NEW YORK — In the cable television news world where provocation is prized, MSNBC's Chris Matthews took home the trophy from Tampa's Republican National Convention as most over-the-top pundit.
Who's the early favorite to do the same when the Democrats meet this week in Charlotte, N.C.?
Matthews engaged in a bitter verbal brawl on "Morning Joe" with Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, upsetting the show's hosts, accusing the GOP of conducting a campaign of race-baiting and suggesting Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is not proud of his record in public life.
Now that opinion is a key component of cable news and commentators are asked to cover events run by a political party they disagree with on a daily basis, such contentious weeks aren't that surprising. Fox News Channel personalities are next to face the challenge at the Democratic National Convention.
Matthews and Priebus were both guests on "Morning Joe," one of the dwindling number of cable talk shows consistently welcoming to people with differing views. The confrontation began when Matthews suggested the Republican leader should be embarrassed at how his party was playing the "race card" during the campaign with advertisements about welfare. The MSNBC host also berated Priebus about Romney's comment during a campaign stop in Michigan that "no one has ever asked to see my birth certificate."
Annoyed after some back-and-forth, Priebus declared: "I'm not going to get into a shouting match with Chris. You guys can move on."
"Because you're losing, that's why," Matthews retorted.
"Garbage," Priebus said.
"You're garbage," Matthews concluded.
Priebus, talking to the media later, said Matthews was "the biggest jerk in the room." Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski of "Morning Joe" were clearly perturbed. While Scarborough later said "we love Chris," he said Matthews' outburst wasted five minutes of the show.
"If people come on our show and do that, they're not going to come back on our show until we're certain that they're not going to do that," he said at a luncheon sponsored by the Poynter journalism think tank. "The problem is, the people who do that, whether it's on cable TV or online ... they are rewarded by the extremists on either the far right or the far left."
Tim Graham of the conservative media watchdog Media Research Center, said Matthews, a former Democratic legislative aide, has been going overboard.
"He just comes across as an angry crank and he says things that are not thought out at all," Graham said. "He just blurts. In recent months, he has become the biggest target in a target-rich environment."
Matthews' week comes amid a sharpening of opinion programming on outlets like MSNBC and Fox since 2008. And conventions are the perfect venues for those in that line of work, said Frank Sesno, a former CNN Washington bureau chief and now a professor at George Washington University.
"For those who want to be in the opinion world, this is heaven because you're there for a fight or you're going there to cheerlead," Sesno said. "If you're an opinionator, and you're there with that mission, this is what you live for."