest that your myth of the distempered demos is increasingly incongruous in the modern world of social media. While the MSNBC hosts were bemoaning the President’s loss, citizens all over the US were making a meme out of Big Bird. Silly? Perhaps, but also evidence that they were paying more attention to the actual policy proposals of Mitt Romney than his aggressiveness. Internet memes are a way to make the truth viral. Big Bird trended from the moment Mr. Romney suggested defunding PBS until this morning around 7:30am EST. It is an example of his philosophy of government. The American people recognize this, and don’t want to imagine American children growing up without Big Bird.

Welcome to the world of online citizen protagonists. If you give them a little credit for being the well-informed, well-intentioned, passionately patriotic people (on the right and the left) that they are, you might find a new spark for your programming.


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18 Responses to A letter to Chris Matthews

  1. Just says:

    My step father was a professor of Mass Communications as well. We had a lot of talks about this before he passed. You are right, and I had to turn the channel last night. Chris should know better.

  2. Kev D. says:

    FANTASTIC. This is perfectly written and sums up everything I was shouting at the TV last night while watching the coverage and this morning when I (stupidly) put Morning Joe on for five seconds.

    Al Sharpton and Chris Hayes were the only two making any real sense last night. Well, actually Maddow was fine too, but she didn’t weigh in as much.

    Wonderful letter. You should actually send it to him.

  3. TSLander says:

    Very well said and thank you. After the debate I was appalled by the tone and overreaction on MSNBC. Chris Matthews and Ed Schultz in particular were quite harsh on Barack Obama’s debate showing and I just didn’t get it. What I saw (and I watched the debate a second time with my youngest daughter) was a well disciplined, intelligent, cohesive, and salient debate performance by the President, albeit a bit reserved. Mr. Matthews and the rest of the MSNBC panel were looking for blood, and they didn’t get it. But to berate Mr. Obama because he didn’t shove Democratic talking points in Mitt Romney’s face is frankly a disservice to the Democratic cause, a cause this network proclaims to support. To ignore Mr. Romney’s aggressive and overbearing tactics during the debate, as well as his wobbly policy shifts in lieu of criticizing the President was shortsighted and counter-productive. I feel like MSNBC, the last bastion of liberal television, is losing it’s compass.

  4. Gay Rife says:

    I hope Chris Matthews responds to this wonderful letter. I thought he was more in touch with the ordinary American citizens, than the responses last night indicated. I would suggest to Mr. Matthews that he invite Dr. Castillo to be one of MSNBCs analysts as she shows more connection with the ordinary citizens than all the talking heads.

  5. jonolan says:

    Actually, they weren’t far wrong in bemoaning Obama’s pathetic performance in the debates. Even those fools and Leftists who like Obama’s policy ideas realize that his performance may well be indicative of his failure in getting most of the made into reality.

    No, we’re not shallow and uninformed. We are, however, interested in results. I don’t think most Americans really care about what someone wants to do, only what it is reasonable to believe that they can do.

  6. dawn says:

    Thank you for that wonderful and thoughtful letter to Chris Matthews. I am a Canadian who pay a $5 monthly rate to my cable provider for the privilege of watching #MSNBC particularly Rachel, TheRevAl, Chris, Ed and Lawrence. I am still stunned hours later at the behaviors Rachel, Chris and Ed so in protest i chose not to watched any program on the the network today and maybe for a couple of days. President Obama believe in the American people to make up their minds on the facts as they sees it and trust them to know the truths for themselves. Its always been about policies for the future of the country for the President and speaking to the American people like adults its not about beating up on Mitt Romney when he is telling his lies the people can decide for themselves.

  7. Kerry Reid says:

    What I keep saying today is that what especially galls me is that before the debate, Matthews kept hammering away that what Romney had to do was get specific with his economic plans and show his warm, human side. Then he did NEITHER of those things and yet is STILL declared “the winner” by Matthews.

    • sdvdsn says:

      You are exactly right. I heard all of them say that Obama should be presidential and not lose his cool. How do you honestly debate someone like Romney who is so full of contradictions on his own policies. He’s going to have to find a way to do this in the next debates. What bothered me the most about Chris and Ed’s analysis was that they accused the President of not caring about the middle class and not wanting to win. MSNBC was way off base except for Rev. Al, Chris Hayes, and Lawrence O’Donnell.

  8. ladeyday says:

    Just when I was beginning to think that Chris Matthews “got it”, his response (continuing into today) shows that he does not. His reaction was over the top, and to refuse to say that Romney was “lying” (when he clearly was), makes me question his motives. Is there a great need to continue the “mystery” of the election outcome in order to keep viewers? If anyone has paid attention to President Obama in the past, they would wait before jumping on the downer bandwagon. This is the same man who poked fun at Donald Trump while awaiting the outcome of the OBL mission.

  9. Perfectly said! As I listened and watched the debate last night, now and then saluting impolitely the television, I thought to myself, ‘where is the remote’. I needed to know this important location so I could turn the stupid box off as soon as the families joined the candidates on the stage, I knew this to be true as the spin would begin and I didn’t want to hear it.

    Of course, the truth is some Americans are not smart enough or discerning enough to tell the difference or connect the dots. Some simply shout ‘we win you lose’ and that is the end of the story. But they went in with that idea and came out with same.

    I am glad you sent this, I hope you get a response.

  10. Hatchetman says:

    The networks have poohed the President since his election,careful to hold viewers until pivotal opportunity’s.Your actions are treasonous and you have demonstrated your disdain for the citizens who supported you for years,you have lost our confidence,for life!

  11. Joy says:

    I so appreciate this letter and all the comments supporting this concept. I was reserved after the debate in thought and in frustration over Willard’s lies and the lack of a real moderator but when I began to listen to my usual MSNBC pundits, I was mortified and furious. They have an obligation to challenge the lies of Willard just like they expected President Obama to. They have an obligation as journalists to bring the truth to the American people. The last time the so called professional Left criticized our already massively criticized President, we had the midterm elections that ushered in major extreme tea party officials in our state governments and the Congress and our President has had nothing but hell to deal with every since. President Obama came to the debate not to attack but to expose the fact that Willard has no real plans that will help the middle class or create jobs, but he has lots of lies. The President expects the American people to be smart enough to know that Willard’s math does not add up and that they know what he’s said all year both publicly and privately so some of this should be common sense. I also think he was frustrated with the process and that Romney was allowed to continue at this rate of out and out lying in a Presidential debate. The President can’t afford to practice debating all day and campaigning while running the country and world issues. Romney has been practicing for several years to look and sound Presidential while lying through his teeth. Obama has integrity and I trust him. Who can really trust Willard Mitt Romney? Where’s President Obama’s support? I believe it was Ed and Chris of MSNBC that prevented a lot of Dems from voting in the 2010 midterms or influenced the Independents. Be careful Chris, Rachel, and ED. You influence many in this voting process too. Thanks to Rev Al for keeping the perspective in spite of the propaganda.
    Great letter!

    • Yes, I too was shocked that anyone could pronounce Romney the winner, when he did nothing that anyone said he “had to do” in the debate, such as present specifics of his policies. He did the opposite. And his demeanor was rude and unnerving, although I realize that those who agree with him most likely did not perceive it that way.

      Thanks very much for your comment.

  12. Jill gordy says:

    Well stated. Thank you.

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  14. Elli says:

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  15. Schappy says:

    I was irked with Matthews’ approach as well, but not for the reason you mentioned. I don’t think it’s wrong to think the average American voter is uneducated and easily manipulated. I’m not sure how you can claim otherwise.

    Here’s the problem: I don’t care how Matthews feels. I don’t care if he’s angry with the president, I don’t care if somebody gave him a wedgie, and I don’t care if he starts foaming at the mouth. I also don’t think Barack Obama would learn anything from watching MSNBC, despite the fact that (apparently) all individuals representing MSNBC are superheroes (fighting for truth, justice, and the American way blah, blah, blah).

    What I do care about is the fact that Matthews took a relatively bad situation and plugged it into a 220 volt socket. Not only did he shoot himself in the foot, but he shot me in the foot and everybody else out there who would prefer Mr. I Can’t Get My Story Straight 1%er NOT become the president of the United States of America.

    Honestly, couldn’t he have left that task to Fox N&%#?

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