MSNBC’s David Shuster, while not the only reporter in trouble for using a p-word this week, is the only one suspended for doing so. The Huffington Post’s Rachel Sklar says Shuster’s suspension and NBC’s apologies may have more to do with Chris Matthews than a single inappropriate blunder.
BOB GARFIELD: And, I'm Bob Garfield. What’s the deal with reporters using inappropriate words that begin with the letter “p”? This week, Time magazine’s Mark Halperin had to apologize for using a not-for-prime-time p word, which we won't repeat on the radio, and, of course, there’s MSNBC’s David Shuster. [CLIP] DAVID SHUSTER: But doesn't it seem like Chelsea’s sort of being pimped out in some weird sort of way? [LAUGHTER]
BILL PRESS: No! She’s there – listen. If she didn't want to be there, she wouldn't be there. [END CLIP] BOB GARFIELD: That was Shuster on February seventh. Here he was on the eighth. [CLIP] DAVID SHUSTER: I used a phrase that was inappropriate and I apologize to the Clinton family, the Clinton campaign and all of you who are justifiably offended. [END CLIP] BOB GARFIELD: Tempers have since cooled. Clinton has agreed to take part in an MSNBC debate she initially threatened to boycott and the suspended Shuster will be back on the air next week.
But was the uproar really over the use of the word “pimp?” Rachel Sklar is media editor at the liberal blog The Huffington Post. She’s also a regular commentator on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. She says there’s more to the Shuster blooper than just a poor choice of words. RACHEL SKLAR: There’s nobody who thinks that Hillary Clinton had her daughter Chelsea go out and offer her body to super delegates for her campaign coffers, that’s for sure. BOB GARFIELD: What has it come to mean if not, you know, actual prostitution? RACHEL SKLAR: Well, it’s just, I guess, a hip term for promoting something, advertising something, putting something out there. And in that respect, Chelsea was clearly an advocate for her mother. But [LAUGHS] I don't think there’s anybody who really thinks that that was an appropriate way to call it on television. BOB GARFIELD: Let's just put aside for a moment whether Shuster’s remarks were offensive and inappropriate as NBC says in its statement about his suspension. Let's talk about the underlying question. Is it in any way unseemly for a political candidate to enlist his or her children to go out on the stump or otherwise promote their candidacies? Isn't that standard operating procedure? RACHEL SKLAR: Yes, it absolutely is. And the reason that I thought it was such a jarring statement, I actually reacted more to that aspect than I did to the language he used. Because you've got Sarah Huckabee, who is her father’s field manager, I think, Megan McCain, who is blogging on behalf of her father, Cate Edwards, who is out on the stump, and, of course, the ten gazillion Romney boys. [BOB LAUGHS]
So, really, Chelsea Clinton being out and about would not shock anyone. BOB GARFIELD: It seems that what’s happened here has more to do with history than it has to do with the particulars of Shuster’s remarks, especially a history recently between Hillary Clinton and MSNBC. Tell us about that background, please. RACHEL SKLAR: Chris Matthews, the day after the New Hampshire primary and Hillary Clinton’s victory, made the comment that she was basically where she was, quote, “because her husband messed around.” And Media Matters, which gets its teeth into these things and really shakes its head furiously, generated post after post about things that Chris Matthews had said, things that other people on MSNBC had said - comments from Joe Scarborough, comments from Tucker Carlson – very specific and discrete situations, but when you put them all together did seem to call for some sort of response.
And so, Chris Matthews responded to the kerfuffle. And there the matter lay until this. BOB GARFIELD: Now, you mentioned Media Matters, the liberal media criticism organization, shaking its head. At the same time, we've had the spectacle of Bill Clinton shaking his finger at the press for its treatment of his wife and her candidacy.
To what extent do you believe that this incident has been informed by all of the bad blood that has been generated over the years between the Clintons and the national press? RACHEL SKLAR: Well, it’s so funny that you mention the Bill Clinton finger wag because all of the characterizations of Bill Clinton on the campaign trail from New Hampshire to South Carolina that characterized him as being angry or frustrated and actually did invoke that finger-wagging image, from what I saw, he never actually was that ruffled and certainly didn't break out the finger.
Going to your larger question, yes, there’s no question that there is history here. And Paul Krugman had a really great column in The New York Times recently breaking it down to what he called “Clinton rules,” which is basically the default assumption of the media that anytime a Clinton does something, it’s usually with ill intent.
And you sort of have seen this in this situation. I've been, I've got to say, a little bit surprised at the backlash that Hillary Clinton has gotten following the release of her letter to NBC News President Steve Capus in which she said that a half-hearted apology and a suspension wasn't enough.
A lot of people took that to mean that she was calling for David Shuster to be fired, and so there was plenty of outrage over that. But I did not take that to be the meaning of her letter, and nowhere in the letter did it say that. BOB GARFIELD: To the extent that there has been backlash over Senator Clinton’s reaction to this episode, I'm assuming that it’s rooted in the question of whether this was, in fact, an outraged mother putting her motherhood first and her candidacy second, or just political opportunism, and whether it was, you know, sort of ginned–up controversy over a weird but, you know, ultimately innocuous question. RACHEL SKLAR: I find it useful and instructive, when this type of episode occurs, to play a little mind game where I swap out Clinton and I swap in Obama. And I imagine - would the press coverage be exactly the same?
I think we can probably all agree that if someone had made that comment about Obama, there would be an outcry. No one would rush to the assumption that there was some sort of cold, calculating, opportunistic attempt to exploit the situation quite in the same way that happens with Hillary Clinton. I don't think I need to prove that. [LAUGHS] I think it just sort of is.
You've got the twin tensions of this campaign here in this remark because it’s a sexist situation and overtone and question with respect to Hillary and Chelsea, and it would be a racist overtone and insinuation and question with respect to Obama.
And I want to be really clear here that I am extrapolating to the reaction. I am not imputing anything to David Shuster, other than the fact that at one moment in time he thought he was being hip. That’s it! BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] All right, Rachel. Well, thank you so much. RACHEL SKLAR: Well, thank you. BOB GARFIELD: Rachel Sklar is media editor at The Huffington Post.