The Diminution of Chris Hayes

David Shinbone | Own work

David Shinbone | Own work


I first encountered Chris Hayes at Timeline Theater on Wellington Avenue in Chicago back in 2002.  Walkabout Theater, the company I was then part of, had rented the Timeline space for our production of Carlos Murillo’s Offspring of the Cold War and I was there to help haul material for the stage set.  I learned Hayes had been made part of the company back in September 2001 when he ran into Kristan Schmidt, Artistic Director of Walkabout, in the lobby of the Chopin Theater.  The twin towers had fallen earlier that week and the two of them talked for hours.  Afterwards, Kristan invited him on board.

Hayes was then just out of school, having graduated Brown University with a degree in philosophy.  He was bright, articulate, gracious, and wonderfully well informed.  In person his staccato speech and rapid head movements possessed a certain vigorous charm and gave one the sense when talking to him that his attention was entirely one’s own.  His youthful idealism was dazzling.

While working with Walkabout, Hayes became an editor at the left-leaning labor magazine In These Times, and also contributed to The Nation and, locally, to the Chicago Reader.  His leftist credentials were impeccable.  In time, Hayes departed Walkabout and moved back East, intially working as Chief Editor at The Nation before landing a far more lucrative position with the cable television channel MSNBC.

He started out subbing for Rachel Maddow and later acquired his own show, the short-lived Up.  Thereafter he became host of an evening show—All In—which is still on the air.  Because Hayes had become an MSNBC regular and because that cable channel now advertised itself as a liberal alternative to Fox “News” I started to tune in.

I found Rachel Maddow’s meandering and verbose delivery most exasperating.  Lawrence O’Donnell’s churlish pontificating frequently inspired nausea, and I’ve never been able to tolerate the circus clown buffoonery of Chris Matthews.  Gruff-mannered Ed Schultz, who belonged to a previous era of broadcasting, filled out the then evening lineup.

Chris Hayes was still recognizably the person I’d known during my Walkabout days though he looked a bit heavier, his face a bit fuller.  On television his rapid-fire speech pattern came across as too earnest and his mannerisms quickly became tiresome and all too often he followed the Rachel Maddow formula of using fifty words when five will suffice, but of the talking heads in the MSNBC stable he was by far the least objectionable.

Hayes first hit deep sand in 2012 when he asserted that not every last person wearing a US uniform is necessarily and unqualifiedly a “hero,” but after being called on the carpet for this dreadful transgression he swiftly—and unctuously—apologized.  David Swanson in his May 2014 review of Michael Arria’s Medium Blue: The Politics of MSNBC  (CounterPunch, 2014), asks: “Was Hayes right to apologize in order to maintain his voice on the air, a voice that’s better than some of the other ones? I don’t have a strong opinion on that question. My interest here is in pointing out, along with Arria, that a voice willing to question whether every hired killer in every popular and unpopular and illegal war is without question a hero is not permitted on MSNBC.”  To simply keep his job, it was necessary that Hayes make moral compromises.

On more than one occasion Hayes has opened up his forum—and the powerful medium of cable television it represents—to voices of the right, voices that mediumblueroutinely lie and misinform in the furtherance of narrow political ends.  Hayes was rightfully taken to task for this by Merlin1963 in a harsh 2014 posting at Daily Kos, wherein Merlin1963 especially condemns Hayes for having Paul Wolfowitz on his program, and observes: “If Chris really wants to try and understand conservatives, I guarantee that he will come to conclusions that most liberals have already learned.  Conservatives are in their own world, and no matter of facts or reasons on the parts of liberals will ever drag them into political compromise.”

Over the years I’ve watched Chris Hayes diminish from the idealistic young man I once knew to a person I no longer recognize.  Since the “heroes” kerfuffle, Hayes has been steadily dwindling in moral stature much as Scott Carey, protagonist of Jack Arnold’s wonderful 1957 flick The Incredible Shrinking Man, inexorably declines in physical size.  Now that an election year is upon us, Hayes’s present assignment is the malodorous “Trumpster Fire,” an infantile political hit-job updated daily that does little to dampen the momentum of the Trump campaign and serves only to further degrade the reputation of Mr. Hayes.  In his current endeavor, Hayes resembles a pallid simulacrum of those whom Chris Hedges targets with his fiercest vitriol.  In a recent essay The Courtiers and the Tyrants, Hedges writes:

The Democratic and the professional elites are an easy and often amusing target. One could see them, in another era, prancing at a masked ball at Versailles on the eve of the revolution. They are oblivious to how hated they have become. They do not understand that when they lambast Donald Trump as a disgrace or a bigot they swell his support because they, not Trump, are seen by many Americans as the enemy. But these courtiers did not create the system. They sold themselves to it.

It’s this act of selling into the system that so troubles me.  As example, this country has fought wars without end since 1945, entirely for the financial benefit of a very few.  This is especially true of the 21st century, yet none of the MSNBC talking heads have convincingly spoken out against even one of these unnecessary conflicts.  David Swanson’s review of Medium Blue includes this telling paragraph:

Rachel Maddow, Ed Schultz, Chris Hayes (not at first, but he came around), and other MSNBC voices were all in favor of bombing Libya, and as far as I know are not particularly focused on the horrendous results.

The words in parentheses (not at first, but he came around) are particularly damning, for they describe the ongoing diminution of Hayes’s moral stature—a process I find truly alarming.

Another key paragraph in Swanson’s review reads:

The perspective that MSNBC believes its viewers hold, and which it relentlessly instructs them to hold was exemplified by a recent comment that Chris Hayes made to Glenn Greenwald: “People feel they have to choose between Barack Obama and Glenn Greenwald and there are millions of people in this country who are like if that is a choice I choose Barack Obama.” Hayes then gave reasons to choose Obama.  No doubt Hayes believes he was simply articulating the spontaneously generated view of the masses, of which a good organizer must be aware for better or worse.  But he never suggested the slightest critique of the way of thinking that he was in fact modeling on national TV.  He demanded that Greenwald alter his “tone” to accommodate such a idiotic perspective, but he never hinted at the possibility that people might alter their idiocy, that they might stop choosing between personalities and deal with facts, that they might vote for politicians and simultaneously critique their failings, that they might view elected officials as representatives rather than deities.

The thrust of Michael Arria’s journalism in Medium Blue is that talking heads on such channels as MSNBC are little more than sock puppets in the service of powerful individuals who occupy the pinnacles of the corporate power structure.  In his introduction to Medium Blue, Arria writes: “It is my position that the fundamental problem with American media isn’t that it’s too conservative or too liberal, but that it’s directly connected to elite opinion and reflects those interests and concerns.”

MSNBC is owned by NBCUniversal, which in turn is owned by Comcast.  Yes, the Comcast that has been labeled “Worst Company in America” by The Consumerist both in 2010 and 2014.  And yes, their cable service is just that bad.  Further, Comcast’s ownership of NBCUniversal has created a vertical monopoly of a size and type unseen since the heyday of Hollywood, when the major studios owned chains of movie theaters to screen their product—before the trust-busters stepped in.  Comcast is wholly-owned the Roberts family, who are rigidly pro-Zionist (See this profile of Brian Roberts in Forward).

On May 31, 2010 I saw firsthand the true nature of MSNBC’s reporting.  That evening I learned from reports on the internet that the Gaza Freedom Flotilla had been intercepted by the Israeli military.  The Israelis attacked from both sea and air, using torpedo boats and helicopters.  Those manning the flotilla were unarmed civilians.  During the course of the Israeli raid, nine civilians were murdered including a Turkish-American named Furkan Dogan.  The Israeli action was widely condemned as a brutal affront to international law, but when I tuned into MSNBC to learn more details about the incident, I watched Rachel Maddow instead produce innocuous blather to the effect that something awful had gone down on the Mediterranean that most folks wish hadn’t happened.  Listening to her one would never know a dreadful crime had been committed by the Israelis.  Hers was the language of evasion and obfuscation, intended to smooth things over.  Never before had I seen pro-Israel bias rendered in a manner so stark and so flagrant.

After witnessing Maddow’s shocking performance I made a point of avoiding MSNBC, but then word of another imbroglio involving Chris Hayes stirred through the internet and I was briefly drawn back.

On July 17, 2014 the Israelis once again attacked the hapless residents of Gaza.  This time some 2,310 Gazans were killed and 10,895 wounded, including 3,374 children, of whom over 1,000 were left with permanent disabities.  Gazans returning to their residences—those that hadn’t been totally destroyed—discovered that Israeli soldiers had defecated in refrigerators and in ovens and on stove-tops and had otherwise done their level best to desecrate the homes of defenseless civilians.

The morning of July 21, 2014 on MSNBC’s Ronan Farrow Daily a Palestinian journalist named Rula Jebreal called US media coverage of the latest Israeli attrocities “disgustingly biased when it comes to this issue” and named MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell as one of the principal malefactors, and further charged that for every thirty seconds of air time given a Palestinian spokesperson, twenty-five to thirty minutes were granted Bibi Netanyahu, Neftali Bennett and others.  Thereafter, further appearances scheduled for Jebreal on MSNBC were canceled.  The cable network’s action stirred up an online storm—particularly on Twitter—and Chris Hayes promptly booked Jebreal on All In.

Watching his interview with her on July 22, 2014, and later reviewing it on Youtube, it became obvious that Hayes had ulterior motives for having Jebreal on his show.  In a preamble to her appearance, he offered a look “behind the curtain” at cable television and declared that anyone who appears on a cable network and trashes said cable network will not be viewed kindly by executives at that cable network and that the resulting cancellations of Jebreal’s subsequent MSNBC appearances were a simple case of cause and effect, thus undermining the Palestinian journalist before she’d even had the opportunity to speak.  Hayes disingenuously omitted the glaring fact that what Jebreal had stated the day before was both absolutely true and devastatingly on target—particularly on the issue of Andrea Mitchell’s undisguised bigotry.  Unfortunately, in the alternate universe of cable news truth is all too often a mute stranger.

Hayes then introduced Jebreal as a friend of his, but made his declaration of amity in a manner sufficiently deprecating so as to assure the audience of her lower station in cable world.  His comportment throughout the ensuing interview was very much that of a school master dealing with a recalcitrant pupil.  Hayes stated that when covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “we’re actually doing a pretty good job” and opened the interview itself by calling Andrea Mitchell “an exemplary journalist.”  Hayes claimed to agree with Jebreal’s broader argument that the US media in general had demonstrated a distinct bias when reporting the latest assault on Gaza but reiterated that this time around “we’re doing a pretty good job.”  He also claimed other media—including The New York Times—were doing a much better job “with this conflict.”  I cannot imagine a more biased and pro-Israeli outlet than The New York Times.

At this point in the proceedings it became clear to me that Hayes had already spent too much time inside the cable fishbowl and was entirely out of touch with broader reality.  Hayes claimed he’d attempted to book Hamas spokespeople on his show but had considerable difficulty doing so and Jebreal countered with a blinding flash of the obvious—Hamas are not the only Palestinians.  With regard to lopsided US coverage of the conflict itself Hayes lamely offered that “if there’s violence, we cover it, if there is no violence, we don’t cover it” and thereafter interrupted Jebreal to launch specious counterattacks whenever she made valid points.  As example, when Jebreal protested that Bibi Netanyahu had recently received twenty-five minutes of air time on cable, Hayes broke in to assert this had happened because Netanyahu’s interview covered “a lot of other issues” and further declared that “air time strikes me as a bad metric.”  Don’t you just love it when talking heads use inside-the-Beltway Newspeak?  Like saying “the optics” when what they mean to say is “the appearance of.”  To dismiss such obvious and irresponsible pro-Israel bias by referencing “a bad metric” is beyond disingenuous—it reveals a medium trapped in its own house of mirrors and reduces Hayes himself to mere sock puppet status.

Much more could be said about this interview, but the point has been made.  Once again I witnessed the true nature of MSNBC’s reporting when covering Israel.  Rather than conduct an objective interview Hayes instead did the bidding of his paymasters, thus validating Michael Arria’s cardinal point.  In a November 2015 International Business Times article by Brendan James, Hayes is quoted as saying: “I feel like I am more at peace with what a prime-time show is now than I have ever been.”  This comes at a time when MSNBC is retrenching from its former “liberal” slant to produce “middle-of-the-road” political analysis.

During this campaign season I’ve been flicking through cable channels in the vain hope of finding some refuge from the horserace insanity that characterizes political reporting in the US.  MSNBC offers no such relief and neither does Chris Hayes, who is now just another member of the howling pack, his barks and yaps lost to the mindless cacophony of 24/7 “news” coverage.

The gleaming idealism that once animated Chris Hayes is now dull and tarnished as he continues to diminish, to become yet another talking head.  In The Incredible Shrinking Man, Scott Carey’s final soliloquy opens with the words: “I was continuing to shrink, to become… what? The infinitesimal?”  One wonders about Chris Hayes, and when the last vestiges of his moral compass completely vanish from sight.

Chris Welzenbach is a playwright (“Downsize”) who for many years was a member of Walkabout Theater in Chicago. He can be reached at