journalism, politics

Call It as You See It

Chris Matthews recently interviewed a McCain representative named Nancy Pfotenhauer. He followed up on her answers, and had statistics in hand. He called her out.

If journalism, especially television journalism, was simply meant to provide an outlet for the various sides of a campaign to get their messages out, without any additional probing or challenges–well, maybe campaigns ought to pay for that air-time, because that’s called advertising.

The Obama partisan does comes across better, if not quite as composed (usually we wait for the conversation to devolve a bit before deploying a “let me finish”), and walks away unscathed. Maybe this is bias on the part of Matthews, the possibility of which I wouldn’t discount, but he also seems to have simply run out of steam. After all, Pfotenhauer begins to pick a fight with Matthews when it turns out that he and his staff have done some research, and it must be exasperating for everyone. (When he asks who she voted for in 2004, her response is to ask who Matthews voted for.) I guess only Gene Simmons and Bill O’Reilly can get away with walking out, mid-interview.

I tend to think of Chris Matthews as behaving like a really smart 14-year-old political junkie who knows how smart he is and sticks tenaciously to his understanding of things, but whose attitude is leavened with flashes of earnesty and humility, and who still wants you to like him.* The sort of kid you remember later while shaking your head and grinning. And sometimes Pfotenhauer talks to him as if he were. Considering the reputation Matthews has gained over the years, especially in the months since the Times Magazine profile, he seemed to pull back a bit later in this interview. But he did jab in the last word.

It’s become a cliché to point out that some of the best journalism on television is done by The Daily Show. Exposing paradox or hypocrisy is something that many feel is missing in the news–most thoughtful reporting and interviewing in daily journalism is dwarfed by the more straightforward, reflexive play-by-play or horse-race style of political and business reporting. But I think Matthews manages to get at one of the core paradoxes of the current iteration of the McCain campaign. And so, famously, did the Daily Show about ten days ago, in a piece on McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin, which I include here, in part, because it also features the now-familiar face of Nancy Pfotenhauer.

*I’m guessing this is actually how many grown-up politicians probably behave, too.

competition, journalism, television


When I heard of the death of Tim Russert yesterday, the grand inquisitor (in a good way) of Washington, I repeatedly thought of Mark Leibovich’s Chris Matthews profile from the NYT Mag in April:

On the morning of the Cleveland debate, Matthews was standing in the lobby of the Ritz when Russert walked through, straight from a workout, wearing a sweat-drenched Buffalo Bills sweatshirt, long shorts and black rubber-soled shoes with tube socks. “Here he is; here he is, the man,” Matthews said to Russert, who smiled and chatted for a few minutes before returning to his room. (An MSNBC spokesman, Jeremy Gaines, tried, after the fact, to declare Russert’s outfit “off the record.”)

I watched Chris Matthews on the MSNBC online stream last night, he was in Paris (as was Bob Schieffer). Matthews demonstrated the remarkable candor that sometimes gets him in trouble; but it was just right here. He came on after Brokaw, and said, you know, I wasn’t as close to Tim as those guys. But he kept talking, and it was clear that Matthews admired him. Leibovich wrote that Matthews seems to crave Russert’s approval. I don’t know if he ever got it or not, but that makes for a particular sense of loss when this happens.

Brokaw repeatedly mentioned Russert’s working class credentials (as well as his own and Mike Barnicle’s). It is a badge of honor, of sorts; one I sometimes try to wear. A quick look around my cohort at the journalism school ought to be enough to settle the question of whether the chattering classes tend to be seeded by the upper (or upper middle) classes. Few of my colleagues had a parent in the military, or one who worked in a factory. See? Hard to resist.

Today Leibovich has an article in the Times about Russert and his place in the Washington firmament. He does a good job of balancing Russert’s working class image with the attractions and convenience he found in his position at the top of the D.C. heap.

Another local cliché: Washington is Hollywood for ugly people. So in a town that’s in fact entirely over-populated with blow-dried preeners, it seemed entirely appropriate that the signature TV star be, if not ugly, aggressively “not pretty.” Indeed, Mr. Russert seemed to intentionally hold his face at crooked angles, like he was sidling up to a Rust Belt dive bar (as opposed to, say, his favorite lunch joint in Washington, the Palm).

Mr. Russert liked to seem sheepishly above-it-all, but was also as acutely status-conscious, befitting the local water. He was always mindful of not appearing too often on MSNBC, NBC’s cable cousin, for fear of diluting his big-league brand. He was known primarily as a TV star to most people, but often identified himself by his more hierarchical title, “Washington bureau chief.” There is no shortage of politicians, beginning with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who believed Mr. Russert could be bullying and prone to grandstanding at times, making excessive show of his top-of-the-heap position.

Still, the story that Leibovich seemed to remember the most yesterday was the same one I did:

My last encounter with Mr. Russert was at a Democratic debate in Cleveland, which he was moderating. I was with his colleague Mr. Matthews — I was writing about Mr. Matthews for the New York Times Magazine — and we ran into Mr. Russert in the lobby of the Cleveland Ritz Carlton. He had just worked out and was wearing a sweaty Bills sweatshirt and long shorts and black loafers with tube socks. An MSNBC spokesman who was with us tried to declare Mr. Russert’s attire “off the record,” which I found hilarious, and which I was of course compelled to include in the story. When I called Mr. Russert to tell him this, and he laughed so hard, I had to move the phone away from my ear.

“Just do me one favor,” Mr. Russert said. “Say they were rubber-soled shoes, will you?” Done.

Black loafers?

Re-read that excerpt at the top.