The Misplaced Loyalties and Dubious Code of Chris Matthews

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The MSNBC host attacked Cory Booker for breaking with the Democratic Party line. As a journalist, he ought to celebrate truth-telling.

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When the average television viewer sees someone on a public-affairs show making arguments about a political controversy, they presume that the speaker believes whatever he or she is saying. That is the conclusion they're meant to draw. Everyone on TV behaves as if that is the case. But Chris Matthews doesn't think politicians on TV necessarily owe the audience an accurate accounting of their views. As he sees it, anyone who appears on television and is identified as a supporter of President Obama or the Democratic Party is compelled to articulate the party line, even though they aren't told what questions they'll be asked before their appearance.

Why interview "surrogates" at all if their answers are just political theater?

The Hardball host didn't address that question when discussing a much remarked upon weekend appearance by Newark Mayor Cory Booker on Meet the Press. Identifying himself as an Obama surrogate, Booker generally defended the president and touted his record. When asked what he thought of a TV advertisement by host David Gregory, he also expressed discomfort with attacks on Mitt Romney's time at the private-equity firm Bain Capital.

There isn't anything inconsistent about supporting a politician but disagreeing with a campaign tactic used against his opponent. Booker's comments were nevertheless, in Matthews' telling, "a betrayal."

Matthews didn't merely say they were surprising or unprecedented. He expressed outrage that Booker "chose sides" with private equity rather than Obama. He spoke as if he thinks politicians owe greater loyalty to fellow insiders and establishment norms of behavior than to the American people, even if it means misleading the public about their beliefs on the matter at issue.

If Matthews were a political operative, perhaps the code he's defending would make sense.

But he is a journalist. If he thinks that Booker has violated an establishment norm he's entitled to point it out. But he ought to celebrate all truth-telling, even when it does involve "betraying" partisan loyalties. Matthews is supposed to be a champion of the public's right to accurate information, but he's acting like a guardian of political class norms that require deceiving the public.

Why appoint himself an enforcer of those norms?

Partisan hackery is hardly in need of defenders. Matthews should reconsider his comments in light of their implications.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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