No, Chris Matthews, You Don't Get to Attack Politico

We're on the record with our firm belief that Politico is a malevolent force that must be stopped. That said, we're glad they published Dick Cheney's latest reactionary ramblings, and Chris Matthews—of all people!—should shut up about it.

Matthews is one of the nation's chief practitioners of the narrative-constructing outrage-bait political journalism that Politico has perfected into a foul art, and he is one of the nation's chief distributors of its wares. In fact, he already knew the answer to his questions: It was provided by Newsweek's Mike Isikoff, who was a Hardball guest on December 30, when Matthews previewed his irritation with the Politico-Cheney axis:

MATTHEWS: Anyway, Isikoff, what is the story about Dick Cheney? Does he have some sort of word processor that's ready to go in the basement, which is hooked up to the Politico?

ISIKOFF: He knows that every time he does, you'll do a segment on it, Chris.

Or maybe two! Matthews has larded his show with Politico "analysts" since the site's inception, and Hardball is little more than a TV version of the politics-as-zero-sum-circus Politico template. He treated us to the thoughts of Politico writers as guests, according to Nexis, on seven broadcasts last December alone, and on only one of them did he aggressively question the credibility and motives of the institution. Physician, heal thyself.

Then last week Dick Cheney sent Politico's Mike Allen a statement articulating his considered view that Barack Obama is a Muslim fairy who doesn't know how to spell "terrorism" and is therefore ill-equipped to rid the world of the Mohammaden menace as God has repeatedly commanded us to do. Allen hit Control-C, then hit Control-V, and put it on the internet with some sentences around it saying, "Dick Cheney just said this, etc."

This has made some people angry. Andrew Sullivan, like us, doesn't like Dick Cheney very much, and he accused Allen of being a "mouthpiece" and "stenographer" for Cheney. Last night, Chris Matthews had Politico's Jonathan Martin on his show, and went after him for what he regards as the direct line Cheney has to Politico:

Does he have a thing with Politico, like a hotline to you guys? He uses you like you'd use Drudge or somebody. He's got his own news conduit.... It's not reporting.... He's feeding you guys this crap.

Matthews' attack earned him applause from Sullivan and other left-wing bloggers. It is utter bullshit. The implication underlying Matthews' questions was that Cheney's views were unworthy of being aired—that they were the ramblings of a discredited man who has no business engaging in any public debate. In a perfect world, that is true, which makes the fact that Matthews leveled his charges against Politico in the course of devoting a segment on his national cable news program to Cheney's view that Barack Obama is a Muslim fairy rather galling.

But Matthews' Politico-esque pedigree aside, why is it a bad thing to let the former vice president of the United States "feed" you his thoughts? Again, in a perfect world, a broad consensus would exist to prosecute him for his role in torturing persons in U.S. custody, and he'd be locked up somewhere and no one would care what he thinks. But in our world, the more we know about the twisted, mendacious contours of Dick Cheney's rapidly deteriorating mind, the better off we are. This is the man who quite literally conducted an eight-year overt and covert war in our names, who wielded the extrajudicial power of life and death over people he declared to be our enemies. The fact that he is willing to lie and squeal and attack and moan and engage in the same sort of rear-guard sniping that he and his staffers used to characterize as treason is newsworthy—if only because it serves as a handy reminder of the horrid errors we committed over the last decade—and I for one am delighted that Mike Allen has served it up for my consideration. And if it hadn't come from Politico, it would have come from the Cheney Facebook page, or whatever other news outlet Cheney selected as a "conduit." If it had arrived in Matthews' inbox, or Andrew Sullivan's, they would have put it online posthaste.

There are many, many things wrong with Politico, but publishing what Dick Cheney thinks isn't one of them. The man exists, he has wrong things to say, so let him say them. When Politico last published one of Uncle Dick's notes earlier last month, Sullivan had this to say:

I might add that one wonders what the circumstances were in which Mike Allen and Jim Vandehei took a trip to interview Cheney the day before Obama's Afghanistan address. What was the news hook? Did Cheney summon them to transcribe his vile assault? Did they request a newsy interview the day before Obama's speech?

Here's what I fear: that in a media era in which pageviews count more than actual news, Politico has allowed itself to become a conduit for political actors, rather than an independent voice covering news. This kind of story - which is really about itself - certainly doesn't defuse such fears.

This misses the point. Yes, Politico is a conduit for political actors. All news organizations are. That's why political actors speak to them. The problem with Politico is that it creates narratives, based on the thinnest of reedlets, designed to be served up to political actors to run with. They launch up their own trial balloons—the White House is undermining its political enemies! Obama laughs too much! He's owned by the college professor lobby!—for people like Cheney to react to, thereby turning them into bullshit political stories that Politico can then "cover" and talk about on Chris Matthews' television show. Cheney's missive, though, came prepackaged as an over-the-top and desperate assault from someone whose words, for better or for worse, matter in the current political environment. No imagination required. And it's better for all of us if people like Mike Allen are kept busy writing down what Dick Cheney says instead of trying to think up his next story.