On Chris Hayes and Heroism

It is a very good thing that the Nation‘s Chris Hayes has a weekend show on MSNBC. The panelists are smart and the lively conversations dig deeper than virtually anything else on cable news. (The same can be said for MSNBC‘s Melissa Harris-Perry.)

In other words, sounds like a recipe for trouble.  And trouble arrived after a Memorial Day show that aired on May 27. Here’s the clip that caused the controversy.  To me, his words sound carefully measured, and I think you get a better sense of that tone from seeing the clip rather than from reading a transcript (ad viewing courtesy of MSNBC):

There was an immediate outcry from some conservative bloggers, who railed against Hayes for disrespecting the troops on such a solemn day. (Conor Friesdorf has a great piece at the Atlantic responding to many of those critics.) Lively debates broke out on Twitter, with progressive commentators and journalists supporting Hayes and arguing that both the show in total and these comments in particular were being misrepresented.

But the next day Hayes issued an apology, saying he was “deeply sorry” and “truly sorry.” But it is difficult (for me) to square the apology with the words that caused the controversy. He correctly points out that he, as a TV host, is removed from the very real experience of the wars–as are most people.  Asking questions about that fact was a key part of the point of the show. He goes on to say that this distance from the war makes it easy to

not ask questions about the direction of our strategy in Afghanistan, and to assuage our own collective guilt about this disconnect with a pro-forma ritual that we observe briefly before returning to our barbecues.

It’s hard to argue with that–but, again, that doesn’t really get at the comments that sparked the controversy. He closes by writing that

in seeking to discuss the civilian/military divide and the social distance between those who fight and those who don’t, I ended up reinforcing it, conforming to a stereotype of a removed pundit whose views are not anchored in the very real and very wrenching experience of this long decade of war

Whatever the faults with how he phrased his original comments–and I frankly don’t find any–the point he was making was that the automatic, uncritical rhetoric about war heroism can serve to constrain discussions about war policy. He was not at all callous or flippant in making this case–as he says at the end, “I could be wrong.” If anything, the critical feedback seems to have convinced him that he was.

There is no indication that Hayes was pressured by MSNBC management; he says the decision was his own.

There is no indication that Hayes was pressured by MSNBC management; he says the decision was his own.  But it’s important to note that pressure from above affected MSNBC hosts like Phil Donahue and Keith Olbermann–the former was fired for being too critical of the Iraq War.

If anything, it seems Hayes proved his point about the boundaries of our discourse about war–and not in the way he intended.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.