NEW YORK (AP) — 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."
Indeed, when Matthews waded into a group of spectators watching his own "Hardball" show a few hours later, a handful of them made a point of telling him they admired what he did on "Morning Joe."
Matthews' "Hardball" airs at 5 p.m. ET and is repeated at 7. He was also one of the hosts of MSNBC's prime-time coverage of the GOP convention. His spokeswoman said he was too busy to be interviewed for this story.
Shortly before the convention opened on Tuesday, Matthews told viewers to "be on the alert for the tribal messages, the war drums of racial division. He said references to welfare, and to some people getting a "free ride" from President Obama at the expense of "hard working" people, were examples.
Matthews, during his convention anchoring, asserted that "Mitt Romney can't run on his record in government. He's not proud of it."
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."
It made for some eye-opening moments for people used to television news organizations covering these events with a sense of impartiality. MSNBC's Rachel Maddow's introduction to Rick Santorum's speech this past week was: "If Rick Santorum tries to tell you that Barack Obama gutted the work requirement for welfare, he's not telling you the truth. Let's listen."
When Santorum brought up welfare during the speech, Maddow immediately tweeted to her followers that he was doing exactly what she said.
"You've got someone saying 'watch for the lie' and doing things that aren't remotely journalistic," Sesno said. "On the other extreme, you've got people who are trying to be journalists who are so spooked by charges that they lean one way or another that they end up being travel guides. Neither one of them is very satisfying if we're really trying to think about how we inform the public."
On Fox Thursday night, Sean Hannity and his guest, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, paused during a discussion of Obama's failings to consider the atmosphere at the upcoming Democratic convention.
"Take care of yourself in Charlotte," Giuliani said.
"I'll need security," Hannity replied.