Swans Commentary » swans.com May 23, 2005  



Chris Matthews, The Interviewer As Mugger


by Charles Marowitz






(Swans - May 23, 2005)   The recent retirement of a batch of dominating TV anchors (Dan Rather, Ted Koppel, Tom Brokaw, etc.) is a convenient opportunity to consider the personalities of those men and women who regularly confront us at different hours of the day and night to keep us abreast of current events.

We know that in all cases they are simply spokespersons for producers, station owners and media moguls, but it is easy to assume that what they are telling us emanates from themselves rather than the corporations for whom they are front-men and women. We either invite or disinvite certain personalities into our homes via the TV screen and the basis for those choices are as personal as the reasoning and instinct that goes into our choice of friends, lovers or colleagues. As much as we expect journalism to be objective, impersonal and fact-based, personality preferences cannot help but influence who we beam into our living rooms.

As for me, I find myself regularly rendezvousing with Keith Olbermann on CNBC's "Countdown" -- mainly because I know that no matter how grave the issues, a certain levity will always be there to lighten the mix. Too ponderous a dose of news can easily burden the spirit, and there is so much of that during the day that, in the evening, it is a wicked respite to commune with an anchorman who seems to recognize that behind every major national and international conflict, there is an inescapable element of the Absurd. Sometimes I feel guilty about those assignations because I know they are displaying in bright tints what should, by all rights, be conveyed in more somber tones. But Olbermann, who started life as a sportscaster, is articulate and consistently amiable to all of his guests and because he relaxes them, they open up to him and one usually gets the true dimensionality of both the people and the issues. These are still meager sound bites, a topographical rather than a close-up view of complex questions, but they don't, as a rule, stick in one's craw.

Bill O'Reilly on Fox is certainly the most odious, as he wears his right-wing prejudices on his arm as if they were a massive splint. One can always predict precisely on what side of any issue his reactionary indignation will be coming down and hence, being utterly predictable, he is irretrievably boring. His evil twin Sean Hannity, who, if he is not in the employ of the administration and the Republican National Committee is supplying his propaganda-services without due return, is so patently a stooge for the Extreme Right as to relinquish all claims to serious consideration. He is the raucous Abbott to his benighted Costello (Alan Colmes) and has elevated equivocation and mendacity into a fine-tuned art form. Like almost everything on the Fox channel, it desperately cries out for demolition which, as we all know, it will never get.

Larry King, being congenitally genial, the friend to all and antagonist of none, manages to generate conversation because his questions are short and to the point and invariably followed by rapt attention to replies. We will never get any challenging or provocative moments from King because that is simply not his style. There is virtually no politician or corporate executive who needs fear being embarrassed on a Larry King show. Larry not only operates a tight ship, he makes sure that no squalls or wakes will ever intrude on the calmness of its journey. He is the quintessential "chatterer" -- without being a chatterbox. In the poisonous media climate in which we live, we must be grateful for small mercies.

The anchorwomen are not much better. The veiled arrogance and varnished bitchiness of Katie Couric bleeps steadily behind that fixed, saccharine, childlike smile like the malevolence that throbs quietly within "the bad seed." Diane Sawyer, blonde and elegantly turned out, is more tolerable because the personality is largely uncosmeticized and more naturally sympathetic -- although one can detect an inner wince when she is obliged to stroke celebrated nonentities who are "on" promoting films that no one in their right mind would watch, or books that only the intellectually challenged would consider buying. The curse of televisual nakedness is that it is impossible to conceal the facial tics and darkened glances that divulge tedium or antagonism. The same inexorable cameras that probe the inner domain of actresses like Greta Garbo and Meryl Streep give us candid glimpses into the inner thoughts of TV interviewers and one has to be a supreme artist for the pasted-on mask to disguise entirely the niggles underneath.

But the media mask which is perhaps the most insufferable belongs to Chris Matthews, the fast-talking, hard-driving maestro of "Hardball" (which, if language were to be used more strictly, might be titled Hard Bull). He, more than any other, regularly defiles the principles of broadcast journalism. One of the principles of that genre, many would claim the most important, is objectivity -- and it is the one virtue that Matthews most deplorably lacks. It is not so much that he, like O'Reilly, is beating the drums for one side or the other; his problem is that he is beating them so indiscriminately all the time that virtually every issue gets obliterated in the din.

One sees him slithering precariously on the slippery slopes of the English language desperately trying to link his subjects to his predicates, his verbs to their objects, his adjectives to their nouns. No sooner has he posed a question and his interviewee has squared off to provide a reply than he restates the question adding extraneous matter which fudges the point of the original query. The interviewee then has the problem of deciding which of the two questions he should be addressing since each takes him in a different direction. No matter what choice he makes, he will never be allowed to delve very deeply into his reply because he is bound to be cut off by his loquacious interlocutor who, not having listened to the proffered response, has suddenly inserted yet another point -- usually a personal opinion or an irrelevant anecdote drawn from his endless chrestomathy of personal experience. What started out as fudge quickly liquefies into dripping blancmange.

It was Mike Wallace who, some fifty years ago, introduced the concept of the Interviewer as Mugger. In his earliest interviews, Wallace was probing, insolent, aggressive and occasionally insulting as he shredded the carefully composed personae of moguls and politicians who felt they could remain safely tucked behind their social facades and naively believed that being on national television meant the rules of civil behavior would be dutifully observed. It was a novel approach and it gained Wallace a national reputation. Bill O'Reilly has acknowledged that his own "take no prisoners" approach to interviews was inspired by Wallace. Matthews, one suspects, developed his pugilistic persona from Wallace as well, but whereas it seemed natural to Wallace, and in his case actually produced some compelling dialogues, with Matthews one is always aware of the disconnect -- the foisting of abruptness for its own sake.

Matthews obviously aspires to be the Cagney of the Airwaves but the trouble is, his aspirations are utterly transparent and there is nothing more barf-making than an intellectual featherweight pretending to be John L. Sullivan. The great interviewers, like the best actors, are always great listeners; the worst, like prancing referees, constantly butting themselves between a pair of clinching pugilists.

During the election of 2000, there was a rousing moment of comeuppance for Matthews when Zel Miller, the most Republican of all Democratic senators, was interviewed at the Republican convention about his attack on John Kerry. Exasperated by Matthews's constant interruptions to supply an answer to one of his three consecutive but unrelated questions, Miller told him to "Get out of my face" and virtually challenged him to a duel. Matthews tried to laugh it off implying how colorful and lively a piece of live TV this was, but the fact is, it created an enormous amount of sympathy for that right-wing zealot who, were we told he was in a Reality show in which he was to be run over by a Mack truck, every TV rating ever recorded would have been broken to catch the moment. Suddenly, we saw the difference between two types of Americans: the unselfconscious, four-square, reactionary politician who is prepared to stand up for his beliefs no matter how Neanderthal they may be, and the oleaginous, video-bred ruffian who equates shooting off his mouth with being forthright. In telling Matthews to shut the hell up and let him a get a word in, Miller was expressing the unspoken, butched-down, smoldering grievances of every interviewee Matthews ever trampled, and the fact that it was coming from an Ice-Age conservative didn't matter one whit.

We all realize that in America, TV news is no longer journalism but a branch of entertainment and therefore, reporters have to be type-cast in precisely the way actors are. According to that system, Matthews, although he probably sees himself in the hallowed tradition of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, falls into the category of classic loudmouthed bozos like William Bendix, Jimmy Gleason and William Demarest; the petulant, fast-talking, straight-shooting, Regular Joe who takes no shit from anyone as he flings his personal brand of dung at every comer. Seeing opinions angrily assaulted and arguments cut off in mid-sentence, issues blurred and guests verbally horsewhipped, a foreigner recently arrived on our shores would view "Hardball" not as an example of Freedom of Speech but Harassment of Speech. Matthews's remorseless braggadocio gives an entirely new connotation to the term Bully Pulpit.

It is not so much his personal obnoxiousness that sets one's teeth on edge, it is the fact that he has placed histrionics before journalistic disciplines which is so riling (or, if you'll pardon the neologism, so O'Reilling). He is so committed to dubious virtues, such as being a straight-shooter and no-nonsense anchorman, that he is all style without content. An unapologetic bruiser who enjoys the outrage he engenders without ever understanding that what delights him appalls a large majority of his viewers.

Most anchormen moderating a discussion between two or three contentious speakers ensure that each point will be fairly rebutted and no line of argument will be allowed to tread on the toes of or drown out one guest at the expense of another. But Matthews actually enjoys stirring it up for the sake of the chaos that ensues. He encourages cross-taking and simultaneous argument instead of trying to insure each speaker gets their turn. It is clear that for him the babble represents "good television" because it is loud, excitable and conflicted. He breeds on the anarchy that he generates on "Hardball." One is so busy trying to elucidate the language melee which is blurring the discussion that one can hardly tell where Matthews himself stands on any of the issues. This is because he doesn't so much "take a stand" as leaps from one strident high to the next. Like a hyper-Viagrafied sexual athlete more concerned with the frequency of his orgasms than their quality, he spends close to an hour on endless ejaculations while his viewers metaphorically reach for the Kleenex to wipe themselves dry.

It is pointless to cavil against the offences of broadcast journalism, as Matthews is representative of the era in which we now live; one in which insolence, ostentation, and bluster have become the prevailing characteristics of media prominence. A period in which if it is not gutsy, coarse, outlandish, obstreperous and extreme it just doesn't register on the cultural barometer. (Look at the dregs that inhabit the TV Reality shows! Look at the rap artists who try to outdo one another in Shock and Awe! Look at the ratings shows like "Jackass" command!) One hopes (perhaps in vain) that there are some people out there who still believe that it is more important for journalism to be fair, factual and informative and that the principles which underlie Show Business (pizzazz, panache, bursts of hyperbolic egotism and hyperventilating emotion) are the antithesis of those that should underlie the elucidation of social and political issues upon which our precarious future now desperately depends.

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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published May 23, 2005