April 15, 2009

Hardball Politics, Hardball Media

In the Murrow Forum, Chris Matthews, Michael Dukakis and Janet Wu take on political coverage and its consequences for democracy

By Taylor McNeil

Chris Matthews put it in terms that anyone could understand. “What would you rather be: the guy having the shoe thrown at him or the one throwing the shoe?” It is, said the commentator for MSNBC and NBC News, a stark way of differentiating between an elected official and a journalist. “Throwing the shoe is a hell of a lot of easier than dodging the shoe.”

“It’s where public responsibility requires personal responsibility, and where the public’s need to know passes the threshold of this pure intrusion into someone’s life,” said Chris Matthews, left, with Michael Dukakis at the April 13 Murrow Forum. Photo: Alonso Nichols

The question was central to the topic of the fourth annual Murrow Forum about the media, politics and public service. When Matthews asked the largely undergraduate audience in the Barnum 008 lecture hall on April 13 who planned to run for office one day, maybe 10 percent stood up. It was a smaller number than Michael Dukakis, the former Massachusetts governor and the 1988 Democratic candidate for president, said he expected, and he made it clear he thinks more young people need to get involved in politics.

But there’s a reason why few people want to run: the often harsh scrutiny that political figures routinely face. “I would never encourage my children to run for office,” said longtime WCVB-TV reporter Janet Wu. “Why? I know how brutal we are. I know how brutal I can be. Everybody who’s in the media knows exactly what I’m talking about.”

Dukakis, who endured his share of media criticism during his presidential run, countered that it is still best that way, regardless of how unpleasant it may be. “I’d be scared to death if we didn’t have a lively and aggressive and active media whose purpose ought to be to hold guys like me accountable for what we do,” he said.

That intense coverage is often driven by fierce competition for readers and viewers—and the advertising dollars they represent. “The profit incentive has completely changed the landscape, and as a result, the competition among those of us who want to get out there with the story first—whether it be legitimate or not legitimate—is much more intense now,” said Wu.

That doesn’t mean that journalists are cutting corners, but it makes it easier to run with a story than hold off. “I’ve been doing this for a very long time, and I still ask myself, is it fair to do this story?” she said. “Not objective—there’s no such thing as objectivity as we all know. But I ask myself, is it fair? At the end of the day, how successful have I been in being fair? I would love to tell you 100 percent, but I think I’m lucky if I’m 60 percent, especially in this day and age.”

“I think we’re really getting into the heart of it, where the tire meets the road, and it’s where public responsibility requires personal responsibility, and where the public’s need to know passes the threshold of this pure intrusion into someone’s life,” said Matthews, the host of MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews and NBC’s The Chris Matthews Show.

Wu said she works three days a week on daily stories, and two days a week on longer-term investigative projects. Those longer projects are vetted carefully by lawyers before they are broadcast, but the stories that air the same day they are reported don’t get the same level of attention, she said.

“It’s a different standard—I have to get it on the air. Of course I try to get it as accurately as possible, but I’m looking over my shoulder. I’ve got print reporters; I’ve got competition from other television stations as well as radio reporters,” she said. “Do I go through the same scrutiny that the lawyers will go through on my longer pieces? Absolutely not. . . Does it scare me? Yes, sometimes it does, but you have to go with your gut rather than be beaten on a story.”

Dukakis was more sanguine. He talked about the former Boston tabloid, the Record-American, which published at least six editions a day—“it was the blog of that era,” he said. It would publish “the wildest, most scandalous and most money-making headline they could put on that edition. What they did was utterly irresponsible. It was just crap—but the profit motive drove the Record-American,” he said.

“We’ve always had this, and all politicians have had to deal with this,” Dukakis said. “It’s not new, even though it's changed in frequency and technology.”

As the nature of the media changes—there was the common lament about the decline and fall of print journalism—are standards and scrutiny going to weaken?

Some of the new media “will be good; some will be bad, and hopefully the garden will be weeded,” Matthews said. “But who’s going to do the weeding?” If it’s the reader at 7 a.m. with a cup of coffee in one hand, wading through blogs, she can be her own editor. But ultimately, “there’s got to be somebody guarding the pipeline, or else you’ve got … garbage in, garbage out.”

That said, the standards to which we hold public officials these days are “much tougher and more demanding than when I started in politics in the sixties,” Dukakis said. “Is that partly because of an aggressive press corps? Maybe. Is that going to weaken over time? Maybe. . . I just hope we don’t lose that very special quality that the media has, to be the public’s conscience and surrogate, and hold public officials to those standards.”

Taylor McNeil can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu.

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