Chris Matthews broke an old journalism rule in his interview with Donald Trump on Wednesday — the one in which the Republican presidential front-runner said “there has to be some form of punishment” for women who undergo illegal abortions.
How so? The MSNBC host allowed his subject to turn the table and question him.
TRUMP: Are you Catholic?
MATTHEWS: Yes, I think ...
TRUMP: And how do you feel about the Catholic Church's position?
MATTHEWS: Well, I accept the teaching authority of my church on moral issues.
TRUMP: I know, but do you know their position on abortion?
MATTHEWS: Yes, I do.
TRUMP: And do you concur with the position?
MATTHEWS: I concur with their moral position but legally, I get to the question — here's my problem with it ...
TRUMP: No, no, but let me ask you: But what do you say about your church?
MATTHEWS: It's not funny.
TRUMP: Yes, it's really not funny. What do you say about your church? They're very, very strong.
MATTHEWS: They're allowed to — but the churches make their moral judgments, but you running for president of the United States will be chief executive of the United States. Do you believe ...
TRUMP: No, but ...
MATTHEWS: Do you believe in punishment for abortion, yes or no, as a principle?
TRUMP: The answer is that there has to be some form of punishment.
MATTHEWS: For the woman?
TRUMP: Yes, there has to be some form.
Journalists almost never do this — and for good reason. Most feel obligated to keep opinions to themselves to preserve the appearance of objectivity. A standard response, when Trump started down the path of interviewing Matthews, would have been to halt him right away and say something like, “We’re not talking about me. I’m not the one running for president.”
Instead, Matthews let Trump take this detour. And you know what? It worked. It’s what produced the abortion quote everyone was/is talking about. (Trump quickly recanted. More on that here.)
Granted, Matthews’s role as “Hardball” host affords him more freedom to share personal views than most other journalists enjoy. Not everyone could — or should — do what he did on Wednesday.
But this unconventional exchange could be Exhibit A in the case for why just-the-facts reporting and interviewing isn’t enough — especially when covering Trump. The former reality TV star is a pro at batting away questions he doesn’t want to answer, and he most definitely did not want to answer Matthews’s question about punishment for illegal abortions. Matthews asked twice before opening up about his own religious and legal beliefs and got classic non-answers both times.
Trump only engaged when Matthews got personal — when he showed how seriously he takes the abortion issue (“It’s not funny”) and reflected on a tension between religious teaching and personal freedom to which many people can relate. It even appeared that tears were welling in Matthews’s eyes.
In such a sobering moment, even Trump couldn’t keep blowing off the punishment question.
(By the way, if you’ve only read Trump’s comment and didn’t bother to watch the primetime airing of the taped interview in which he said it, then you'll really want to spend the 97 seconds it will cost you to view the video at the top of this page.)
Trump is an unusual candidate; sometimes it takes unusual methods to get meaningful answers out of him — not that he necessarily sticks to those answers. On Tuesday, it was Anderson Cooper’s willingness to abandon another interviewing principle (don’t trample potential soundbites) that produced one of the toughest, best Q&As of the entire campaign.
Cooper’s and Matthews’s interviews showed that journalists — within reason — should not be afraid to break a few rules when dealing with Trump. Actually, breaking a few rules might be the only way to deal with Trump.