On Tuesday, Jan. 20, the day after Governor Howard Dean went from Presidential candidate to W.W.F. contender, MSNBC’s Hardball host Chris Matthews was still reeling at the candidate’s morphing under pressure-pressure that included Mr. Matthews hammering Dr. Dean after his defeat to Senator John Kerry.
“I think there’s something getting to him right now,” Mr. Matthews said. “His heat shield isn’t up. Imagine what Clinton went through: He had the ability to take it. But Dean-this is the business he’s chosen. And he has to say, ‘I have to take it.’
“Churchill once said, ‘I like a man who grins when he fights,’” he continued. “And you have to be able to do that in a give-and-take. When you’re playing cowboys and Indians as kids, you have to be able to say, ‘You got me.’ I was surprised he said the media was tough on him. I love his tenacity and toughness-it’s refreshing. But people don’t seem to like it, for some reason.”
If bulge-eyed bluntness didn’t get Dr. Dean Iowa, it did give Mr. Matthews some wonderful television. And if his performance on caucus night-with the slice-and-dice on-air chemistry of NBC’s Campbell Brown, Newsweek ‘s Howard Fineman, MSNBC righty Joe Scarborough, not to mention the sci-fi duo of Pat Buchanan and Pat Caddell-was a harbinger of the political coverage to come in this year’s Presidential campaign, then Mr. Matthews has the political penal colony to beat this election year.
His competitors couldn’t quite match him: Fox News lacked its trademark crazed energy, of all things, with Brit Hume loping along to Bill Kristol and Susan Estrich and whoever else he could lay his hands on, but without the weird chemistry that makes political junkies feel fed. CNN seemed utterly beaten, not juiced, by the unwieldy chaos of the event. On Larry King Live , former Senator Bob Dole couldn’t figure out if he was guest or co-host. Neither could Mr. King, who let him lob criticisms at Gen. Wesley Clark on the air. And somehow, Wolf Blitzer, who hosted the earlier news coverage, suddenly became Mr. King’s guest.
Actually, Mr. Matthews is a little like Dr. Dean-he stomps downfield to the goal post, elegance be damned. But Mr. Matthews has learned when to ease up and let it happen. After Dr. Dean wrapped up his imitation of an exploding oil refinery, Mr. Matthews-finally having found someone who could beat him at conflagration-had the coolest moment of his cable career: “How many people think that was an effective presentation to the American people?” he asked.
There were snorts and chortles from the panel, then Joe Scarborough stepped up: “That was perhaps the worst speech I’ve ever heard since Dan Quayle accepted the Vice Presidency,” he replied.
“He makes me look like Jim Lehrer!” Mr. Matthews said. “You know what the problem is? If there were any horses in that room, they’d be kicking up right now and scared to death.”
It’s been a long time since there was straightforward guffawing at a candidate’s expense on cable-except whenever Hillary Clinton comes up on Fox News.
“The only thing I want you to do on the show is listen to the other people on the panel and react to what they say,” Mr. Matthews said Tuesday. “Say whatever you want, but listen to what they have to say. You can’t be a solipsist. And there are people in the pundit business who are solipsists. Even when it’s brilliant, it’s not great television.”
On Monday night, Mr. Matthews hammered Dr. Dean for failing to get his family-namely his wife, Dr. Judy Dean-involved in the race, and on bringing in old-school Democrats like Jimmy Carter to rubber-stamp his candidacy. And after Dr. Dean danced around the second question, Mr. Matthews didn’t let up: “But why? ” he said. “I mean, it looks like you might bring in Fritz Mondale next the way you’ve been going here. Why are you bringing in these old yesterday men into a modern, state-of-the-art campaign?”
You could hear the gasps of Mr. Matthews’ panel in the background. They were in paradise.
Later, Mr. Matthews brought on Gen. Wesley Clark’s campaign aide, Chris Lehane-late of the Kerry campaign-who demanded that Mr. Kerry release his tax records after the Senator criticized the general’s business background. Mr. Matthews, bulky and feline, made Mr. Lehane dance like a cartoon mouse.
Matthews : Were you fired by Senator Kerry?
Lehane : I left voluntarily, on my own.
Matthews : He didn’t fire you-you’re sure of that?
Lehane : Although I appreciate the question.
Matthews : I just want to know, were you fired? You’re sure you weren’t fired? You weren’t told to leave?
Finally, after much dodging and weaving, Mr. Matthews wrapped him up: “O.K., I guess your answer is that you weren’t fired by him. You want him to release information you never asked him to release when you were working for him, is that factual?”
Yow! Wasn’t there someone else the Clark campaign could have sent to MSNBC? Anyhow, this campaign carnivore swallowed the evening whole. “People want numbers, so I just keeping telling myself, ‘Bring out the numbers,’” he said. “But at the same time, you have to give them that value added-give ‘em some tchotchkes to take home with them.”
Then he said: “I love election nights.”
On Tuesday, Mr. Matthews is allowed to broadcast from New Hampshire. [MSNBC, 43, 7 p.m.]
Thursday, Jan. 22
Tonight, the Fox News Channel holds another Democratic Presidential debate before the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 29. We have a suggestion for a new ground rule: sign language only! [FNC, 46, 8 p.m.]
Friday, Jan. 23
It was only a matter of time: Tonight, VH1 premieres its latest high-concept recycling show, Best Week Ever , which will explore … last week. Remember when The Apprentice was cool? Yeah ….
Somewhere in the Viacom empire, a smartass intern just got promoted. [VH1, 19, 11 p.m.]
Saturday, Jan. 24
When Noah Oppenheim, the onetime executive producer of MSNBC’s Scarborough Country , decided to take some time off from the TV game and reconsider his options late last year, the avowed neoconservative also chose to leave his brethren in the media business a little love letter before he went.
In a column for The Weekly Standard on Dec. 15, Mr. Oppenheim-whose last assignment was a freelance field report on Iraq for Chris Matthews’ Hardball -charged that TV correspondents in Baghdad assembled the daily news from wire reports and rarely left the protected U.S. compound known as the Green Zone to see what was really happening.
“Most correspondents for newscasts do very little, if any, actual reporting,” he wrote. And when they do stray into the field, he added, “more often than not, they simply need a scenic backdrop in front of which to recite their lines. Even this is optional. I have watched correspondents ‘report’ stories having never actually left the bureau.”
The column listed Mr. Oppenheim as “an executive producer for MSNBC.”
According to MSNBC, however, Mr. Oppenheim was no longer an executive producer when the article was published. The last time he held the title was in early October, according to a company spokesman, Jeremy Gaines. “At the time of the article, he was not working for us,” he said.
MSNBC had good reason to distance itself from the producer: According to multiple sources at both MSNBC and NBC, top news executives like Tom Brokaw and Nightly News executive producer Steve Capus were so incensed by Mr. Oppenheim’s column they let his employers at NBC’s cable sister know of their displeasure. Asked about Mr. Brokaw’s reaction to the article, an executive at MSNBC, who declined to be named, said, “Did [Mr. Brokaw] read the article and say, ‘That was stupid?’ Yeah.”
A spokesperson for Mr. Brokaw declined to comment on the record. But Phil Griffin, the vice president of MSNBC prime-time programming and the man who assigned Mr. Oppenheim to go to Iraq, confirmed that top executives at NBC News were angered by Mr. Oppenheim’s article.
What Mr. Brokaw “was upset about and people at Nightly New s were upset about and what I was upset about is, we’ve been to these hellholes. And those cameramen and reporters-they put their lives on the line every day,” he said. “For anyone to piss all over them pisses you off. It didn’t have anything to do with NBC News; it had to do with the cameramen and reporters who put themselves in the most unbelievable positions.
“It was embarrassing on one level, but it was just wrong on another level,” he added. “It was an insult to people of all media.”
MSNBC said Mr. Oppenheim’s departure had nothing to do with the article or the reaction of NBC News executives. Reached for comment, Mr. Oppenheim said he left of his own accord. And he did not back down from his criticisms. “I stand by the article,” he said, “but just as articles critical of the occupation are not meant to insult the risk that individual soldiers are taking, the intention of my article was not to insult the risks that individual journalists are taking.”
In November, Dorrance Smith, the media adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, told The Observer that he had convinced a number of news operations, including producers for Hardball , to consider “good news” stories of Iraqi reconstruction to balance out the flood of violent incidents in the region. “The net effect of this self-scrutiny,” said Mr. Smith, a former ABC News producer, “is they’ve changed their approach to how they’re doing the story.”‘
In Iraq, where Mr. Oppenheim wrote that he went “in search of the story most of the mainstream media were missing,” he appeared to return with the conclusion that Mr. Smith had hoped for. “The mounting body count is heartbreaking,” he wrote, “but the failure of American journalism is tragic.”
Tonight, NBC Nightly News gives Mr. Oppenheim a chance to reassess. [WNBC, 4, 6:30 p.m.]
Sunday, Jan. 25
Tonight, it’s the 61st Annual Golden Globe Awards on NBC. Is there anything funny about the Golden Globes? [NBC, 4, 8 p.m.]
Monday, Jan. 26
Dennis Miller kicks off his new CNBC talk show tonight, and if he looks a little skittish and wind-blown, it may not be just premiere-night jitters: Mr. Miller’s contract with the cable channel requires that they fly him to work every day in a helicopter.
“Yeah, I live up north, so I told them I couldn’t drive every day,” he said.
Mr. Miller lives in Santa Barbara, which is a 90-mile drive from the NBC studios in Burbank, Calif. While a helicopter-limo is a nice perk, he said, it’s also a little frightening. “I don’t know if I have the balls,” said Mr. Miller. “It’s certainly the stuff of a good Jan-and-Dean-type ending: me, in a chopper every day. I’ll give it a try for a couple days. I might be scared shitless, but I might dig it.”
Until now, Mr. Miller has flown in a helicopter only one other time in his life. “That was one day in Hawaii,” he said, “but I don’t know what it’s going to be like coming in through the flight corridor of LAX.”
Mr. Miller, of course, has had a political about-face in the last few years, morphing into a red-blooded Republican with lots of nice things to say about George W. Bush. But despite Mr. Miller’s personal adventure with flying contraptions, he said he couldn’t sign off on President Bush’s new call for a mission to Mars-precisely because of California’s lack of good public transportation.
“I would stay out of space, but that’s me,” he said. “The odds of making it to Saturn are a little better than making it from L.A. to Fresno on Amtrak.”
Maybe he can convince his first guest, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, to pony up some cash for a Californian version of that little subway he rode in Total Recall -the one with the creepy dummy-and take it to Mars! [CNBC, 15, 9 p.m.]
Tuesday, Jan. 27
Speaking of chimpanzees, Mr. Miller has told the press that his new show will feature a simian sidekick that Mr. Miller has dubbed “Muggsy,” in honor of the legendary 1950′s Today Show personality, J. Fred Muggs. But by press time, Mr. Miller’s spokeswoman told NYTV that the producers had changed their minds: They’re calling the chimp Ellie instead. For one thing, that’s the chimp’s real name. But there’s a better reason:
J. Fred Muggs is still alive!
“He has a little gray, mostly in his beard,” said his owner and caretaker, Gerald Preis, 60, whom NYTV reached at his home in Citrus Park, Fla. “It’s like salt-and-pepper.”
Mr. Muggs is now 52 years old, Mr. Preis explained, and lives in a 2,800-square-foot compound with his lifelong female companion, Phoebe B. Beebe, a 50-year-old chimp. The two lovebirds have their own swimming pool and a walk-in refrigerator.
On Feb. 2, 1953, the diaper-wearing Muggs, then 14 months old, began accompanying host Dave Garroway on the first incarnation of NBC’s Today Show -this was before Matt Lauer, mind you-and he did funny tricks like playing piano with Steve Allen, which pulled in big ratings. Legend has it that Muggs was such a huge boon to the show-Mr. Preis said that in 1979, Advertising Age reported that Muggs made $100 million for NBC during his career-that Mr. Garroway grew jealous and began spiking Muggs’ orange juice with Benzedrine to make him misbehave and deliver his human co-host back to center stage.
“He had to live with the issue that it took a quote-unquote monkey to save his show,” said Mr. Preis. “And that bothered him very much throughout television history. And in a way, I don’t blame him, but Muggs was an animal that saved a TV show that is still in existence today. If it wasn’t for J. Fred Muggs, that show would not be on there.”
As for those nasty, 50-year-old tabloid rumors that Muggs once bit Martha Raye: “That was bullshit-just plain bullshit,” said Mr. Preis, who inherited the care of Muggs from his father, the late Bud Mennella, and Roy Waldron, who is now 80 and can no longer manage the old ape.
Meanwhile, CNBC is steering clear of the “Muggsy” moniker. And that’s good, because Mr. Preis said he had a copyright on the name and would enforce it.
“It’s a she, and they’re going to call her Ellie,” said a CNBC spokeswoman. “Ellie is her name. She’s a very sweet monkey.”
Whatever you do, Ellie: Don’t drink the orange juice! [CNBC, 15, 9 p.m.]