Shovin' It

Democrats and hardballing pundits, pleasantly embedded in the economic elite

If Obama represented the pundits' dream politician of color, Al Sharpton was their nightmare. In Boston, he transcended, however fleetingly, his reliably unreliable Al Sharpton-ness to give a beautiful, galvanizing speech that, for once, couldn't have been written by Tom Wolfe. Still, it left the commentators in a froth—why, he even ran over his allotted time. "Al Sharpton just hijacked the convention," sniped CNN's Judy Woodruff, and her normally sensible colleague, Jeff Greenfield, declared that the speech contained the convention's most "incendiary" line (about Bush and the Supreme Court). A revealing word, incendiary. Although Sharpton's speech actually left the delegates dancing, not burning, the CNN pundits smelled in his words the smoke of an impending riot. Roger Ailes, you can now safely retire. Your work in TV news is done.

The worst offender was hardballer Chris Matthews. I'm sorry to say this, for I once spent time with Matthews and liked him enormously; moreover, his MSNBC coverage of the convention was by miles the liveliest. He spent countless hours in a media pigpen outside Fanueil Hall with a panel including NBC's Andrea Mitchell, Newsweek's Howard Fineman, and creepy-crawly Joe Scarborough (who, with a few more millennia of hard work, might just evolve into a mammal). You could tell Matthews really dug being at the convention—gassing on about JFK and LBJ, comparing Teresa Heinz Kerry to Anouk Aimée and Jeanne Moreau, and (sheer ecstasy, this) being able to cut off his more vaunted NBC archrival, Tim Russert, marooned up in a FleetCenter skybox. Take that, Little Russ.

But Matthews despises Sharpton, and after breaking into the reverend's speech to declare that his career was built on a lie, he plunged MSNBC into coverage so flagrantly shallow and one-sided that it prompted The Daily Show to produce the most lacerating piece of media criticism I've seen all year. Jon Stewart showed us Howard Fineman (known as DJ Smuggles in my corner of the 'hood) calling Sharpton's speech an insult to black people—who, of course, loved it. He showed us Brian Williams asking Sharpton to explain "his riff or whatever you did a riff on." For once Stewart's trademark mock outrage melted away like burnt Cling Wrap to reveal the genuine outrage lying beneath. "You were there!" Stewart shrieked at Williams's screen image, then let his audience see the so-called riff—Sharpton declaring that the vote is "sacred" to African Americans because it came soaked in the blood of martyrs. Normally, The Daily Show pretends it's just chronicling the absurdity of our time. Not this time. From beginning to end, the segment was shot through with perfect contempt for the media gatekeepers who felt entitled to hijack a convention.

Matthews, worst offender
photo: Lisa Berg/NBC
Matthews, worst offender

A couple of days before that show aired, Matthews had breezily told, "Jon Stewart is my hero." If Big Chris is half the guy he thinks he is, he should still feel the same way.

John Powers's Sore Winners (And the Rest of Us) in George Bush's America (Doubleday, is now available in bookstores.

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