On Thursday, Jan. 3, the night of the Iowa caucuses, Chris Matthews interviewed Rudy Giuliani live on MSNBC. “I noticed working with a lot of reporters, even mild-mannered reporters from New York,” observed Mr. Matthews, “they don’t like you much.”
That observation set up the question that Mr. Matthews wanted to explore: “Are you being screwed by the press?” he asked.
Was he? Mr. Giuliani demurred to his host, who proceeded to make the case.
As he had a few weeks earlier on his MSNBC show Hardball, Mr. Matthews trotted out Exhibit A—an article that appeared on Nov. 29 in The New York Times, which, as Mr. Matthews put it, was about how Mr. Giuliani “had failed to give an accurate accounting as mayor of the cost of your security detail when you went off to visit your now wife.” And Exhibit B—a subsequent piece in The Times on Dec. 20, which, Mr. Matthews suggested, exonerated Mr. Giuliani but had been buried deep in the paper.
“The New York Times finally came back on page 35 of the national edition and pointed out that they were wrong,” he said. “But none of the papers ever came back and said, ‘Wait a minute we blew it.’”
“You lost 10 points in the polls because of those stories,” Mr. Matthews concluded. “Are you going to be able to get back that 10 points on the basis of a retraction buried on page 35 of The Times?”
In short, then, Mr. Matthews was accusing The New York Times of running an inaccurate story that, along with others of its kind, did grave damage to the Giuliani campaign—a serious charge.
The Times’ initial Nov. 29 story, by William Rashbaum—about the then-mayor billing travel and security costs to the city during a time when he was having extramarital liaisons in the Hamptons—simply recounted on page 26 of the national section the original news, which had been broken by The Politico. It acknowledged that some questions about how those expenses had been billed to the city remained unclear in the aftermath of The Politico’s scoop—such as how much of the expenses were billed to the mayor’s agency and how much were billed to obscure city agencies.
The follow-up piece by reporter Russ Buettner, published Dec. 20 and labeled a “Checkpoint,” reported that, as it turned out, all eight of Mr. Giuliani’s trip to the Hamptons in 1999 and 2000 had been billed to the mayor’s office—while several subsequent trips in 2001, after Mr. Giuliani’s affair with Ms. Nathan had become public, were billed to a separate agency.
The item did throw cold water on the heated question of whether the mayor was using unusual accounting practices to keep his affair secret. But it did little to alter the basic facts of the larger narrative about (a) the cost to taxpayers of the mayor’s extramarital affair in the Hamptons and (b) his office’s still mysterious practice, as the Checkpoint noted, of shifting mayoral travel expenses “to lesser-known units,” a practice “other administrations frowned on.” And it never presented itself as a retraction or correction of the earlier story.
In an e-mail to NYTV on Monday, Catherine Mathis, a spokesperson for The Times, confirmed that, contrary to Mr. Matthews’ belief, no “retraction” had been offered. The initial piece, she said, “prominently featured the Giuliani campaign’s response, so there was nothing to correct or retract.”
“After reviewing the records ourselves, however,” Ms. Mathis continued, “it did seem fair to further clarify the issue, given the level of attention it had received, and that is what we sought to do with the Checkpoint piece.”
Was the Checkpoint piece unfairly buried? “As to the placement of the piece, it ran on one of the politics pages for the day, which is where our original report on the Politico piece ran,” wrote Ms. Mathis.
And had the overall coverage cost Mr. Giuliani 10 points in the polls, as Mr. Matthews suggested? On Monday, veteran pollster John Zogby told NYTV that it was all but impossible to confirm that notion—but added that in all likelihood many other variables contributed to Mr. Giuliani’s decline, including the former mayor’s difficulties with the base, his strategy of largely ignoring the early primary states, the plethora of other moderate candidates in the field, and Bernard Kerik. “All of those came into play and didn’t help Rudy,” said Mr. Zogby.
Reached on Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Matthews said he stood by his take. “We did it on the air clearly,” said Mr. Matthews. “I edited that piece. I wrote that piece. I’m very confident of that reporting by us.”
And he defended his analysis of the polls. “That is the assessment I make as a political student,” he said. “I watched the process. I watched that story explode over a series of days. And I watched the coincidental decline of his poll numbers. If you go back and check the tabs and check the way the story was bouncing off the tabs on the television, that was the main story.”
But Mr. Matthews’ willingness to go to bat for Mr. Giuliani—and to take a shot at the New York press in the process—wasn’t well received by one of the reporters who has covered Mr. Giuliani closest. Wayne Barrett, the longtime Village Voice writer and author of Rudy!: An Investigative Biography of Rudolph Giuliani, told NYTV he saw Mr. Matthew’s Thursday interview as part of a broader pattern in which the MSNBC host treated Mr. Giuliani with blind admiration. “Chris loves to say all this macho stuff about Giuliani: He has great street cred, he is a man of action,” said Mr. Barrett. “He is not even willing to tolerate or listen to other voices about Giuliani.”