MEDIA
03/28/2008 02:45 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

L'Affaire Shuster: Big Camel, Big Straw

The arc of l'affaire David Shuster has been interesting to observe,* from shock and outrage to debate over whether it merited suspension to the release of the letter from Hillary Clinton to NBC President Steve Capus and the email exchange between Shuster and Clinton staffer Phillippe Reines, to the Monday-morning quarterbacking (i.e. "Give Shuster a break!" on The View to "MSNBC is a pit of unfettered misogyny!" on Media Matters) and, of course, to the backlash back at Clinton, who either reacted honestly to a swipe at her daughter and a pattern of unfair treatment or seized upon a sympathy peg and coldly exploited it, depending on which excitable commenter you read on which blog.

There's a lot to it — and I do think it's fair to look at the situation in the larger context. Here's the question I asked myself when I heard about Shuster's suspension from MSNBC for wondering on-air if Chelsea Clinton had been "pimped out" for her mother's campaign: Would this have happened without Chris Matthews? The this here is two-pronged, referring to the suspension and to the remark itself, but the answer to both questions, I think, is no.

There are three issues here: (1) Shuster's remark as inappropriate because it was sexist/sexually implicative; (2) Shuster's remark as inappropriate because it reflected a bias against the Clintons; (3) Shuster as scapegoat for greater issues at MSNBC.

Let's examine them in turn. I don't think anyone who heard that comment thought Shuster was suggesting that Chelsea Clinton was selling her body to superdelegates and turning the proceeds over to her mother. The use of the word pimp as a verb has entered the vernacular in recent years, thanks to shows like MTV's Pimp My Ride and songs like Jay Z's "Big Pimpin'." See Urban Dictionary for the recent alternative definition:

As an adjective: If somethin' is pimpin', it's pretty darn cool. It's probably something "normal" that's tricked out ghettolicious and gawdy. Basically, you look very ghettofab and blingbling.

However, as a verb
1.) to pimp something out is to *make* it look very ghettofab and all that nifty stuff in the above paragraph.
2.) to pimp is to advertise (generally, in an enthusiastic sense) or to call attention in order to bring acclaim to something; to promote.

I think it's safe to say that once the slang reaches Mitt Romney, it's gone pretty mainstream.

So, we know what Shuster meant here, fine. The issue now becomes whether the term's general use (a) is divorced enough from its classic meaning and (b) whether colloquial acceptance rendered it appropriate for air. The answer to both questions here is clearly no. (See: Media Matters, Taylor Marsh, Emily's List). Probably most people watching were struck by the term as it was used, not only because the word "pimp" is still recognizable for its initial connotations but also because it's a word that is rarely used in the context of traditional television news coverage. It may be possible to let Shuster off the hook for the intention behind the usage — taking a sexist shot at Chelsea Clinton — but it doesn't let him off the hook for having the bad judgment not to recognize its effect, and how it would immediately be perceived.

Issue #2: Bias against the Clintons. I didn't see the original "Tucker" wherein Shuster made the comment (hell, it's "Tucker," not many people would have), but when I viewed the clip I was struck immediately by something odd: How off it was to imply that there was something wrong or unusual about a candidate's child assisting with the campaign. See below:

DAVID SHUSTER: Bill, there's just something a little bit unseemly to me that Chelsea's out there calling up celebrities, saying support my mom, and she's apparently also calling these super delegates.

BILL PRESS: Hey, she's working for her mom. What's unseemly about that? During the last campaign, the Bush twins were out working for their dad. I think it's great, I think she's grown up in a political family, she's got politics in her blood, she loves her mom, she thinks she'd make a great president --

SHUSTER: But doesn't it seem like Chelsea's sort of being pimped out in some weird sort of way?

Actually, it doesn't — which brings us to the question of anti-Clinton bias. There is nothing unseemly about Chelsea Clinton assisting on the campaign trail. In fact, it's the most natural thing for a kid to do — so natural that NBC Nightly News did a series on how all the candidates' children were getting involved. Sarah Huckabee. Megan McCain. Cate Edwards. Ten zillion Romney boys. Here's what correspondent Maria Menounos wrote about them on the Daily Nightly: "The candidates' kids have been very visible in this campaign, more so than we've ever seen -- and all in very different roles." Or, in case Shuster missed it on his own network, how's this story from ABC News: "Candidates' Kids Step Into Media Spotlight: Many Children of the '08 Candidates are High-Profile Characters in Mom or Dad's Campaign." It is unlikely that someone as steeped in the minute-to-minute coverage of the campaign like Shuster would have been unaware of the phenomenon — so the use of the word "unseemly" suggests that Shuster was uninformed at best — or unfairly applying a double standard at worst.

Anyone who wants to argue that Hillary Clinton doesn't get held to a higher/more skeptical standard is being willfully blind — the heightened scrutiny applied to a front-runner does not cover comparison to a nagging housewife or reducing her accomplishments to her husband's infidelity or Maureen Dowd. It's something I have argued against frequently and strenuously, and it's pretty well-established by this point.

Now, we know from the subsequently-released emails between Shuster and Clinton spokesman Phillipe Reines that the reason behind the segment was the double-standard the Clintons applied to Chelsea: Holding her out as a Clinton surrogate but refusing to make her transparent or accountable to the press. And that would have been a fair point to make — if Shuster had made it. However, the point he made was that it was "unseemly" for Chelsea to work on behalf of her mother — and he made it in extremely questionable language. The tone of his emails to Reines was indignant and somewhat angry about the Clinton campaign "slamming" reporters for approaching Chelsea, yet during the segment Shuster neither explicitly said so nor offered evidence of such behavior. In fact, the two have nothing to do with each other, i.e. whether Chelsea can campaign for her mother vs. whether Chelsea is obligated to speak to the press. That they were melded in Shuster's mind seems indicative of a larger tendency to impute the worst motives to Clinton — what Paul Krugman yesterday called "Clinton rules" - the tendency to "treat any action or statement by the Clintons, no matter how innocuous, as proof of evil intent."

Which leads us to number three, and back to our original question: Would David Shuster have been suspended were it not for the previous complaints about Chris Matthews, and to a lesser extent, about the culture of acceptability created by other remarks at the network? (Whatever they are, Media Matters has them indexed, cross-referenced and neatly catalogued.) All things considered, I do think the answer is no. On the sliding scale of egregiousness, Matthews' crack that Hillary was "only a front runner because her husband messed around" is probably the most sexist thing I've ever heard said on MSNBC. As I said above, I considered Shuster's remark to be distasteful and inappropriate, but Matthews' comment went to the heart of all Hillary Clinton had accomplished and shrugged it all off, based on the most humiliating moment of her life . Furthermore, Matthews had had a history of questionable comments about Clinton, based on the fact that she's a woman: see here and here and here and here and here. These comments well preceded the camel-breaking remark mentioned above,, but it took a groundswell of anger and opprobrium — including an actual march on Washington (that is to say, NBC's DC offices) — for the network to press Matthews into making an on-air apology.

And that was that — until Shuster. Whatever band-aid had been holding things together was ripped off as the remark bounced through the echo chamber of the blogosphere and the outrage bubbled up again and Howard Wolfson threatened that Clinton might pull out of the debate and through it all, Media Matters posted and posted as it gunned for another scalp. On the inside, what we didn't know was that in the meantime, NBC prez Steve Capus had received a letter from Hillary Clinton, and we didn't know that Shuster had made a bad situation worse by trading haughty, self-righteous emails with Reines, rather than handing it off to NBC PR team to diffuse. Capus, who had called Clinton himself to offer an apology, made the right call: This time, there had to be consequences. They'd tried the apology (and indeed, Shuster tried two of them), but suspending Shuster sent a message to the world that said, we get it. And we're dealing with it.

But though he took the fall, it wasn't entirely Shuster's fault. Yes, he said something stupid (and offensive, and inappropriate). But let's put it in context — the context of a network where conversation is free and easy and where spicy rhetoric has been robustly encouraged, because it's been working in the ratings but also because frank, no-holds-barred commentary is fascinating and fun to watch. The risk, though, of skating close to the edge is sometimes you go over it. Probably no one means any harm. Probably they're just being kidding around - but it creates a norm, and not always a great one. It's within that kind of norm that talk becomes more casual, edgier. Shuster would never have made that comment were he to appear, say, on "NBC Nightly News" — it would have seemed wildly inappropriate and out of place for that no-nonsense, straight-up news environment. But elsewhere on the network, that line has become blurred — as Cenk Ugyur points out, more and more the news has been shot through with strong, spicy opinions, and that affects the atmosphere and that affects the discourse and that affects the norm.

This is a long post, and part of that is because there are many moving parts here, all of which had to converge in some way for this to come to a head. (And there are still more; we'll leave Shuster's initial apology and whether he did, in fact, profess to love love love Chelsea Clinton that much). There is one more part, however, and it's still moving — and that is the Clinton response. Clinton's letter to Capus came after Shuster's suspension, and called for more: "No temporary suspension or half-hearted apology is sufficient," she wrote. " "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." Some people thought this called for Shuster's firing, but they're wrong: It called for an examination of a pattern of behavior. That's fine and presumably Shuster's suspension is a sign of just that: A strong message about what's not acceptable, and a recognition that previous remedies had been ineffective. Fin. At this point, Clinton and her team should know that any more is gonna smack of politics; her point has been amply, amply made. Any more, and that's a moving part that will move like a boomerang and fling right back at her. Not like that backlash needed much help, but still.

That's Clinton's problem and alas, as Krugman notes, her lot in life. For MSNBC, their problem is the particular set of circumstances that led to this situation — the casual-ing of the discourse, the default attitude towards Hillary Clinton — and the fact that, suddenly, they've been branded as the sexist network. Now, the Clinton Rules will be applied to them: Any time Chris Matthews opens his mouth, someone at Media Matters will be there, pointed finger at the ready. It isn't fair — take a look at the fine commentary of Rachel Maddow or the fair, fact-based examination of these issues again and again by Dan Abrams — and if you want a reality check, I've got two words for you: John Gibson (and actually, two more: No suspension. So, things aren't always fair — but even so, that's how it's going to be until the pendulum swings back.

The good news for MSNBC is that it's really easy from here: Just don't screw up. Easier said than done, maybe, but I don't think so — the bench is deep, and strong, and those who need it have been put sufficiently on notice. As for Shuster, this will probably be great for him — a high-profile learning experience which will give him a high-profile platform for a humble, hardworking and principled return, plus the tacit appreciation of coworkers who understand that there but for the grace of God goeth them all (Chris Matthews, you owe him lunch in perpetuity). Episodes like this can make everyone better. That's the best part.

Related:

Press: Caught In The Middle of David Shuster's Screwup
[HuffPo]
Uygur: Defending David Shuster [HuffPo]
Krugman: Hate Springs Eternal [NYT]
The Mess at MSNBC [Media Matters]

*I should note here that I have appeared many times on MSNBC on behalf of the Huffington Post, as I have on CNN, Fox News and — once — the recently-departed Star Jones show.