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A Great, Soulless Get

Hugh Hewitt set to take his turn in the cable news barrel

According to TV Newser’s Chris Ariens, doughty conservative talk-radio eminence Hugh Hewitt, who in recent years has made an effort to land some cozier sinecures within the mainstream media universe, has finally found a cable news suitor willing to formally put a ring on his finger. Hewitt’s maiden fair, in this case, is MSNBC, which will produce a weekly show for the right-wing talker on Saturday mornings at 8 am. It’s sure to live happily in that timeslot, alongside other Saturday morning cartoons. 

For that odd lot known as “liberal cable news fans,” this decision is sure to touch off another round of lamentations over what is going on at good old NBC News. In recent weeks, the network’s news division has brought on former Fox News castaways Greta Van Susteren and Megyn Kelly (most recently seen shining up maniacal conspiracist Alex Jones for mainstream consumption), as well as giving former George W. Bush adviser Nicolle Wallace her own weekly show at four o’clock in the afternoon. The line on this, for critics of these moves, is that the network is on a “white conservative hiring spree.” (A Credo Action petition contextualizes these moves by comparing it to a mass migration of “black and brown talent” from those same airwaves during this time.)

As Slate’s Will Oremus pointed out back in May, these moves are part of a larger trend of nominally liberal media outlets signing up fresh (to them, anyway) conservative talent. Everyone has a pet theory as to why that’s happening, but in MSNBC’s case, we needn’t beat around the bush: Cable news outlets tend to be not much more than centrist political social salons. This means, among other things, that MSNBC’s reputation as a perch for liberal thought leaders is really the legacy of a long-ago ratings play made at the tail end of the failed Bush presidency. Any deeply felt ideological convictions that may have figured into the network’s makeover had everything to do with the 18 to 34 demographic, and nothing to do with anything that could plausibly labeled as the resistance, then or now.

An interview with Hewitt is basically like being on a Tinder date with a madman who won’t stop talking about his hobbies.

And now, with President Donald Trump’s ascension having caught nearly everyone in the media by surprise, further rejiggerings are necessary to reflect the new order and chase the latest trendlets. NBC News’ chairman Andrew Lack, is clearly quite keen to be one more general leading his charges into the battle to understand What Just Happened To America. As always, cable news is fighting the last war. But the truth is, Hewitt is going to be an ideal footsoldier in this offensive. He is going to fit in quite well at MSNBC.

This is, perhaps, tough for many to admit. In a lengthy excoriation of MSNBC’s decision to give Hewitt his own show, Media Matters’ Matt Gertz refers to Hewitt as “Sean Hannity in glasses,” and attempts to catch him in a hypocrisy trap. Gertz notes that Hewitt enforces very high standards of pop-political erudition on some of the people he interviews, while largely giving Trump a pass. 

As Gertz points out, Hewitt likes to indulge in a bit of schtick, where he “opens interviews by asking his guests if they know who Alger Hiss is and have read Lawrence Wright’s book The Looming Tower.” One of my former Huffington Post colleagues, Zach Carter, was singled out for this bit of whimsy, for which Hewitt then sought to subject him to (duly Hewitt-branded) online ridicule. Mother Jones’ David Corn ended up getting the business some time after in an interview that descended into a maddeningly repetitive colloquy about Hiss, in which Corn could not figure out why the Soviet spy was germane to the discussion. (I can’t blame him. An interview with Hewitt is basically like being on a Tinder date with a madman who won’t stop talking about his hobbies.) 

What grinds Gertz’s gears, however, is that Hewitt relinquishes his role as knowledge-inquisitor when it comes to Trump. In a thorough review of the dispiriting tapes in question, Gertz notes that Hewitt let Trump slide on not having read The Looming Tower, repeatedly brought Trump “back from the ledge” during what was billed as an interview comprised of serious “commander-in chief questions,” and even changed up his whole interview demeanor for Trump’s sake after the reality-show mogul called him a “third-rate radio announcer.” On that occasion, Hewitt manifested a more charitable aspect, accepting responsibility for unfairly tripping up the then-presidential hopeful with his interrogations.

So what to make of all this? Gertz clearly feels that all of these inconsistencies were missed when MSNBC opted to offer Hewitt his own half-hour show. Presumably, now that they’ve been laid out in detail, the cable channel’s errors have been thrillingly exposed. But Gertz is missing the very thing that makes Hewitt an ideal candidate for cable news—he shows fawning deference to the powerful people to whom he needs consistent access, and reserves his condemnations for those who sport no such added value.

“The Trump supporter puts an intellectual shine on partisan hackery,” writes Gertz, of Hewitt. Well, of course. “I will put an intellectual shine on partisan hackery,” was probably in Hewitt’s cover letter to Andrew Lack. 

I hate to say it, but: same as it ever was, folks. At the risk of encouraging you to delve deeper into MSNBC’s archives than a sane person should, let me summon forth memories of Hardball’s Chris Matthews, and his May 15, 2008 interview with right-wing radio host Kevin James. That you are no doubt asking, “Who’s that?” or “What now?” is part of the point. On that occasion, Matthews had a very Hewitt-like encounter with the little-known conservative talker, repeatedly bashing him for not being able to provide the correct answer for “What did Neville Chamberlain do wrong?”

You can only go so far in your crusading pursuit of the truth when Journalism Directive Number One is to keep your bookers happy.

Low-hanging fruit had a rough time of it on Hardball that day, my friends. And it typically does! Matthews’ smackdowns of lesser lights are well celebrated. But I would encourage you to compare those segments to any of the interviews he’s conducted over the years with former House Republican Majority Leader and real-live devil Tom Delay. On those occasions, he becomes chummy and accommodating, because, to use the argot of the soulless racket known as cable booking, what a great get! You can only go so far in your crusading pursuit of the truth when Journalism Directive Number One is to keep your bookers happy.

Really, the only thing that Gertz has pointed out is that Hugh Hewitt will do no worse a job for MSNBC than their best-known anchorman will. What is to be done, then, if you’re a liberal who’s placed their faith on a cable news channel? I’d say the best thing you can do is to realize that this faith has been misplaced.

It wasn’t long ago that I pointed out, in these pages, that cable news was, in essence, a “jihad against human intelligence.” On a long enough timeline, it will dumb all of its participants down, and expose whatever stupidity that they successfully kept at bay in their previous lives. In a classic callback, I warned, “Some of your friends may already be this fucked.” If there’s any solace to take in Hewitt’s new cable news venture, it’s that some of your enemies might be as well.