MSNBC host Chris Matthews is making preliminary inquiries into running to unseat Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, while openly declaring himself an active supporter of the Obama administration.
Matthews described it as his “job” to help Obama on Thursday during Joe Scarborough’s “Morning Joe” program.
Matthews’ remarks, and his other political activities, appear to flirt with parent-company NBC’s policy prohibiting any staff member from taking an active role in any political campaign.
Scarborough’s exchange with Matthews Thursday morning:
Matthews: “I want to do everything I can to make this thing work, this new presidency work.”
Scarborough: “Is that your job? You just talked about your being a journalist.”
Matthews: “Yeah, that’s my job. My job is to help this country.”
Scarborough: “So your job as a journalist is to make this presidency work?”
Matthews: “To make this work successfully, because this country needs a successful presidency, more than anything right now.”
Moments later, Time magazine editor Richard Stengel took exception to Matthews’ description of his role as a journalist.
“Walter Cronkite once famously said that journalists are skeptical so the public doesn’t become cynical,” Stengel said. “As Americans, we want of course Barack Obama to succeed and we want the country to thrive.
“As journalists, we have to hold his feet to the fire. That is our responsibility. Frankly, I think that’s our constitutional responsibility. That is why the press is protected in the Constitution.”
Matthews’ comments were but the latest in a series of actions that blur the line between journalism and politics:
In reference to speculation that Specter might not run for re-election, Matthews told host Stephen Colbert in April on the “Colbert Report”: “When you grow up, some kids want to be a fireman. I want to be a senator.”
In October, The New York Times reported that Matthews attended a private dinner meeting hosted by Robert Wolf, a major Obama fundraiser and the president of UBS’s investment bank. The meeting was attended by a dozen top Democratic movers and shakers, including Jeff Kindler, CEO of Pfizer; Jim Torrey, co-founder of the Torrey Associates hedge fund; and Ned Lamont, who lost a Senate bid to independent Democrat Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut. Wolf told the Times that the Pennsylvania Senate race was “on the periphery of the meeting.”
Former Pennsylvania Congressman Joe Hoeffel, a Democrat who ran against Specter in 2004, told Roll Call recently that Matthews consulted him about a possible Senate run. “He was thinking about it enough to chat with me a little about it when we bumped into each other socially,” Hoeffel told Roll Call. Hoeffel advised Matthews to embark on a statewide listening tour, similar to the exploratory moves Hillary Clinton made before her first Senate run, in order to measure reaction to his candidacy.
The Southwest Caucus Party chairman of the Democratic Party, Jack Hanna, said Matthews has been phoning Democratic leaders and “laying the groundwork” for a possible run. By discussing his interest with party leaders, Matthews could be warning off potential rivals who might otherwise toss their hats in the ring.
Earlier in the election cycle, Matthews remarked that hearing Obama speak sent “a thrill going up my leg.” In September, MSNBC announced that it would remove Matthews and fellow firebrand host Keith Olbermann from covering the elections as anchors, but would continue to use them as analysts. The Times reported that NBC anchors Brian Williams and Tom Brokaw had found it increasingly difficult to defend MSNBC’s political tilt.
On Election Day, Matthews at times appeared to blend the roles of co-anchor and analyst.
Matthews told New York Times reporter Bill Carter in October: “Right now, I have a professional responsibility to cover this campaign and politics generally with objectivity. I can’t be involved in anything like that. It has to be off the table,” he said in an apparent reference to his political interests.
He also maintained, “I’ve never told anyone that I’m running.”
Matthews’ program has enjoyed stronger ratings lately, and executives at NSNBC and NBC News have said they do not want to discuss Matthews’ politics.
“This is a nonissue for us,” MSNBC spokesman Jeremy Gaines told the Times reporter. “ ‘Hardball’ is doing better than ever.”
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