According to Joe Wilson, Chris Matthews is a guy who can't keep a secret or a promise. As Wilson told Newsweek two years ago, Matthews phoned him on July 21, 2003 (one week after Novak's column outed Wilson's wife) to say, "I just got off the phone with Karl Rove. He says, and I quote, 'Wilson's wife is fair game.'" A few hours later on Hardball, Matthews and Andrea Mitchell discussed Wilson's "accusation" of a White House smear campaign.
When Newsweek asked him about the phone call, Matthews said "I'm not going to talk about off-the-record conversations." Off the record with whom? Rove or Wilson? Only Wilson and Matthews know what was spoken; and Matthews' wish to avoid any "he said he said" controversy is understandable. Still, if you were a reporter wrongly accused of betraying Karl Rove's confidence, wouldn't you feel compelled set the record straight?
Newsweek got Andrea Mitchell to be more forthcoming. She had phoned Wilson one day before Matthews' purported call and said: "I heard in the White House that people were touting the Novak column and that that was the real story."
Irrespective of what Matthews and Mitchell said or didn't say, the Newsweek story opened up an ethical can of worms.
Matthews had every reason to resent Wilson. The former ambassador had effectively accused Matthews of playing fast and loose an off-the-record source. (On the first page of his memoir, Joe Wilson recounts Matthews' phone call, including his statement, "I will confirm if asked") Any newspaper editor would have seen the conflict of interest and permanently disallowed Matthews from reporting on the Plame leak. But print journalism's ethical standards are frequently ignored by broadcast news.
Why? Newspapers and broadcast news have different business models. The New York Times business model is selling readers a bundle of hard and soft news and advertising (people do like to browse the ads). For MSNBC, the model is selling Chris Matthews. Since MSNBC invested millions in the Chris Matthews brand - his contract extends into 2009 - it must protect it.
"Branding" is MBA-speak for that shopworn pitch: "Accept no substitutes." Just as Bayer insinuates that its aspirin is better than the generic kind, MSNBC wants you to believe that no one else offers Chris Matthews' entertaining and insightful take on Washington politics.
So, from a business (ratings) perspective, which is worse for Hardball?
(a) Allowing Matthews to cover a major Washington scandal, while bypassing his own ethical conflicts in the story, or
(b) Taking Matthews out of the action and Washington buzz by explaining why Matthews may have an ax to grind.
If MSNBC has any excuse for bypassing the high road, it's Matthews' persona - which is all about shooting his mouth off. Hardball is a show about opinions (mostly Matthews') as much as about reporting or analysis.
For NBC News, the same business model and brand marketing applies to Tim Russert, who, as NBC News' Washington Bureau Chief, operates in a more traditional news venue.
The Russert brand transformed "Meet the Press" into a complete misnomer. Before Russert's arrival in 1991, the Sunday program's format showed politicians taking questions from "the press," a rotating group of Washington reporters. These days, politicians and journalists "Meet Tim Russert," who asks all the questions and sets the entire agenda. In 1991, Meet the Press netted about $800,000 a year. When Russert renewed his contract in 2001, the program earned $50 million a year. The upshot: Presidents will come and go, but Russert's contract keeps him on Sunday mornings through 2012.
And NBC is highly motivated to silence any talk of Russert's ethical shortcomings. Unlike Matthews, Russert doesn't have the problem of being too close to the Valerie Plame story. Russert is the story. He acknowledged as much to the U.S. District Court in June 2004, when an indictment could have affected the election. As his lawyers wrote in a court filing:
"It appears that Mr. Russert's testimony is sought solely because the special prosecutor believes that his recollection of a telephone conversation with an Executive Branch official is inconsistent with that official's statements."