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It Only Hurts When He Laughs

The trials, tribulations, and triumphs of Mike Matthews, Memphis’ TV Watchdog.

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Mike Matthews is barely 60 years old, and what is that these days but the new 45? In any case, something about this idiosyncratic marvel of a TV newsman is peculiarly and perpetually young — but not in the usual cosmetic sense.

For there's something old about him, too. And why not? Chronically overweight and formerly prone to an unhealthy self-indulgence, he's taken more than a few batterings in recent years — an abrupt firing from his longtime station in late 2011, and, after two and a half years of re-establishing himself at a new television address, having to endure, successively, cancer and a heart attack, followed by a serious and unexpected circulatory problem resulting from what should have been a routine treatment.

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After a lengthy convalescence from the latter, a runaway hematoma that ravaged his body tissue and kept him hospitalized and abed (something the cancer, a scalp lymphoma since radiated into remission, couldn't do), Matthews is ready to resume his duties and is expected back on the job at WATV, Channel 24, next week.

As longtime fans and well-wishers, we wanted to cheer him on and sat down last Saturday afternoon with the Watchdog, as he is billed on TV for his aggressive and probing oversight of the local political and governmental universe. The venue was Celtic Crossing, the Cooper-Young establishment where Matthews has been both a fixture and a draw for the past several years. Long renowned for his tippling prowess, the Dog confined himself to a few glasses of water during our conversation, more or less on doctor's orders. As we talked, he was continually being greeted with hearty "Welcome home!" greetings from customers and employees.

This native of the Boston area has been a Memphian since September 1997 — not quite 20 years— but in that length of time he's become an authentic Memphian, residual New England Irish accent and all. Those who see him on TV or follow his tweets or read his entertaining Facebook posts — and, added up together, that's a lot of us — have learned more about Memphis and its power alleys than they thought there was to know. 

And more about him, too, especially in the Facebook entries, that — unlike the tweets and the television reporting, which are faithful if distinctively nuanced reports on the body politic — are something rare indeed: obsessive blow-by-blow accounts in which the self-chronicler tells us everything that he's doing (or that is being done to him), jot by jot, tittle by tittle, without being the least bit boring or off-putting. Over and over again, he turns out to be his own most interesting subject.

Many of us, in late September 2011, learned first from his Facebook page that Matthews had been fired by WREG-TV, News Channel 3, the station that, 14 years earlier, had given him the task of patrolling the local political and governmental waterfront — and that on-point nickname, The Watchdog, to go with it. The firing — actually, a non-renewal of his contract — was an astounding fact for many of us, who had long admired the Dog's aggressive, street-smart, unabashed style of reporting. (The Flyer's then-media critic, Jim Hanas, fascinated, dubbed it noir journalism.)

No blow-hair studio dandy, this guy. He had once — in his youth and early in his professional career — had more hair than all of the Kennedy brothers put together. As he put it in our chat, "I had some amazing hair. People would come from miles around to look at my hair. Little kids wanted to crawl around in it."

The Mike Matthews who hit Memphis TV screens in 1997 at age 42 was a balding, portly presence, however — visually more like Broderick Crawford than Matthew Broderick. Often, especially out of doors, he wore a trenchcoat. "I was gaining a little weight at the time, and I couldn't button my coat, so I threw the stupid coat over my shoulder. People reacted, so I just kept doing it."

Social mores, FCC codes, and TV "best practices" being what they were, he couldn't use the fat, rolled cigars he fancied as props, but they somehow seemed to be implicit  in the frames, anyhow.

Watching the Dog at a press conference was always a treat for other reporters. Suspenders, perpetually rumpled clothes, an ever-growing pot belly, and, ultimately, a hat (more about that anon): These were all part of his costumery, as he customarily beat other reporters to the punch and barked out the first question, as often as not the first of a series, prodding at some weak point in the subject's façade, some cover-up in the presentation. As he described his modus operandi on Saturday, it was the best way he could find of serving Memphis:

"It's a working-class city, and the people need somebody out there who's trying to be their voice. You ask your questions for them. I always did. They don't think the politicians give a damn about them. They don't think the people in power care about them. So my job is to go talk to the mayor or whoever and to approach them with respect but with a directness. Folks deserve an answer, and that's what you got the job for. I keep reminding them they're public servants, that's the term, and a lot of times these folks get in and they forget that entirely. It sounds corny, but that's what I need to be doing, and that's what I'm going to keep doing. I get real passionate about that."

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One of his favorite targets was Willie Herenton, the alpha-male mayor who had been in office for six years when Matthews got to town (following TV and radio stints in his native New England, and later in Columbia, South Carolina, and Charlotte, North Carolina). Herenton would serve another 12 years, during much of which time Hizzoner would often have to answer to the Watchdog.

"I always enjoyed the Herenton press conference. Some days he'd be mad at you and some days you were the greatest reporter who hit the earth," recalled Matthews who went after the mayor hard on irregularities like those at the city's Animal Shelter and Rape Crisis Center (both still potential problem areas under Herenton's successor, Mayor A C Wharton).

And there was John Ford, the longtime former state senator from Memphis who was forever mired in controversy and who would eventually be convicted of bribery in the FBI's Tennessee Waltz sting of 2005. The Watchdog gave the volatile Ford a wide berth, even while pressing him for answers.

"With somebody like him — with anybody, actually — if it got to the point where he said 'no comment' the third time, I would back off. He would easily get angry. I remember one day he was walking at a real fast clip. I've got my photographer and we're running after him, and he won't talk. I finally said, 'Senator, unless you want to be responsible for me dying of a heart attack right now, you should stop and let me get in front of you. He stopped and said, 'Okay, go ahead. Look at me and ask your questions.'"

As that incident suggests, the relationship of Matthews with the officials on his beat is generally one of mutual respect. (He regards both Herenton and Ford, whatever their flaws, as having been capable public servants who "did the job.")

As for Herenton, "He was fiery, but the son of a gun, when I was out of work at Channel 3, and Channel 3 didn't renew me, and I was needing a job, the guy who hired me at Channel 24, Pete Jacobus, was out one night and saw Herenton at Houston's and says, 'I'm thinking of hiring Mike Matthews,' and Herenton says, 'You gotta hire him, he's a great reporter.'"

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So what happened that Channel 3, for which he'd been a star performer, would let him go? Roll back through his voluminous Facebook posts, and it's obvious that the non-renewal of his contract blindsided him. No premonition, no warning. 

"I don't know what happened at Channel 3. I wish I did, but I don't. I didn't fit in with their future plans, I was told. I just don't bad-mouth where I worked." The station, which for years had languished at a seemingly permanent #2 to WMC-TV, Action News 5, had begun scoring number-one ratings at various time slots during his tenure there — a success rate, it should be said, that it continues to maintain. 

"I was shocked. I was. Really surprised," Matthews said of his involuntary departure. "When stuff like this happens, it makes you realize: 'Boy, I really liked that job.'

"There's no job protection in broadcasting, none whatsoever, particularly in Tennessee, an at-will state," the Dog mused on his bar stool. "A contract will keep you there for a while, but not that long. There's no protection, and radio's even tougher." He was doing both genres in Charlotte, his immediate pre-Memphis venue, and admits to being fired there — maybe for expressing "liberal" attitudes on the radio talk show he was doing in that conservative neck of the woods. (For a while, he did a little moonlighting in Memphis radio, too, following shock jock Thaddeus Matthews at a Flinn Broadcasting station.)

One problem at Channel 3 may have been the Watchdog's off-duty tweets. "Yeah, I got in trouble tweeting. A lot of double entendres. Not sophisticated humor, by any stretch. Early in the game they were borderline profane, and I was just knocking 'em out. I was told at the station, 'Some of your tweets are in bad taste. You wouldn't say some of that stuff on TV.' I said, 'I'd say it all.' That might not have gone over well. I stopped. I really toned down."

At Channel 24, where he landed in January 2012 after three months in broadcasting limbo, he's once again a tweeter. "It drives people to our TV station. I try to put some personality into it still."

***

At his new station, where copyright worries caused a temporary nickname change to "the Bulldog" (he has long since reverted to the "Watchdog" handle), Matthews enjoyed his reprieve and his return to the TV wars, and he resumed his former off-duty habits.

"Out there, drinking what you want to, eating what you want to, smoking cigars, you think you can't be put down. You think you're going to live forever. I did. All of a sudden, the cancer hit me in June." 

He'd developed a pimple-like bump on top of his balding scalp, one that began to grow. Channel 24 photographer Whitney Gramling, who'd had her own bout with melanoma, warned him he needed to see a doctor about it. A doctor, after watching him on TV, called in to urge him to do the same thing. Ultimately, Matthews went to see a dermatologist, who did a biopsy and confirmed the presence of a malignancy that was soon diagnosed as a lymphoma.

"They got it in stage one, which is rare for a lymphoma," recalled the Dog. The subsequent radiation therapy "knocked me for a loop. It was really tiring. There was a little nausea, but mostly I got exhausted." But he stayed on the job, in the meantime, sporting the wide-brimmed hat — to hide the marks drawn on his scalp to guide the radiation therapist — that has since become an on-air trademark. "There were days when it was really hard ro focus on what I was doing. There were some days I had to take off. But for the most part I wanted to work. It sounds crazy, but I like what I'm doing."

Inveterate self-chronicler that he is, Matthews kept his widening audience of fans and sympathizers informed of his medical progress on a daily basis via Facebook. And he kept on working.

"I  liked the job. I always have liked the job," he said. "It's what I want to do. Really, it's all I've ever wanted. Memphis has been a great place for me, because it offers politics in a way you don't see any other places. It's a rough and tumble world, and it's right out there for you to see, and there's all kinds of things going on that are just underneath the surface.

"And the toughest thing was this year. Hell, on January 16th, when I was told I was having a heart attack, [Councilman Jim] Strickland had just announced he was running for mayor, and I was thinking, 'Oh, this is going to be great here.' With Strickland running, and at the time I was thinking that [Councilman] Harold Collins was going to announce in a couple of weeks. I didn't know anything yet about [County Commissioner] Justin Ford and [Memphis Police Association President] Mike Williams, I just knew this was going to be a great year.

"So I feel I've knocked off the cancer It's in remission, the doctors tell me, and on January 16th, I wake up at three o'clock in the morning. I was feeling panicky. I thought it was a panic attack." And he had what felt like an onslaught of acid reflux. His first thought was to turn on the TV to calm himself down. But, as luck would have it, his cable system wasn't working right. If it had been, he probably would never have left his building. But he drove down to the Walgreen's nearest his Midtown apartment ("Walgreen's is a very interesting place at three in the morning!") and bought himself a little battery-powered radio to keep him early-morning company back in his apartment.

"I get in the car, with the radio. And, I don't know what it is, but I feel strange." So, on impulse, he drove to Methodist Hospital, where, at that early hour, "I had the best parking space." Inside, at the emergency room's admissions desk, he almost apologized for being there. "I said I may be overreacting. I may be making this up. But they took my blood pressure. It was 220 over 160, something bizarre I never heard of. They finished another test and said, 'You're having a heart attack right now.'"

The long and the short of it is that, after a lengthy wait, during which he “tried to find the best articles in People Magazines that were 10 years old," he was admitted. The short part was that he was given a catherization. The long part is what came next, an unexpected post-catherizatron hematoma in the region of his thigh that begat complications so trying and virulent that the doctors stopped talking about his heart issue altogether.

"If this thing hadn't happened, I'd have been in there for a day or two, tops, and out of there. But there was the hematoma, all this blood, and an infection. I had to have the dressings changed every morning. They thought of a skin graft. Another week they did a drain. In the third week, they did a catherization on the other side, put a stint in, and found blockage in another artery, and an aorta that was enlarged."

In the meantime, the hematoma had destroyed muscle and nerve tissue. "I had developed this odor of decaying flesh, and there was another operation just trying to cut away two areas where there was lots of decay."

A further complication was the fact that Matthews has Type 2 diabetes, "because I'm a fat bastard." Once topping the scales at more than 300 pounds, he now, post-treatment, weighs in at a mere 270.

***

The bottom line is that he's out now and ready to resume his reporting duties. His diet, both liquid and solid, is different. "Fish and vegetables, mainly. It's gonna kill me, because I'm Irish — a red-meat-and-potatoes man. And I can't eat any of that anymore. No cigars. No drink. Oh, once every now and then." Never fear. He's back to doing his teetotaling (or whatever) at Celtic Crossing and, starting March 16th — two months to the day from his heart attack — he'll be back on the air.

Will he be the same old Watchdog? The relish with which he discusses the forthcoming mayoral race leaves little doubt on that score. "I've got to get going on it. There's a lot of work I have to do. I'm like A C [incumbent Mayor A C Wharton]. Some days he used to look exhausted. But, once word got out that Strickland was thinking of running, he got rejuvenated. We've got a shot this year at getting the issues discussed. A lot of the candidates are going to have a shot, but I think it'll come down to Wharton and Strickland."

There's no doubt that Matthews means it when he says, "I get my pleasure out of my job." He told a story about the dissolution of his one and only marriage many years ago, early in his broadcasting career.

"My wife, who was fed up with my fixation on my work, asked me a hypothetical question: 'If you had a son and a plane happened to crash on the day of your son's first birthday party, keeping in mind he would never have another first birthday, which event would you spend your time at?' I told her, 'I'd have to go to the plane crash. I mean, it's a plane crash!' She never understood."

The couple would remain childless and would divorce after a two-year run. There would never be a son, but there would, in a manner of speaking, be any number of "plane crashes," especially in rowdy, working-class Memphis, which continually reminds him of the nitty-gritthy aspects of his native Boston.

"I like the job too well," he says. Reminded that he's become an institution here, he says, "An institution? I ought to be in an institution!"

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