Chris Matthews: A Stupid Comment, A Great Apology

Chris Matthews, the loudmouth host of MSNBC’s Hardball, got into trouble late on election night for committing a classic “seven-second stray.”

While speaking about President Obama’s victory, Mr. Matthews pointed out that Hurricane Sandy may have helped his re-election effort. But the manner in which he made that point was terribly insensitive.

Chris Matthews: “I’m so glad we had that storm last week. Cause I think the storm was one of those things…”
Rachel Maddow (off-camera): “Ooooooo.”
Chris Matthews: “…no, politically I should say, not in terms of hurting people. The storm brought in possibilities for good politics.”

One of the most basic rules about a crisis is that your communications must be aligned with the victims. Instead, Mr. Matthews put his own political motives ahead of innocent people affected—or killed—by the storm. His comment rightly earned condemnation in the blogosphere.

The next night, Mr. Matthews began his show with a direct and unsparing apology:

“I said something not just stupid, but wrong….I said something that suggested ends justify means, something I’ve never believed in my life, and even thinking that way I think is an immoral way to live your life.”

His voice cracking, he continued:

“I intend to take serious steps to show that I’m sincere on this…please believe me I’m determined to do what I can to try to help the people who have already been hurt enough, who have suffered and are suffering enough hardship without hearing stupid stuff from me.”

Photo Credit: chetlyzarko, Wikimedia Commons

In a situation of this type, the public wants to know that you get it, you care, and are going to take steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Matthews succeeded on all three counts. He took full responsibility, explained in his own words why he knew he was wrong, and pledged to take positive action to help the people in need. He looked sincere—almost on the verge of tears—as if nothing anyone else said could possibly make him feel worse than he already did.

Art Aiello, one of this blog’s readers, noticed the Matthews clips and asked the following question:

“Given that there are so many pundits out there like Matthews who are not just reporting the news but opining about it, I wonder if they ever take the time to review their own messages?”

I doubt it. They often just don’t have the time.

During my time with CNN, I worked closely with pundits. One such pundit, the late Robert Novak, was the executive producer of The Capital Gang. In that role, he wrote the show, selected and reviewed all of the video clips, and managed the staff. That was on top of his full-time job as a columnist and author. Even if he had wanted to, he wouldn’t have been able to script out all of his thoughts in advance.

I suspect that committing “seven-second strays” is an occupational hazard of being a pundit. Sometimes, the wrong thoughts come out the right way (or the right thoughts come out the wrong way). When that happens, all we can hope is that pundits take responsibility for their words and apologize unreservedly.

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