NPR Interviewer Asks Chris Matthews: 'Can You Remember That Far Back, To When You Were Partisan?'

NPR’s Terry Gross is best remembered by conservatives for her 2003 assault interview with Bill O’Reilly. But it was all fuzzballs and flowers for Chris Matthews when he came to Gross’s show “Fresh Air” on Tuesday. They were discussing the new Matthews book on his old boss Tip O’Neill and Reagan.

The first laugh line from Gross? She asked Matthews, “Can you remember that far back, to when you were partisan?” Another gag line came when Gross asked if Matthews grew emotional when his liberalism (“love for the political process”) was challenged by people who want to dismantle and defund things:

GROSS: You love politics and the political process and American government. You've always wanted to be a part of it or writing about it or talking about it. When you interview people who think government is the problem and not the solution and who want to dismantle as much as possible, defund as much as possible, what's your emotional reaction to that as somebody who, you know, just loves the political process so much?

Matthews said the liberal media is “utterly professional...well-educated men and women who try to write the truth.”

MATTHEWS: So it was very simple, but when you come to Washington, and you get on the big national stage, most of the reporters who work for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the front pages, the A-section people, are totally, utterly professional. They're mostly well-educated men and women who try to write the truth.

Now, they may have quirks at different times. They may write a column which is tougher on you than you'd like, but generally they're trying to find the truth and get a smart look or a smart angle into what's going on. You can't predict how their day-to-day coverage is going to run.
Generally it'll be objective, but there may be a point view that it's going to hurt you occasionally. But if you do enough of this, this is my philosophy, if you do enough of this over a series of months, people will get a good picture. It's distillation that matters.

Another comical segment of the interview came as Gross discussed his “typical” style of hardball interviews. Gross described the Matthews style as “He doesn’t let anyone get away with anything.” Forget some infamous examples of Softball. Brent Bozell suggested his 2005 interview with Jane Fonda deserved the show title “Cuddles with Chris.” But Gross let Matthews boast about how he won’t let anyone bluster through him:

MATTHEWS: Terry, I know the talking points, and especially when you ignore the question. I do know that, and that bothers me, and I react impulsively, and I try to move them back to the question I asked. I do have one ability with my program, and I don't think you have this manner or this style, which is if somebody dodges a question, I will go back and ask it again. And if I ask a member --

GROSS: And again and again, yeah.

MATTHEWS: Well, I can only do it four times maybe at some point. I think on "Meet the Press" Tim used to do it two or three. But I can go to four at a point where people say I just want them to know that you didn't answer the question. Like I had a member of Congress on who was a Tea Party guy the other day, and I said to him --

GROSS: This is Blake Farenthold?

MATTHEWS: I think so. It was one of the Southern guys. And I said was the president --

GROSS: We got it. We've got the clip, Chris. We're going to play the clip. (Laughter)'

MATTHEWS: OK.

GROSS: OK, so let me set this up. So you're interviewing Blake Farenthold, who's a Republican congressman from Texas, and you're talking about defending Obamacare and Ted Cruz's fake filibuster. And then you asked Farenthold if he thinks that Ted Cruz would be eligible to run for president since Ted Cruz was born in Canada but his mother was born in the U.S., even though his father was not born in the U.S., and if Ted Cruz is eligible to run for president, what does that say about Obama and whether Obama was legitimately elected.

See how Terry Gross is actually setting up Matthews with clips that make him "look good"? NPR played a large chunk from MSNBC where Matthews peppers Farenthold 20 times to agree that Obama was legitimately elected. Farenthold, a conservative congressman from south Texas, refused to give Matthews the satisfaction. This was not a glorious moment of “hardball.” It was typical Matthews, being obsessed with birtherism and completely hypersensitive to any slight of Obama.

This was the classic boast at the end of this five minutes on Farenthold: “I don't create these moments, Terry. I just smell them.”

Speaking of smelly, they also discussed Matthews asking Michele Bachmann if she was hypnotized, and then somehow, Bachmann reminded him of a movie about Stasi spying in East Germany:

GROSS: On election night in 2010, you interviewed Michele Bachmann and no matter what you asked her, she kept giving four of the same talking points, and you finally said to her, are you hypnotized? (Laughter) You keep saying the same thing over and over.

MATTHEWS: Because she obviously, she's a very attractive person and she was very winning with the crowd for a while and she did have a lot of spunk, if you will, a lot of energy and excitement about what she believed. But when I asked her a question, she just kept giving that actually robotic answer. And I guess I suppose it was disrespectful of a public official to say are you hypnotized, because she wouldn't, it didn't seem to bother her to be giving an answer. In fact, I saw a congressman doing that about nine months ago. He's been told by his media people, just give the same answer over and over again and you'll be OK. And that's not true. People can tell if you give it over and over again. It's not really true. I remember watching a wonderful film. Again, a movie reference to The Lives of Others, where the Stasi guy said, they listened to these interviews and these interrogations over and over again.

GROSS: This is a film set in East Germany --

MATTHEWS: Yeah.

GROSS: -- and everybody is being spied on by the government and by their neighbors. Yeah.

MATTHEWS: And if he said, if they gave the exact verbatim explanation of something again and again you know they're lying because they have to give a verbatim answer that's always exactly the same. They can't let their mind wander and give it a different way because it didn't happen. It's so interesting. I've tried to remember that. So if they give me a robotic answer I know that they haven't really considered it as a truth or something they believe, it's simply something they're repeating.

GROSS: When I said before that some people think of you as a blowhard, you said not lately. And so...

MATTHEWS: Well, it's all a question of timing...

GROSS: ...do you think people have changed or you've changed, if it's true that people don't think of you as a blowhard now?

MATTHEWS: Well, I think people have their own styles. As I said, there's the Sunday morning audience, then there's the cable audience and I think that well, you do it very well obviously, Terry. I mean reducing the length of your question is a good thing to do. Try to find economy of language so that you can ask a three-word question and get a long answer. That's very good. Learning how to cue people, but also to race them a little, get them working a little faster than they like to think out loud, so they begin to think just on their feet and they have to answer more impulsively, and that way you can get closer to the truth. And I know it has an aspect of the interrogation room, of Sipowicz or somebody interrogating a guy. (Laughter)

But I'm telling you, if you really want the truth, you can't just let them come in and Bogart it and just keep giving long answers. And thank you for the mic, I'm now going to talk for 10 minutes. Which some people on either side of the aisle do that. They come on and say, 'Thank you for that question, which I now will ignore and I will give you the speech.'

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis