David Shuster, scapegoat?

He deserved his suspension for saying Chelsea Clinton had been "pimped out," but he's also paying for MSNBC's sexist coverage of Hillary.

Published February 12, 2008 8:00PM (EST)

I'm late to this story, but I think there's more to say about the David Shuster controversy. When I saw last Thursday that the MSNBC correspondent had asked whether Chelsea Clinton was being "pimped out" by her mother's presidential campaign, I cringed. I recognized another yawning generation gap -- people raised on MTV's "Pimp My Ride" might miss the searing slur in Shuster's words; Hillary Clinton and many of her supporters surely would not. I was somewhere in between. I have a teenager, and I know "pimp" doesn't quite mean what it used to; I also know it's not something you can say on television news. I knew Shuster would have to apologize, and I expected he would, early and often.

As it happens, I was traveling Friday, but as I was packing to leave town Thursday night, I e-mailed Shuster about his Chelsea remark; he told me he thought it was a "nonstory" and added, "I think anybody who reads the entire segment transcript or watches the entire video would come away thinking I have nothing but the highest praise for Chelsea." By the next morning, though, he had apologized, a little unconvincingly; by the afternoon he had to apologize again, and NBC News president Steve Capus was also apologizing, as well as suspending Shuster. Keith Olbermann apologized on Friday, but the issue still hasn't gone away.

Now there's a controversy over the controversy. Hillary Clinton herself weighed in with a letter to NBC News, insisting: "Nothing justifies the kind of debasing language that David Shuster used and no temporary suspension or half-hearted apology is sufficient. I would urge you to look at the pattern of behavior on your network that seems to repeatedly lead to this sort of degrading language." On "The View," Barbara Walters claimed Clinton was asking for Shuster to be fired (others also read her letter that way, though I didn't) and said his apology and suspension should be enough: "Drop it already! It's OK. He made a mistake."

I happen to agree with both Walters and Clinton: I think Shuster had to be suspended, but I think firing him would make him a scapegoat for the "pattern of behavior" and "degrading language" at MSNBC Clinton rightly complained about.

The sexism charges, of course, go back to Don Imus calling the valiant Rutgers women's basketball champions "nappy-headed hos," which was also racist, obviously. (Not coincidentally, Imus is an old-time Hillary hater as well.) But Hillary hate courses through too much of MSNBC's programming, and there's no doubt it often has a sexist tinge. Chris Matthews rightly apologized for some of his excesses, but unfortunately Shuster and Joe Scarborough then attacked Matthews' critics for organizing protests against him. Despite Matthews' apology, the cable news network has continued to be unfair to Clinton, hour after hour, as documented by Media Matters. I've written about it here and here.

I happen to think that on balance Shuster is a fair reporter. His coverage of the Valerie Plame leak and Scooter Libby's trial was stellar; he's most often the "just the facts" guy on Chris Matthews' "Hardball," and when he has been the guest host on shows I'm on, or a guest alongside me, he has always been fair and smart. I've been criticized for continuing to appear on MSNBC, but I always tell people that if I boycotted every institution afflicted by sexism, I'd have been jobless my whole life; I'd rather continue to accept their invitations to talk politics and say what I think, on MSNBC and on Salon. I hope others, men and women, continue to speak out about the frat-house atmosphere that's taken over MSNBC of late. I'd love to see Barack Obama weigh in on the "pimped out" comment, too; many people have noted correctly that Shuster might never work in television again had he used "pimped out" to refer to Michelle Obama or the couple's cherished daughters. It would be nice if folks on both sides of this thrilling Democratic primary found a way to ask MSNBC to change the tone.

By Joan Walsh

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2008 Elections