Update: On March 3rd, three days after this story was published, Chris Matthews retired from MSNBC on air.
MSNBC host Chris Matthews, whose long history of sexist comments and behavior have somehow not yet gotten him fired, tested the boundaries of his own misogyny again on Wednesday night. After the tenth Democratic presidential debate, the Hardball anchor grilled Elizabeth Warren about one of her lines of attack against Mike Bloomberg during the debate: that a pregnant female employee accused Bloomberg of telling her to “kill it.”
“You believe he’s lying?” Matthews asked Warren of Bloomberg's denial.
“I believe the woman, which means he’s not telling the truth,” said Warren, who recently had to defend her own credible story of pregnancy discrimination.
“And why would he lie?” Matthews said. “Just to protect himself?”
“Yeah, and why would she lie?” Warren responded pointedly.
“I just wanna make sure you’re clear about this,” Matthews said. Right there on America’s purportedly liberal network, the anchor spoke to a 70-year-old United States senator who is running for president—and a renowned Harvard Law professor, no less—like she couldn’t possibly understand her own words, as if she were a child choosing between a snack now or dessert later.
The allegation that Matthews, a veteran journalist, was trying so hard to undermine was actually corroborated by a third party to The Washington Post earlier this month. There was no reason for him to harp on its veracity, except, perhaps, that he himself has made so many sexist comments over the years that he has a vested interest in Bloomberg being let off the hook.
Some of Matthews’s behavior has already been well-documented. Like Bloomberg, who frequently remarked “nice tits” and “I’d do her” at the office, Matthews has a pattern of making comments about women’s appearances in demeaning ways. The number of on-air incidents is long, exhausting, and creepy, including commenting to Erin Burnett, for example, “You’re a knockout...it’s all right getting bad news from you,” while telling her to move closer to the camera. Behind the scenes, one of Matthews’s former producers told The Daily Caller in 2017 that he allegedly rated his female guests on a numerical scale and would name a “hottest of the week,” like a “teenage boy.” In 1999, an assistant producer accused Matthews of sexual harassment, which CNBC, the show's network at the time, investigated. They concluded that the comments were "inappropriate," and Matthews received a “stern reprimand,” according to an MSNBC spokesperson.
This tendency to objectify women in his orbit has bled into his treatment of female politicians and candidates. He has repeatedly lusted over women in politics on air, including remarking in 2011 that there’s “something electric” and “very attractive” about the way former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin walks and moves, and noting in 2017 that acting attorney general Sally Yates is “attractive, obviously.” But he has reserved a particular contempt for the woman who made it closest to ascending the heights of American political power—Hillary Clinton—calling her “witchy,” “anti-male,” and “She-Devil.” The Cut obtained footage of him joking in early 2016, just before a live interview with then candidate Clinton, “where’s that Bill Cosby pill,” referring to the date-rape drug. In 2005, he openly wondered whether the troops would “take the orders” from a female president; after another interview, he pinched Clinton’s cheek; and in another, he suggested that she had only had so much political success because her husband had “messed around.” This evening anchor, in addition to everything else, has repeatedly challenged whether women are legitimate politicians or could be president at all. "I was thinking how hard it is for a woman to take on a job that's always been held by men," he said of Clinton in 2006.
Then there is the open secret of Matthews’s everyday behavior off camera with guests, which often creeps up to the line of sexual harassment without actually crossing it, so that women can never feel that it’s worth jeopardizing their own careers to complain. Many women in politics or media who have interacted with the bombastic host have some kind of story about him making them feel uncomfortable on the job. I have my own.
In 2017, I wrote a personal essay about a much older, married cable-news host who inappropriately flirted with me in the makeup room a few times before we went live on his show, making me noticeably uncomfortable on air. I was afraid to name him at the time for fear of retaliation from the network; I’m not anymore. It was Chris Matthews. In 2016, right before I had to go on his show and talk about sexual-assault allegations against Donald Trump, Matthews looked over at me in the makeup chair next to him and said, “Why haven’t I fallen in love with you yet?”
When I laughed nervously and said nothing, he followed up to the makeup artist. “Keep putting makeup on her, I’ll fall in love with her.”
Another time, he stood between me and the mirror and complimented the red dress I was wearing for the segment. “You going out tonight?” he asked.
I said I didn’t know, and he said—again to the makeup artist—“Make sure you wipe this off her face after the show. We don’t make her up so some guy at a bar can look at her like this.”
Again—Matthews was never my boss. I’m pretty sure that behavior doesn’t rise to the level of illegal sexual harassment. But it undermined my ability to do my job well. And after I published a story about it, even though I didn’t name him, dozens of people reached out to say they knew exactly who it was. Many had similar stories.
A fellow cable-news pundit, who doesn’t want to be named for professional reasons, said Matthews invited her on to talk about misogyny in the Republican Party, telling her that he planned to draw a comparison to the ’60s ad-men show Mad Men. Right before going on air, he turned to her and asked “whether Joan’s proportions are real,” referring to the body of a curvy character on the show, before seamlessly transitioning into a supposedly feminist segment. She was shaken, like I was. (At the time of publication, MSNBC had not yet responded to GQ with comment on either incident.)
In fact, Matthews’s whole modus operandi seems to be inviting smart women onto his show, flirting with them or otherwise making them uncomfortable before or while the camera rolls, asking them a question on air and then immediately interrupting them to tell them why they’re wrong. He repeated this playbook with Warren this week. The fact that this kind of behavior has not lost him his primetime cable-news show in the year 2020—even aside from his egregious “Bill Cosby pill” joke and the sexual-harassment allegation against him—speaks to how far the #MeToo movement still has to go to change the standards for what kind of attitudes toward women in the workplace are acceptable and even rewarded.
There is a worthy journalistic line of inquiry Matthews could take about nondisclosure agreements and the role they play in muzzling women and upholding abusive power structures. Instead of exploring that, Matthews attacked Warren's clarity on whether she believes another woman’s corroborated testimony. He seems constitutionally incapable of probing these hyper-relevant topics with anything approaching intellectual curiosity or open-mindedness. In that way, he's also unfit for his job.
Beyond the question of Matthews’s employment, there is the decision of keeping a man with this flagrant bias as the anchor of a major cable-news evening show. His position affords him the ability to affect public opinion, both sweeping away documented behavior of male presidential candidates and casting doubt on corroborated women’s accusations against those men. Having a news anchor who calls women “she-devil” and treats their assessments with infantilizing suspicion while conducting post-debate interviews builds in a major disadvantage for female candidates. And that’s downright irresponsible.
Laura Bassett is a GQ columnist, and a freelance journalist writing about politics, gender, and culture.
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Originally Appeared on GQ