MSNBC and its
talk show host Chris Matthews are coming under increasing criticism as
more and more details have emerged to reveal the extent of the pundit's
preparations to challenge Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of
After Politico reported Thursday that Matthews had taken steps to
establish residency in Pennsylvania and been advised by partisan
operatives to quit MSNBC and begin his campaign, the network took
incoming flak from all sides.
"Should Chris Matthews use his air time to fawn over the voters and
governor of Pennsylvania while also weighing a run for Senate in
Pennsylvania?" asked Eric Burns, president of Media Matters, a liberal
watchdog group. "Of course not, and these are issues [NBC News
President] Steve Capus should address."
In a strange bedfellows moment, Brent Bozell, founder of the Media
Research Center, a conservative watchdog group, had a similar view.
"MSNBC has tarnished NBC's reputation so badly, that the last thing NBC
needs is a new controversy caused by MSNBC," Bozell said, mentioning
the perception of biased coverage during the presidential race brought
on by the sister network's commentators.
NBC is maintaining a strict code of public silence on the issue, but
there's only so long that network executives can brush everything off
as mere rumor and innuendo.
"If he's serious about running for office, he should not be on the
air," said Tom Johnson, former president of CNN. "It's a mistake, and I
think it crosses the line."
Johnson, now retired from the network, is one of the only news
executives who's dealt with the situation that NBC executives are
In November 1991, Johnson and "Crossfire" host Pat Buchanan agreed that
once his vague presidential aspirations matured into a serious
intention to run, he could no longer be on the air each afternoon
bantering about politics with Michael Kinsley.
"Pat handled it with great sensitivity to the situation," Johnson
recalled. "He and I did not have a single heated word about it. I felt
that he was acting responsibly."
Matthews, on the other hand, has helped fuel speculation by meeting
with Pennsylvania political leaders, talking about his boyhood dream of
being a senator, publicly professing his love for the Phillies and
flattering Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell on his show. Privately, he's had
conversations with several political operatives to lay the groundwork
for a possible run.
On Monday, Matthews' two worlds - potential candidate and talk-show
host - almost collided, as he met with political insiders in
Philadelphia to discuss the Senate run and then hosted "Hardball" from
the city a few hours later.
As a commentator, Mathews isn't bound to the same restrictions as a
network news correspondent, but there remains an ethical issue of
whether he should be on television each night at the same time he is
making such overtly political moves.
Tom Rosenstiel, director of Pew's
Project for Excellence in Journalism, said that if Matthews started an
exploratory committee, or made a formal announcement, obviously the
network would need to address the situation. But there's also a
question, he said, about when speculation reaches a "critical mass."
"That is one other element which a news organization needs to
contemplate," Rosenstiel said. "Is there anything going on that creates
a public perception problem that might be damaging the brand, or the
reputation of MSNBC?"
Some observers, from both sides of the political aisle, argue the damage is already being done.
"NBC's inaction on this matter is very disturbing and extremely
disappointing," said Rob Jesmer, incoming executive director of the
National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Phil Singer, deputy communications director for the Hillary Clinton
presidential campaign and a critic of MSNBC's coverage during the
Democratic primaries, created a buzz on his blog Monday by criticizing
Matthews and suggesting that the network should "at the very least,
[disclose] any and all deliberations and actions being taken by that
person to explore a run."
"If Chris Matthews is seriously considering a run for Arlen Specter's
Senate seat," Singer wrote, "he shouldn't be on the air right now."
Indeed, NBC staffers are concerned that Matthews' flirtation with the
race, which has the appearance of a Democratic candidate using the
network as a platform for a Senate run, could negatively affect the
"Let him disprove the rumors and show how these stories are false," said Bozell.
But so far, NBC has been unwilling to comment on multiple reports, and
the network's coverage of Specter and potential challengers doesn't
Elsewhere, though, the ethical concerns raised by Matthews' Senate
machinations have been a hot topic among the political chattering
class. CNN raised the Matthews rumor on the air during an interview
with Specter last Sunday. On Thursday, policymakers and opinion shapers
in Politico's "Arena" section sounded off as well.
For the most part, the ethical concern is not whether Matthews should
run - some welcome the idea, while others are opposed - but that he has
a commitment not to be a player in the political fray while
simultaneously hosting a cable news show each night.
Alan Schroeder, a journalism professor at Northeastern University,
wrote that Matthews would bring "some badly needed energy and
intelligence" to the Senate, but that he has a responsibility to leave
if he is intent on running for the seat.
"Should Chris Matthews give up his job at MSNBC if he is serious about
running for office?" Schroeder asked. "Yes, though you can't blame a
guy making $5 million a year for wanting to ride the gravy train for as
long as he can."