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Charlie Cooke has a good article about the madhouse that is MSNBC. Hardball with Chris Matthews used to a be an interesting show. In earlier incarnations of the show, Matthews was a unapologetic but slightly idiosyncratic liberal host who was not entirely a cheerleader for the liberal side. He had no time for dishonest defenses of Clinton’s activities during the Lewinsky scandal and he liked to keep guests of all ideological inclinations off balance. I remember one time when Matthews caught Democratic strategist Donna Brazile short. Brazile mocked Tom DeLay (then a demon figure among liberals) for having been an exterminator. Matthews told Brazile that being an exterminator was honest work and that in his religion “to work was to pray”. Matthews also noted that DeLay had been a successful exterminator while she was a failed presidential campaign manager.

The problem was that the old Hardball with Chris Matthews was the same problem with the old MSNBC. It had no identity and low ratings. That changed with Keith Olbermann. Olbermann’s combination of liberal anger and smug self-righteousness gave MSBBC an identity as the network for liberal self-congratulation. That didn’t mean news and analysis produced by mostly liberal journalists who were trying, even with all their biases, to tell the story straight (most of the time). The old networks and CNN were already doing that. MSNBC found a business model appealing to that sliver of the left that wanted to spend its evenings being told how today’s conservative was the “worst person in the world”.

In response to this new business model, Matthews became the guy who felt the tingle up his leg when Obama spoke and who recently compared congressional Republicans to South Africa’s last apartheid government (he said he thought the congressional Republicans were worse in case you are wondering). I don’t think this is best understood as an ideological change or some organic brain disorder. The Matthews of today is a character. That character (like a lot of pro wrestling characters) contains elements of the real Chris Matthews. He probably does admire Obama’s oratory and probably does get frustrated with some Republican rhetoric. He has just exaggerated those characteristics to a cartoonish degree and chosen to ignore what he knows about how both sides play procedural hardball and use tough language. This allowed him to fit into the new MSNBC. His Obama worship and his venom directed toward the president’s opponents was giving the viewers what they wanted.

Olbermann was an entertaining performer and he was probably blinkered enough that he believed most of the stuff he said about conservatives. Matthews is a wised-up political operator. He knows better. While Olbermann had better comic timing, more creativity and more genuine off-his-meds rage, it is Matthews that is still on MSNBC. Olbermann was a difficult employee and MSNBC became another place that he left on bad terms, but Olbermann left behind a cable channel made in his image. Matthews is still doing his Olbermann-influenced act (even if it is humorless and the hostility is forced). Matthews knows it is his job to feed his audience’s hate without crossing his corporate bosses - and so Chris Matthews still has a job in the House That Olbermann Built.

More on: Media, Politics

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