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Chris Matthews was only part of a much larger failure of cable news in this election year | COMMENTARY

This file photo shows MSNBC host Chris Matthews taking part in a panel discussion in Beverly Hills, Calif. Matthews announced his retirement on his political talk show "Hardball with Chris Matthews" on Monday.
This file photo shows MSNBC host Chris Matthews taking part in a panel discussion in Beverly Hills, Calif. Matthews announced his retirement on his political talk show "Hardball with Chris Matthews" on Monday.(Chris Pizzello/AP)

The departure of longtime host Chris Matthews Monday from MSNBC was overdue. The channel should have forced his retirement last month when he linked Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ socialism to the communism of the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro on one occasion and likened Mr. Sanders’ victory in the Nevada caucuses later in the month to the Nazi invasion of France in World War II.

Factor in allegations of inappropriate comments to women and his confusing one African-American politician with another on-air, and you wonder how Mr. Matthews lasted this long. Weep not for his departure. Cable TV news will be better for it.

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But there’s a teaching moment here, and the lesson will only be learned if we understand the larger problem Mr. Matthews represents in this crucial election year: the failure of cable news to responsibly and intelligently help shape the national conversation about this election. As much as I have praised cable news for its commitment of air-time and resources in covering the election, I now denounce the ignorant, knee-jerk analyses and even bias that has characterized much of the coverage since Mr. Sanders moved to the front of the field following wins in New Hampshire and Nevada.

I expected President Donald Trump to try to scare voters by calling Mr. Sanders a communist. And I wasn’t surprised when Democratic candidate Michael Bloomberg, who has since dropped out of the race, suggested in his first debate that Mr. Sanders wants to “throw out capitalism” in favor of communism. But to see cable hosts and journalists conflating Mr. Sanders’ democratic socialism with the authoritarian socialism of fascist leaders in the 1930s or the communism of Castro makes me want to scream. And could they please stop repeatedly using the word “radical” to frame Mr. Sanders and his views?

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Mr. Matthews was one of the worst offenders with his off-the-wall rant on socialism and Mr. Sanders following a Democratic debate in New Hampshire.

“You know, I have my own views of the word socialist," he began. “They go back to the early 1950s ... I remember the Cold War. I have an attitude towards Castro, and I believe if Castro and the Reds had won the Cold War, there would have been executions in Central Park and I might’ve been one of the ones executed and certain other people would be there cheering. So, I have a problem with people who took the other side ... I don’t know who Bernie supports over these years. I don’t know what he means by socialism."

Given that Mr. Matthews would have been 14 when Castro came to power in 1959, I doubt he would have been “one of the ones executed" in his bizarre fantasy scenario. Furthermore, Mr. Sanders has been clear in describing his brand of socialism as comparable to what is practiced in Denmark.

But Mr. Matthews was not the only one using over the top language to talk about Mr. Sanders, his policy proposals and supporters.

On Feb. 11, MSNBC’s Chuck Todd quoted a column on-air calling Mr. Sanders’ supporters a “digital brown shirt brigade" and “online mob.”

Saturday on CNN, host Michael Smerconish asked his audience: “Can either coronavirus or Bernie Sanders be stopped?”

And later in the show, when one of his guests called Mr. Sanders a communist, Mr. Smerconish let it pass without correction.

But weep not for Mr. Sanders either; he can take care of himself. The great loss here involves the way citizens are being mislead and cheated by the sloppy thinking, prejudicial comparisons and knee-jerk reactions to the word “socialism” that seem straight out of the 1950s fear mongering of Sen. Joe McCarthy’s alcohol-soaked, right-wing brain.

The race among Mr. Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren offers us a great opportunity to seriously debate the excesses of the hyper-capitalism of today. We will never ditch capitalism; it’s in the American DNA. But there are better and more humane ways of practicing it as Franklin Roosevelt showed in the 1930s after government failed to rein in the excesses of Wall Street in the previous decade and the system collapsed.

For openers, I would urge cable hosts to brush up on FDR and the New Deal, and try also to look at Mr. Sanders through that lens instead of only the excesses of Mr. Castro.

I grew up in Milwaukee at a time when it was run by a card-carrying socialist mayor, Frank P. Zeidler. And no one was executed in any of the lovely parks his administration built throughout the city.

David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: david.zurawik@baltsun.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.

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