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:
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.
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?