02/11/2008 04:01 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Defending David Shuster

I understand why people are angry over David Shuster's comments. Let me list some of the reasons:

1. There has been a history of objectifying women in this country (and almost all other countries) and we are not quite done with that history. Some younger men and women might not remember how hard the fight was to get women the same rights as men. As Senator Clinton pointed out recently, women didn't even have the right to vote when her mother was born. So, that history is not yet history.

2. No one ever refers to Mitt Romney's sons being pimped out for his campaign. Hence, there seems to be a sexist streak in the comment since it is being used in reference to Senator Clinton's daughter.

3. MSNBC seems to have a record of sexist comments made about Senator Clinton, usually referring somehow to how she castrates men (Chris Matthews) to how men have to cover their genitals when she speaks (Tucker Carlson).

4. There is a general frustration that the press is obsessed with the Clintons and never, ever lets up on them. Often times, this criticism isn't just political; it's personal. And this time it got too personal.

These are legitimate complaints and ones MSNBC and the rest of the press should be careful to address. Having said that, it's time to ease up on David Shuster. It's not his fault as much as it is a structural problem with MSNBC programming. I'll explain that in a minute.

First, let me make clear that I don't agree with Shuster's comment. My main complaint isn't any of the ones listed above; it's that his statement just doesn't make any sense. Isn't everyone who endorses a candidate or lobbies on their behalf being pimped out? Isn't that what they do?

Of course, I'm not being literal (I wouldn't want to get suspended). But the colloquialism is a reference to peddling one's assets for the good of another. So, isn't Senator Kennedy being pimped out for Barack Obama's campaign? In the same context, of course he is. So, how does Shuster's complaint about Chelsea Clinton make any sense when that is what everyone who supports a candidate does?

As Shuster explained in a series of e-mails to Senator Clinton's staff, he was more aggrieved about the fact that Chelsea was doing political work on behalf of her mother but not being offered up to the press, as most other political operatives are. In fact, he was pissed that she was not being pimped out to the press. Ironic.

I think he wanted to serve notice that she's in the political sphere now, and he did it in a clumsy and nonsensical way. But I would give him a pass on it. Why?

Because he was acting in the role of a talk show host when he made the comment. Talk show hosts are not news people, they give their opinions and are often wrong and misguided. I should know, I am one. We talk for hours on end and often say stupid things. If you suspend or fire every talk show host who says something inappropriate, you would have three hosts left in the country. And they would be the three most insipid people you've ever met.

Would anyone raise an eyebrow if Bill Maher made the same comment as David Shuster? Would HBO consider suspending him? Not in a million years. His role is clear. Provide funny, irreverent commentary that is often controversial. Shuster can't say that religion is stupid and full of crap. Maher says it all the time.

The problem is MSNBC doesn't know which universe it's in. Among cable news stations, it's stuck between Fox News Channel and CNN. They haven't decided what their identity is. I'm not even sure they realize they have this problem.

Fox lets their hosts say any damn thing they want. And they have said the most damnable things. Bill O'Reilly made fun of homeless vets the other night. The man has never served, supported sending kids to die in Iraq and then laughs at them when they come back and don't have anywhere to go (he even blames homeless folks for not watching his cable program -- they don't even have homes, let alone cable!). Yet, he is untouchable. Where's his suspension?

Fox doesn't do suspensions. They chalk it up to talk show hosts doing what they do. Of course, they turn around and pretend to be a news organization the next day. But most people have caught on to their scam. And what they do is accepted with a wink and a nod. They're the folks who can and do say anything at all.

CNN, on the other hand, is straight news. Wolf Blitzer isn't going to give you his opinion on a damn thing, if he has one on anything (I secretly believe that Blitzer is a robot). When is the last time Anderson Cooper said anything interesting? How about Paula Zahn? Right, they moved her out because they told her to not give her opinions and then were pissed when she lost in the ratings game to people who do - and then hired someone else to do the same exact thing.

Lou Dobbs is the obvious exception at CNN, but he's grandfathered in and turned crazy later in his career after it was too late to remove him (i.e. he had already gotten popular by the time they realized what he was doing). Now, they move all of the people with opinions to CNN Headline News. This is CNN's compromise in how to deal with news/talk programming.

But MSNBC hasn't come up with a compromise yet. So, they have Olbermann blasting away at the administration (bless his heart). They have some anchors pretending to be news folks. They have some real reporters (like Shuster, ironically) filling in as talk hosts. Then they have Tucker Carlson and Joe Scarborough who don't really know what they're doing over there.

What is Chris Matthews? Is he a reporter? A journalist? A talk show host? A commentator? An interviewer? What is the right role for an interviewer? Can he give opinions?

Everyone is confused. I think the roles should be clearly delineated.

If you host a talk program, you are allowed to give opinions, even strongly worded ones. And if you do, you should be allotted more leeway because many people, often rightly so, will take issue with your opinions or the way you've stated them.

If you host a news program, read the prompter and shut up. To put it more kindly, deliver the news, ask questions in a professional, journalistic manner and try to be as objective as any human can.

I think you can have both on the same station. In fact, if you don't, the talk programs will eat your lunch. The opinionated have a natural advantage on television. It makes for more compelling programming. Watching Bill O'Reilly telling one of his guests to shut up is more fun than watching Wolf Blitzer drone on whatever he has been programmed to say.

But we need clear labels. The viewer needs to know if she is watching a news show or a talk show. Right now, none of this is clear.

In the middle of this melee, MSNBC sticks David Shuster, who is normally a reporter, in as a host on Tucker Carlson's show (clearly not a news show). Tucker Carlson has said much worse than Shuster did that night and never received a word of complaint from his bosses. Then Shuster says one inappropriate comment about Chelsea Clinton and the world collapses in on him.

Is Shuster a news man? Was he a talk show host that night? These distinctions are critical. A reporter shouldn't use the kind of colorful language Shuster did that night. A talk show host does all the time.

Come on, no one thinks Shuster meant it literally. And if he was saying it metaphorically and he was a talk host that night, you're really going to suspend every talk host who has used the phrase "pimped out"? That's nuts. The concern about it is understandable as I explained above, and it is heightened by Shuster's unclear role, but if you suspend every host for comments that people have legitimate concerns about, you'd have to shut down the industry.

Believe me, I've said much worse. But that's why I didn't get into a career in news. Let's make clear who's on what side, let Shuster off the hook for being confused about his role, and then let the news people do news and let the talkers talk.

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