What would Will McAvoy do? For the uninitiated, Will McAvoy is the fictional news anchor from Aaron Sorkin’s HBO series Newsroom. He’s high minded, bold, and he does not suffer fools gladly–McAvoy was created as the ideal modern day newsman. So when confronted with a smarmy or evasive or deliberately misleading subject, a journalist could do well to ask himself, “What would Will McAvoy Do?” This is the questioin Chris Mathews must have pondered when he took on RNC head Reince Priebus, who defended Romney’s birther remarks.
“I think Obama’s policies have created a sense that, for whatever reason, he’s looking guidance as far as health care is concerned, as far as our spending is concerned, as far as these stimulus packages are concerned, that he’s looking to Europe for guidance,” Priebus said.
They were both at the site of the Republican convention in Tampa, participating in a panel talk on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” Mathews, who has long ago lost his filter, refused to let Priebus smarm his way out of his remarks.
“What!? Where do you get this from?” Mathews was apoplectic. “That’s insane. You mean the fact that every president we’ve had has tried to offset the economic cycle with stimulus going the other direction is somehow European?”
Somewhere this morning, a mustache-free Michael Steele, the former RNC Chairman, was watching the exchange and laughing and cheering Mathews to go harder.
Priebus was put on by Steele, appointed as his RNC general council after Steele snagged the chairmanship. When I last interviewed Steele for a VIBE article (see video here), I asked him if he felt betrayed by Priebus.
“Absolutely,” Steele said. “Without a doubt or hesitation.”
He explained how he didn’t know Priebus was going to run against him until a week before he announced.
“He set this thing up for a whole seven, eight months,” he explained in VIBE. “He was in meeting with me and then would go and probably have meetings with others telling them what my strategy was and they would counter strategy.”
Finally, the biggest dig of all was when he went after Steele for being in front of the camera and promised “less drama.”
“He’s on TV all the time, and he’s not saying anything,” Steele said. “What’s the message of the party right now? It’s a talking point that nobody believes. Cause if they did, than how else do you explain the loss of momentum from 2010 till now.”
Steele must have been high-fiving Mathews after the cameras stopped rolling. Mathews’ inner McAvoy was angrier than the fictional character. But this is real life version, where hot passions cannot be tempered with cool contempt.
Joe Scarborough attempted to intervene on behalf or Priebus (“you think he’s playing the race card?”); and Tom Brokaw contributed the old false equivalency argument (“the Democrats do it too”). But the panelists mostly stepped out of the way and let them fight.
It was clearly the first time Priebus has been challenged for his words in a way that was deeply passionate. Not the academic arguments or polite rebukes that take place on the Sunday talk shows. It was not the sharp words printed on editorial pages or hidden in blogs to which he has come accustomed. His skin has been toughened for such attacks.
But like many other politicians and policymakers, he is largely oblivious to the real anger, the true passion that his words and actions evoke. Mathews has burst his proverbial bubble.
But Chris Mathews only stands out because so many people along the way allowed Priebus and his ilk’s reckless attacks to pass as acceptable discourse. It’s why Missouri congressional candidate Todd Akin didn’t realize his thoughts on rape and abortion were bonkers.
“If it is legitimate rape,” Akin said, “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
How many times in the past has Akin told some reporter those now controversial remarks? With the polite newsroom and the partisan press there is hardly ever any cross talk. The Priebuses of the world smile and laugh their way past follow-up questions.
While the Priebus/Mathews exchange was uncomfortable to watch, it would be more uncomfortable for those remarks to go unchallenged. We would all be better off if more journalists asked the question: What would Will McAvoy do?