The Churchillian side of Chris Matthews will be revealed on Oct. 25.

Media criticism.
Oct. 18 2007 7:26 PM

The Churchillian Side of Chris Matthews

To be revealed on Oct. 25 at an awards ceremony.

Chris Matthews. Click image to expand.
Chris Matthews

Dredge your overstuffed furniture. Scrape the bottom of your purse. Shatter your kid's piggy bank. Do what ever it takes to find $500 for a ticket to the Churchill Centre's Oct. 25 fund-raising dinner at the Willard so you can witness the presentation of the Emery Reves Award to Chris Matthews for lifetime achievement in journalism.

The Reves Award goes to the member of the TV commentariat who flings the best on-air spittle, which poses the question of why Matthews didn't win the prize a decade ago and have it retired in his honor. Just joshin'. Actually, the award honors "excellence in writing or speaking about Churchill's life and times, or for applying his  precepts and values to contemporary issues among the English-Speaking Peoples," according to the affair's invitation.

How has Matthews applied Churchill's precepts and values to contemporary issues among English-Speaking Peoples? Churchill Centre President Laurence Geller paints Matthews' accomplishment in these bright colors in a press release. "Mr. Matthew's [sic] passion for a free and open press and the public debate that it sparks is legendary. … He is an enthusiastic supporter of democracy and has been a learned member of the news reporting fraternity throughout his distinguished and prolific career."

Legendary. Supporter of democracy. Learned reporter. Distinguished. Prolific. All of these words may capture Matthews' character, but not as well as do flighty, braying, shameless, and opportunistic. It's a shame that nobody gives a Sammy Glick Award. Matthews would be a cinch.

What makes Chris run? Back in 1989, Los Angeles Times reporter Tom Rosenstiel tracked the Matthews ascendancy from political aide and speechwriter to media star.

"He made no secret about it. Chris Matthews wanted to be a pundit, a player, a face on the Sunday political talk shows," Rosenstiel writes. But the transformation required journalistic credentials, which Matthews lacked. The San Francisco Examiner, then the underdog afternoon daily in the Bay Area, was only too obliging. In 1987, it made Matthews an Examiner columnist and inflated him with the title of "San Francisco Examiner Washington bureau chief," something that would look distinguished on a TV Chyron below his grinning face. (At the time, the Examiner had only one other D.C. reporter.)

The dodge worked. In 1989, Washingtonian named Matthews one of the city's "top 50 journalists," writes Rosenstiel. It was a nice trick considering that Matthews was barely even a journalist.

After apprenticing on The McLaughlin Group, Face the Nation, Good Morning America, and CBS Morning News, Matthews won a co-anchor spot of his own on NBC's fledging cable TV network in 1994. Except for one decent book—1996's Kennedy and Nixon: The Rivalry That Shaped Postwar America—it's been klieg lights, non sequiturs, and bombast ever since.

If the Churchill Centre has yet to corral a presenter for Matthews, allow me to suggest Vanity Fair's James Wolcott, who appreciates the man's talents. In his 2004 book, Attack Poodles and Other Media Mutants, Wolcott writes:

Matthews manages to outrace his contradictory statements by blustering so many excitable things so fast and so often that pinning down the discrepancies is like trying to grab a gust of wind by the tail. He isn't a cynical dissembler. He seems to suffer from some pundit variant of short-term memory loss. Each day on earth erases the days before. He says what he believes and believes what he says, and has the liberating advantage of always working from a blank sheet.

Just like Churchill.

Matthews is no stranger to the Churchill Centre, having served as master of ceremonies at its 2005 in Chicago, when the Reves Award went to Tom Brokaw [ PDF ]. That night, Matthews proved once again that he'll say anything to please a crowd by calling Brokaw "perhaps the most accomplished journalist of our time." Brokaw is OK, but if an accurate roster of the top 500 of journalists of our time exists, he's not even on the waiting list.

But journalism awards given by outfits like the Churchill Centre aren't meant to compete with the Pulitzer Prizes. They're fund-raisers, and they exist to sell enough tax-deductible tickets to support the nonprofit's various programs. According to the Churchill Centre's IRS Form 990s for 2005 and 2006, available through Guidestar.org, the 2005 awards ceremony honoring Brokaw was a smash, netting the organization about $175,000.

It's just a show, and you're not expected to believe anything you hear there. Sort of like Chris Matthews' Hardball.

Addendum: Watch Jon Stewart blister Matthews on the Daily Show.

******

Chris Matthews' official bio states that he won the David Brinkley Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism in 2004. Except for learning (via Nexis) Bernard Shaw has won the award and that Barry University has given it out, I know practically nothing about it. Fill me in with e-mail to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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