The journalist and the cable news anchor - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
The journalist and the cable news anchor
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The Chris Matthews profile in the New York Times Magazine is a fast-paced, entertaining, devastatingly accurate disgrace that is beneath its talented author, Mark Leibovich, who should be ashamed of himself. Readers cannot help but feel sorry for Mr. Matthews, cringing each time he brags about how many honorary degrees he’s earned, or upon reading lines like, “If Matthews has an overriding professional insecurity, it is being confined to the pigeonhole of cable blowhard. The insecurity is well founded, since this is how many people view him.”

Reading all the scenes where the subject talks to his profiler on the phone or invites him into his house, I couldn’t help but think of Janet Malcolm:

Every journalist who is not too stupid or to full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction writing learns — when the article or book appears — his hard lesson.

Generally I think that Janet Malcolm is wrong — that the journalist’s craft is morally defensible insofar as it is accurate, informs the public about matters of importance and doesn’t embarrass its subject more than is necessary. Sometimes that justifies writing pretty stern stuff. Two instructive examples are recent devastating takedowns of Tim Russert, a colleague of Mr. Matthews at NBC.

My colleague Matthew Yglesias and Paul Waldman make overlapping points.

Here’s Matt:

Viewers watch a candidate getting grilled by Russert not to assess the candidate’s views but to assess his or her ability to withstand the grilling. And, when this sort of toughness and sparring becomes its own reward, the vacuity of the questioning is almost guaranteed. After all, if you asked a politician a serious, important question and got a perfectly good answer, then maybe, for a moment, you couldn’t be tough. Instead, Russert relies on his crutch of confronting politicians with allegedly contradictory statements they’ve made-to highly monotonous effect.

And Waldman:

I have a fantasy that at one of these moments, a candidate will say, “You know what, Tim, I’m not going to answer that question. This is serious business. And you, sir, are a disgrace. You have in front of you a group of accomplished, talented leaders, one of whom will in all likelihood be the next president of the United States. You can ask them whatever you want. And you choose to engage in this ridiculous gotcha game, thinking up inane questions you hope will trick us into saying something controversial or stupid. Your fondest hope is that the answer to your question will destroy someone’s campaign. You’re not a journalist, you’re the worst kind of hack, someone whose efforts not only don’t contribute to a better informed electorate, they make everyone dumber. So no, I’m not going to stand here and try to come up with the most politically safe Bible verse to cite. Is that the best you can do?”

So why do I abide that level of excoriation but feel repelled by the Chris Matthews profile? I think it’s because the Tim Russert pieces are important to public discourse — they present plausible, substantive and useful arguments for why the style of a man who presides over our presidential debates is harmful to our politics. Chris Matthews is a similarly powerful figure who holds sway over American political debate, you might say, and that’s true enough. I wouldn’t object to every critical piece about him.

But the NY Times Magazine piece goes to great pains to show that Matthews is arrogant, insecure, boorish — actually, it revels in each supporting detail — not to make some useful point about how cable news might be better, or some other arguably useful point, but merely for the sake of an entertaining profile (or less charitably because the writer dislikes Matthews). I suppose one could argue that as an influential public figure it’s somehow useful that we all know Mr. Matthews better, which brings me to the most damning detail of all — at profile’s end, for all the excruciating detail Mr. Matthews has suffered, I don’t actually feel as though I’ve learned very much useful new information about him.

After all, who can watch even a few minutes of Chris Matthews without understanding his persona — the rough around the edges smarts, the occasional boorishness, the ego, the insecurity, etc? Why embarrass and shame someone for the sake of revealing what’s obvious to everyone already?

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