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A Tale of Two Interviews: Chris Matthews Grills Bernie Sanders, Tosses Softballs to Hillary Clinton

And gives Clinton much more time to speak without interruption.

BY Branko Marcetic

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The fact that Matthews is in the tank for Clinton is unsurprising, but shouldn’t be blithely accepted.

Three weeks ago, a mere seven days from Super Tuesday, Bernie Sanders sat down with the host of MSNBC’s Hardball, Chris Matthews, for a contentious interview about the viability of his policy platform and his readiness to be commander in chief. The interview was a great example of adversarial journalism at its best, with Matthews cornering Sanders and forcing him to get specific about how he would enact his ambitious platform, and how exactly his calls for “political revolution” would translate in practice. Rather than letting Sanders dodge and bloviate, as politicians are wont to do, Matthews repeatedly pressed Sanders and forced him to answer the questions at hand.

Last night, on the eve of the March 15 primaries, Hillary Clinton sat down with Matthews and received a similar grilling from the MSNBC host, who put her feet to the fire and refused to let her wriggle out of any question he asked or dubious claim she made.

Just kidding.

Given Matthews’ clear support for the former Secretary of State during this campaign season, Hardball with Clinton was mostly anything but. In fact, so different was Matthews’ treatment of the two candidates that I decided to try and quantify it.

Matthews’ interview with Sanders was notable for the fact that, unlike most interviewers, he repeatedly interrupted Sanders when he felt he was avoiding his questions or not getting to the point. So I decided to time how long each candidate was allowed to speak uninterrupted by Matthews in their respective interviews.

I counted an interruption as any significant encroachment on the candidates’ speech, typically where they would either have to pause, stop talking entirely, repeat a phrase or answer another question. I didn’t count applause or laughter, and typically paused the stopwatch when this cut into a candidate’s speaking time, unless they simply spoke through it. Unless it stopped the candidate for a significant period of time, I also didn’t count Matthews chiming in to agree with the candidate, which he did in both interviews, nor when the candidate allowed Matthews a chance to say something. There were also a few instances where Clinton and Matthews had a jokey back-and-forth, which I didn’t measure.

I’ll be the first to say this wasn’t a scientific study. For simplicity’s sake, I didn’t count milliseconds, which benefited both candidates’ speaking times at different points. Matthews also has an annoying habit of interrupting the interviewee almost before they’ve said a single thing, which I automatically counted as one second’s worth of speaking. Finally, I tried to be generous—there was one 11-second stretch in the Sanders interview where Matthews essentially talked over him the entire time. I chose to count this as one 11-second long instance of speech for Sanders.

Even with all this, the results are telling. While Sanders spoke uninterrupted for an average of 19.89 seconds, Clinton spoke for an average of 32.08 seconds.

This is partly because Clinton tends to speak for longer in general, but that doesn’t let Matthews off the hook—most politicians are happy to talk and talk in the hopes of avoiding tough questioning, and Matthews shouldn’t be letting them avoid scrutiny by doing so.

The longest Sanders spoke for without stopping, whether due to Matthews or not, I measured at 1 minute and 9 seconds. This was Sanders’ answer to a softball question about what it was like to get involved in the 1960s civil rights movement. (Matthews actually chimed in at the beginning of his answer, but because he was agreeing with him and it stayed within the general flow of the response, I didn’t count it.)

By contrast, the longest Clinton spoke for without stopping was 2 minutes and 30 seconds, in response to a question about her support for toppling Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

Clinton didn’t answer the question, saying it would “be a good outcome” but that “Americans aren’t going to do it.” She then launched into a long monologue about Libya, where she said, among other things, “Is Libya perfect? It isn’t. But did they have two elections that were free and fair where they voted for moderates? Yes they did.”  

Matthews should've pointed out that as recently as December of last year, Clinton advocated a no-fly zone be put in place in Syria (which is essentially a declaration of war) and that Libya, far from being simply not perfect, became a failed state that has served as a base for ISIS, as well as one of the leading contributors to the current refugee crisis. Instead, he didn't challenge her on either of these statements.

I also compared the two most contentious periods of questioning in both candidates’ interviews. For Sanders, this was the segment that covered how he would achieve any of his policy proposals. For Clinton, it was the segment about her hawkishness on foreign policy—which, to Matthews’ credit, he questioned her fairly aggressively on.

Yet even here, the difference is stark. Sanders’ average speaking time in this period was an average of 15.05 seconds. For Clinton, it was 22.5 seconds.

How long a candidate speaks uninterrupted is not the be-all and end-all of an interview, but it is indicative of Matthews’ attitude towards the two candidates. Aside from the questions about her foreign policy and a brief segment on trade (where he allowed Clinton to say she only came out against the TPP once she knew what was in it, despite the fact that she helped negotiate the deal), many of Matthews’ other questions were softballs:

  • You went to Wellesley. What would’ve happened if you’d gone to Trump University?
  • What is the difference between you and [Bill Clinton]?
  • Tomorrow’s numbers look good for you in most cases. …Do you trust the polls anymore?
  • You had that understanding about the needs of people even though you were a suburbanite?
  • So you know how tough it is for those people who don’t have health care yet?

Matthews also launched into a rambling, more than 50 second-long question where he praised Clinton for being “protean” in her political philosophy over the years. Touching on the fact that she had supported Barry Goldwater as a young girl, he called the 1964 Republican nominee “a very attractive candidate.”

Goldwater ran against the Civil Rights Act and essentially kick-started the GOP’s racist “Southern strategy.” When he won the nomination, prominent segregationist and proto-Trump George Wallace dropped his own presidential campaign, declaring: “My mission has been accomplished.”

The fact that Matthews is in the tank for Clinton is unsurprising but shouldn’t be blithely accepted. The question is, is he more favorable toward her because his political beliefs match up more closely with hers? Or is it because a number of Clinton donors are helping fund his wife’s Congressional campaign? Since Matthews still hasn’t bothered to disclose this fact, most viewers will not get the chance to make up their minds. 

Branko Marcetic is a regular contributor to In These Times. He hails from Auckland, New Zealand, where he received his Masters in American history, a fact that continues to puzzle everyone who meets him. You can follow him on Twitter at @BMarchetich or email him at [email protected]

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