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The Role of Political Experience in Journalism

Journalism and IR
Chris Matthews

An Interview with Katherine Pollock 


Brown Journal of World Affairs: You began your career in politics, working as chief of staff to Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Tip O’Neill. How does your political experience impact what you do today as a journalist? What is the interplay between those two fields? 

Chris Matthews: Well, I was a speechwriter at the White House for President Carter. I had a very good experience inside American politics, especially when working for Speaker O’Neill, because I was there every day. Every day began with him using me to find out what was going on everywhere—in the U.S. Democratic caucus, in the world. He would start every day as a vacuum cleaner of sorts, asking, “What do you know, what did you hear?”—he wanted to know everything. And my job was to answer those questions and to give him some ideas and language for our daily press conferences. I knew him pretty well, and he trusted me. And, of course, we were up against Ronald Reagan all those years. You really can’t get a better experience in politics than that. So in terms of what I’ve been writing about and talking about for the last 20 years on my show, Hardball, I think I have a pretty good sense of what I’m talking about. O’Neill and Carter, of course, retired before I even got into journalism, so I never had that personal conflict of interest to deal with, which would have been difficult. I don’t know how you write or talk about someone who you’ve worked with. You can’t—your loyalty is there. Maybe this is an old-school concept, but loyalty doesn’t have a sell-by date. And I think people know me as a fairly independent source, but it’s always a trade-off: how much information did you take with you, and how much loyalty do you have to dispel? So, I think we’re probably better off having a lot of journalists who have had no political experience than having some journalists who have had a lot of political experience. Not to put down political experience—writing a speech, for example, is very similar to writing an opinion column. Peggy Noonan, who now writes a column for the Wall Street Journal, is one of the greatest speechwriters ever.