Inside the Chris Matthews Exit: MSNBC Boss Went to D.C. to Plead With Him to Quit 1

The painful end of Chris Matthews’ TV career occurred with just the sort of recrimination and negative PR that former Washington local news anchor and failed Democratic House candidate Kathleen Matthews, his wife of 40 years, and their adult children long hoped to avoid.

According to sources at MSNBC, Kathleen had communicated concerns over the past several months to network chief Phil Griffin, Chris’s long-ago Hardball executive producer when the show aired on CNBC. She expressed worry that her husband’s on-air controversies would become more frequent, more embarrassing, and more damaging to his legacy.

For months, it was known to some inside the network that Kathleen pushed for her husband, now 74, to have a more limited schedule. Instead, the MSNBC anchor found himself on TV during more major events than he had since the 2016 election cycle. 

And while acting as a fixture of MSNBC’s Democratic primary coverage, Matthews continually came under fire for on-air comments including likening Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Nevada caucus victory to Nazi Germany overtaking France during World War II, a comment for which Matthews later apologized; and asking Sen. Elizabeth Warren why she would believe a woman over Michael Bloomberg regarding accusations that the ex-mayor told a pregnant employee to “kill” her unborn child.

And then, after The Daily Show posted on Thursday night a devastating compilation of Matthews’ history of sexist and gross on-air comments to women, and a GQ piece with first-hand accusations of sexual harassment dropped Friday, the network’s brass apparently had enough.

Sources said Griffin traveled to Washington, D.C. over the weekend for a series of tough conversations with the Hardball host, his wife and family, arguing that now was the time to call it quits.

Matthews was very resistant, according to these sources, insisting he stay on through the election. But he was finally persuaded that “retiring,” as he tried to portray his own abrupt resignation, was the only sensible option.

Amid such conversations with Griffin, the Hardball host was expected to participate in Saturday’s coverage of the South Carolina primary. But hours before he would have gone on the air, he was replaced by weekend host Joy Reid.

Ultimately, on Monday evening, when he made his final on-air statement, Matthews’ wife and kids were in the studio, sources said.

“After my conversation with MSNBC, I decided tonight will be my last Hardball,” Matthews said during his last broadcast. “So let me tell you why. The younger generations are ready to take the reins. We see them in politics, the media, and fighting for their causes. They’re improving the workplace.” He offered a brief apology for having previously offered “compliments on a woman’s appearance some men, including me, might have once incorrectly thought were OK.”

Despite framing his exit as a passing of the torch to a younger generation, Matthews’ ouster has been publicly decried by some of his now-ex-colleagues representing the old guard of cable news. The crew of MSNBC’s Morning Joe tearfully mourned his exit, with co-host Mika Brzezinski musing about “so-called cancel culture” and whether there could have been a “better way” to deal with Matthews’ recent controversies. Senior contributor Mike Barnicle, meanwhile, groused that his friend’s departure “opens the door” to “disturbing” possibilities. He asserted that the Hardball host’s exit was simply the result of “toxic outrage.”

Matthews’ ouster has also thrown yet another wrench into ongoing uncertainty about MSNBC’s lineup, which has been in flux since the network moved daytime host Ali Velshi to a weekend role. Insiders said the network had been expected to announce a new permanent schedule imminently, but Matthews’ sudden departure may delay those changes. 

Star news anchor Shepard Smith, who left Fox News amid feuds with the network’s overtly pro-Trump primetime hosts, has long been rumored to be in talks with MSNBC (the network was interested before he decamped Fox News last year), and Page Six reported Tuesday that he is on a “short list” to now take over Hardball. But “expectations are low,” a network source said, given Smith’s potentially hefty price tag.

A person with knowledge of the situation said that any connection between Matthews’ departure and Smith’s ongoing discussions with the network was “pure speculation.” The ex-Fox star is also talking with CNBC and Vice, the source told The Daily Beast: “He’s talking to all the players but doesn’t necessarily want the big shiny thing.” While it has been reported Smith could return to the air as early as June, industry insiders believe he will re-appear closer to the election.

Current MSNBC hosts have also been floated as potential replacements for Matthews. Joy Reid, whose weekend show enjoys good ratings, would make sense, insiders said, considering her popularity among the network’s more hardcore viewers. Nicolle Wallace, an anti-Trump Republican whose 4 p.m. daytime broadcast has brought in robust viewership, has also been discussed; however, sources said, she’d prefer not to move to primetime because of family obligations. 

Another name floated by Page Six was Steve Kornacki, who demonstrated quick thinking despite being visibly stunned on Monday evening while taking over the rest of the Hardball broadcast following Matthews’ shocking exit. But sources told The Daily Beast that despite his role in stepping up to fill that hour, he’s highly unlikely to be rewarded with the primetime hosting gig.

Lachlan Cartwright contributed reporting.