Tuesday, February 19, 2008

NEW YORK (AP) - Fewer than a half-million people were watching MSNBC when David Shuster made his comment that Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign possibly had “pimped out” daughter Chelsea by having her make political phone calls. Among them were monitors at Newsbusters. The Web site posted video of Mr. Shuster 10 minutes after the show was over, beginning a reaction that led to his two-week suspension.

The pundit police never go off duty.

Say something stupid, offensive or incorrect on television, and you’re going to hear about it — fast.

Web sites and bloggers record everything on news programs, an obsessive attention that can foster a hypersensitivity over words and deepen the nation’s partisan divide. Without question, they remind pundits that it’s important to think before they speak.

“If you’re on television, you have the responsibility to be truthful and honest and do your best,” says Amy Holmes, a CNN commentator who previously worked at Fox News Channel and MSNBC. “But I think some of these pundit police hold people to an impossible standard.”

It’s been a particularly rough month at NBC. Besides Mr. Shuster, Chris Matthews apologized after suggesting Mrs. Clinton’s political prominence was because of her husband’s infidelities. The watchdog Media Matters for America said there are many other instances of times when Mr. Matthews has been unusually critical of Mrs. Clinton.

Then, on Thursday, the “Today” show had to say it was sorry after guest Jane Fonda used a vulgarity.

Mr. Shuster’s words had few defenders, but TV legend Barbara Walters expressed some sympathy for his predicament. Sometimes you say something unfortunate on live TV, she said on “The View.”

“He’s getting suspended, he apologized, MSNBC apologized,” Miss Walters said. “Drop it already. It’s OK. He made a mistake.”

Two pundit police chiefs are Media Matters, from the left, and the Media Research Center, from the right. MRC operates Newsbusters.

Media Matters was founded in 2004 by David Brock, the former conservative who switched allegiances. Its goal is to watch conservative media figures and hang them by their words, publicizing their statements to the wider world and challenging them on facts.

“You certainly know you’re having an impact on conservative media when you become part of the conspiracy theories of every right-wing pundit in the country,” says spokesman Karl Frisch. “That’s sort of a badge of honor.”

Fox’s Bill O’Reilly is a frequent target; he calls Media Matters an “assassination Web site.”

L. Brent Bozell, nephew of conservative icon William F. Buckley, started the Media Research Center in 1987 with the goal of becoming the conservative movement’s ombudsman. It tries to sniff out signs of liberal bias and takes the media to task for gaffes, the same standards journalists hold for reporters, says Tim Graham, the center’s director of media analysis.

“We have a rather mundane goal here, which is to get eyeballs,” Mr. Graham says. “We all like making a splash. We all like getting the Drudge link.”

Pundits feel the eyeballs.

“In a campaign capacity, I’ve been known to have foot-in-mouth disease,” says Donna Brazile, a manager of Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign and a CNN commentator. “But as a pundit, I’m much more guarded. If I say something nice about George Bush, I could get kicked around for months.”

As a black woman and uncommitted Democratic superdelegate, she knows people are parsing her words to see if they indicate support for Mrs. Clinton or Barack Obama. She’s also sensitive to language and has warned CNN against referring to a “back row” of commentators on its New York set. Fifty years after Rosa Parks, it might be taken wrong if the “back row” contains black commentators.

Fox News Channel’s Morton Kondracke knows he’s been featured on left-leaning sites when he’s flooded with complaints that all use the same language. When he described a tax one day as regressive, “I got an avalanche of e-mails,” he says.

Partisanship gives these pundit police their bite and vigor yet sometimes undermines their arguments. Media Matters called Mr. O’Reilly “ignorant” last fall when he commented about noticing little difference between the black-run Sylvia’s Restaurant in Harlem and restaurants owned by whites — while giving him little credit for dining there with Al Sharpton.

Similarly, Mr. Bozell criticized CBS News for identifying “conservative” Republicans 44 times during Super Tuesday coverage while not labeling any Democrats as liberal. However, he neglected to note the chief reason for the disparity: that one of the night’s biggest issues was doubt among GOP voters about John McCain’s conservative credentials.

These kinds of instances often make people dismiss the groups’ criticisms simply because of who they are, not what they say.

“If you do something that’s incorrect or truly outrageous, there’s nothing wrong with being called on it,” Mr. Kondracke says. “I do think Media Matters tends to go looking for trouble.”

One worry within the punditry world is that there are different standards for outrage based on the power of the speaker. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow says she probably would be fired if she played a satirical song titled “Barack the Magic Negro,” yet Rush Limbaugh did it with little consequence. Some critics have wondered why Mr. Shuster was suspended for his words while Mr. Matthews, one of MSNBC’s top personalities, didn’t miss a day of work.

Miss Maddow says people on TV should expect scrutiny from pundit police as part of the job.

“They may have my head at some point,” she says, “but I think we’re better off as a country by there being pundit police and having different pundit police, preferably without a partisan agenda, [than] if we didn’t have people making us accountable for what we say.”

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