In TV Land, You're Better Off Red

Could this man take Zell Miller in a duel? Chris Matthews of 'Hardball'
NBC Media Village

The days when TV news played kissy-face with the Eastern cultural elite are finis. The marching orders came down just after November 3, 2004. The message: The news media--and in particular, the "chattering classes"--are out of touch with the Real America. Therefore: Down with Tina Brown, up with Larry the Cable Guy! Now is the time to reconnect with real, honest cornpone, which means puppy-love profiles of Jesus, gun racks, Skoal cans, Toby Keith ballads, the appropriately pendulumlike swing of Jessica Simpson's assets. The red states no longer get merely a disproportionate share of our tax money; now, they get to own the news, too.

A few months ago, Time magazine sent its own secret wink to the red states with its Ann Coulter cover story, where we discovered that, rather than a quasi-racist demagogue, she is, in fact, a barrel of laughs (and cute, too!). CNN devised a similar secret handshake with a pair of covertly Jesus-lovin' documentaries, The Two Marys, in which Alien-quartet matriarch Sigourney Weaver sized up the Madonna/whore dichotomy; and CNN Presents: The Mystery of Jesus, in which Our Lord's handsome puss was respectfully scrutinized by that father figure to Luke Skywalker, Batman, and the Schindlerjuden, Liam Neeson. Both docs are calculated to speak to the audience in code: Imagine CNN doing a special on so patently...well...nonsecular a subject even 10 years ago! The content of The Two Marys is mostly a rehash of The Da Vinci Code, but The Mystery of Jesus suggests a disturbing gambit to outfox Fox. It crams two red-state biggies--The Passion of the Christ and CSI--into one unsavory package.

It's no shock that NBC's Brian Williams is being sold, the New York Times tells us, as one who "boasts of owning both an air rifle and part interest in a dirt-track stock-car team"--how else could he escape the Mount Rushmore-like shadow of Brokaw, Jennings, and Rather? But the dernier cri in red state-ification came for me with the inevitable fall of one of my all-time favorite curmudgeons: Chris Matthews had endeared himself to me for life by reciting quotes from Carnal Knowledge on Real Time with Bill Maher, eyes a-twinkle with the freedom to be hipper than he is on MSNBC. It was also tickling when Matthews, without so much as a raised eyebrow, with merely the specter of his past performances looming, drove Zell Miller into meltdown mode at last summer's Republican convention. Though he's more mom-and-apple-pie than I'd like, Matthews is a skeptic and a wiseacre, a (sometimes) dogged deliverer of follow-up questions.

Or so I thought--until I witnessed Matthews's disgraceful display on Hardball at the Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee. A friend of mine, a diehard Matthews fan, chimed in before this show aired that he hoped the Hardballer would use the setting as an opportunity to inspect religion in America. No such luck. Combine an audience of military wives with a pro-war pastor, remove all critical scrutiny, and you have a jingoist's Fourth of July parade that would give even Bill O'Reilly a sugar headache. After asking Pastor Jerry Sutton if his parishioners would support the war in Iraq as heartily if it had been started by "a guy like Clinton and Madeleine Albright from back East," the man of the cloth squirmed and said he supposed he'd sign on...for the soldiers' sake. Various locals approached Matthews's mic to salute godliness and staying the course. Then--how'd this happen?--one big, fat screw-up: "My name is Kathy Austin and I'm with the National Organization of Women. And I just want to say that there is a segment of patriotic Nashvilleans...who agree with the majority that the president was wrong about the war, that the president is wrong about trying to take away women's reproductive freedom, and that the president is wrong about trying to dismantle Social Security."

The audience response? Lusty boos. But worse, Matthews doesn't address either the woman's brief speech or the boos. Instead, he shifts over to "Becky," whose husband is stationed in Iraq. She mouths some platitudes about yellow ribbons and Matthews wraps it up with these stirring words: "Thank you. Thank you for your service. Thank you for your husband."

It is to gag! Would Chris Matthews have cued up "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" on a show dedicated to men and women putting their lives at risk in Somalia, Darfur, or Kosovo? Certainly not. Those conflicts, too small, too short, had no country-music twang. They didn't "resonate," as they say in the trade.

Where will it end? Now that Bush's poll numbers are in a seemingly endless free fall, the zeitgeist may U-turn into Blue State Retro Chic. The Eastern cultural elite may get a "Where've ya been?" to match the one that greeted Rumsfeld's Ford-era hacks after 9/11. Yesterday's sneer at "Albright from back East" may turn into a one-hour Sigourney Weaver documentary on the legendary style of Jackie O. Chris Matthews may share a plate of escargots with Gore Vidal. And disgruntled, exiled blue-staters may find their symbolic phoenix rising from the ashes as one of their own re-ascends to prime-time glory: that icon from back East, an Apprentice-seeking Martha Stewart.

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