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Kennedy School goes soft over Hardball

Twenty minutes before the start of a live October 13 interview of presidential hopeful Senator John Edwards, MSNBC taped footage for use in future advertising spots for its Hardball program. A producer told audience members to jump to their feet and cheer loudly as host Chris Matthews came out, and encouraged those in the front seats to give Matthews high-fives. They did exactly as instructed, adding impromptu whistles and hollers. The network has been using that footage to advertise its Battle for the White House series ever since.

These were not paid shills for MSNBC; they were supposedly serious faculty and students at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. The eight interviews, which concluded this week with Joe Lieberman, were part of the prestigious Kennedy Forum at the school’s Institute of Politics (IOP). Other forum guests over the past two months have included the governor of Puerto Rico, France’s ambassador to the US, and the president of Brazil. Although some forum events are broadcast on C-SPAN or National Public Radio, it’s safe to say that the audience doesn’t normally hoot and whistle.

Yet these audiences, made up mostly of Kennedy School students, Harvard undergrads, and Harvard faculty, were eager to play along with the Hardball crew. Whenever the MSNBC producer told the room "applause in 15 seconds," they gladly watched her and, on cue, clapped wildly. The producer even led them through applause rehearsals before taping. Halfway through the John Kerry interview, she chided them for not applauding loudly enough.

The school negotiated to co-host the series with MSNBC after trying unsuccessfully to line up candidates on its own. "Senator [Ted] Kennedy is on the advisory board of directors, and I think it was Kennedy who told me you’ve got to have a media partner if you want to get the candidates," says Kennedy Forum director Bill White. IOP paid the venue costs and lent MSNBC some Harvard prestige; the network paid the production costs and got the candidates to come.

White concedes that Harvard provost Steven Hyman and president Lawrence H. Summers weren’t thrilled about the idea. "They raised some concerns about it," he says. At their request, he asked the producers to reduce the Hardball signs from a dozen to four. In the end, White says, Summers said he was happy with the series.

White battled with the producers over audience Q&A — a much-touted requirement of the Kennedy Forum, but a little too risky for producers of live TV. Initially, producers placed students with questions germane to the topic at microphones, and Matthews would occasionally call on one of them. Students complained that producers were pre-screening questions; according to White, the later shows featured students uncensored.

IOP director Dan Glickman fawned over Matthews (and duly applauded on cue). The school paper, the Harvard Crimson, wrote in a December 15 editorial that "fiery debate and pointed student questions" made the series "a major success for the Institute of Politics."

But the debate often included more fluff than fire. Matthews tends to favor horse-race questions over substance. "That was often the case," acknowledges Kennedy School dean Joseph Nye, "but that’s true of anyone in the news media." True — look no further than Ted Koppel’s performance during the last presidential debate — but Matthews in particular is well-known for a bludgeoning style that discourages discourse. Congressman Dennis Kucinich, miffed over his treatment on the July 15 Hardball, refused to participate in the series.

Matthews’s method of boring in on topics, hoping to provoke a news-making response, "made it a livelier type of interview than if we had done it ourselves," Nye says. Exactly. If the Kennedy School had run the events itself, faculty and students might have asked serious questions about policy and process, looking not to make news but to learn things relevant to their studies. They can watch Matthews and his ilk grilling candidates on TV any time they want.

There were, nevertheless, some genuine highlights — more of which came from students’ questions than from Matthews’s grilling. Some are worth noting:

• Former governor Howard Dean, pressed about his deferment from military service in Vietnam, sounded defensive and unconvincing.

• Senator John Kerry could not manage a coherent explanation of his position on the Iraq war.

• Retired General Wesley Clark nearly unraveled while trying to explain how and why he was dismissed from his NATO command.

• Senator John Edwards seemed awkward and vacant whenever he was forced to address an issue he was not prepped for.

• Senator Joe Lieberman, appearing the day after Saddam Hussein was captured, placed his candidacy squarely on voters’ desire to have Saddam executed.

• Congressman Richard Gephardt seemed to indicate that his lesbian daughter’s sexual orientation was a choice, and one that caused him concern.

• The Reverend Al Sharpton dug himself in deeper while responding to charges of homophobia.

For more on the individual interviews, see the archive of Web exclusives at www.bostonphoenix.com.

Issue Date: December 19 - 25, 2003
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