When Presidential Campaigns Flex Their Muscle

I’ve spent a great deal of time over the last four and a half months trying to pressure the major Democratic presidential candidates – Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama – to use their platform as the two most important, most listened to Democrats in the country to speak out forcefully against retroactive immunity for telecom companies and the expansion of executive powers sought by the Bush administration in FISA reform legislation. These efforts have at times been met by skepticism – what makes these two senators so much more important that the other ninety-eight?

Leadership from these candidates could set the tone of the FISA debate and could raise retroactive immunity to the level of presidential politics in a way that Chris Dodd’s outspoken, persistent efforts never succeeded in doing. While the blogs and key progressive advocacy groups were drawn to Dodd’s use of his somewhat-larger than usual microphone afforded a second-tier presidential candidate, the traditional media never credited Dodd nor even the issue as being particularly important.

The last two days have provided us with a pointed example of the power a presidential campaign possesses to impact the media.

On Thursday night, MSNBC’s David Shuster uttered a shocking, sexist comment about Chelsea Clinton’s role as a surrogate in her mother’s campaign: “Doesn’t it seem like Chelsea is being pimped in some weird sort of way?”

The response from the Clinton campaign was swift, with spokesman Howard Wolfson blasting Shushter in a conference call (full statement via email):

I’m not aware that they’ve apologized. I haven’t received any phone call. I’m not aware that Senator Clinton or Chelsea Clinton has received any phone calls so I’m not familiar with any apology. Look, I think that the comment is disgusting. It’s beneath contempt. And it’s the kind of thing that should never be said on a national news network. There was an apology by another NBC news personality last month on air. I’m not aware that that person ever apologized to the Senator for anything he had said. And I think at some point you really have to question whether or not there is a pattern here at this particular network where you have comments being made and then apologies given. Is this part of a pattern? Is there something that folks are encouraged to do or not do? I don’t know, but the comment was beneath contempt and I think any fair-minded person would see it that way.

Wolfson went on to drop a major hit on MSNBC – the Clinton campaign will no longer take part in any debates on their network:

I’ll say this. We’ve done a number of debates on that network. We had agreed yesterday to do a debate on that network. And I at this point can’t envision a scenario where we would continue to engage in debates on that network given the comments that were made and have been made.

The Clinton campaign pushed back as hard as they could and made sure that MSNBC got the message. Many bloggers picked up on the story, giving it wide traffic in yesterday’s news cycle.

On Friday NBC News responded and suspended Shuster.

On Thursday’s “Tucker” on MSNBC, David Shuster, who was serving as guest-host of the program, made a comment about Chelsea Clinton and the Clinton campaign that was irresponsible and inappropriate. Shuster, who apologized this morning on MSNBC and will again this evening, has been suspended from appearing on all NBC News broadcasts, other than to make his apology. He has also extended an apology to the Clinton family. NBC News takes these matters seriously, and offers our sincere regrets to the Clintons for the remarks.

The Clinton campaign won a victory against media sexism because they pushed back hard and didn’t look the other way when they were subject to biased, poor coverage.

It’s possible that the growing sexism in the media had primed the pump for a strong push back from the Clinton campaign, that they had already reached a point where the next objectionable utterance by any talking head would be met by the full force of a presidential candidate, campaign, and former President. Media Matters documented a long string of sexist remarks by NBC and MSNBC talking heads. And Bob Cesca makes a good case that Shuster was paying the price of this history: “This was NBC apologizing to the Clintons for all of it. Sacrificing their best reporter for the good of establishing a detente with Team Clinton.”

I could be wrong. It’s possible that the Clinton campaign only found such success because this was an overt instance of sexism belittling the actions not of Senator Clinton, but her grown daughter. But even if that’s the case, the campaign, bloggers, and supporters responded in a way that demanded the news outlet listen to them.

Sexism is a blight on our society. Discourse in the media on the Clinton campaign has been deeply tinged with sexist language and sentiments. But what would it look like to see the Clinton campaign put on a full court press to get the traditional media to recognize the critical importance of what is happening in the Senate? What if in addition to fighting sexism in the media, the Clinton campaign started to demand the media report on the state of the Constitution and the rule of law?

This obviously isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison of situations of a campaign interacting with the media. In the Shuster case, the Clinton campaign is reacting to sexism; in the case of retroactive immunity, their engagement would have to be proactive. Moreover, issues of gender and sexism have been ever present in the media’s coverage of the presidential campaign and Hillary Clinton’s role as the long standing frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. I’m not saying it would be easy, just that the last day and a half has shown how much power the campaign has to set out and change coverage. Taylor Marsh notes that after Shuster apologized last night, MSNBC had only women on air for fifteen minutes. The simple lesson is that media outlets respond to pressure from presidential campaigns.

Clinton and Obama have come around to be opponents of retroactive immunity and expanded eavesdropping powers, but they have been effectively absent from the Senate’s debate over the last two and a half months. An opportunity for them to change the debate is present and they are both missing it. It may not be as easy to change the media’s coverage of the Constitution as it is when you’re trying to change their coverage of your entire campaign in response to sexist or racist attacks, but is it any less important?

Lastly, it’s likely that instances like Shuster’s will be instructive for the media. When they foul up their work with sexism or racism, they are getting hit by these presidential campaigns. In the long run, I think these efforts to push back and stop sexist and racist coverage will result in better discourse that doesn’t turn towards bigotry and misogyny when describing, well, anyone. The same could go for a campaign that was shaped by a serious discussion of the Constitution and what legislation like the Intelligence bill granting retroactive immunity for telecom companies that helped the Bush administration spy on Americans means to the health of the rule of law.

Senator Clinton has missed three votes on amendments to improve the SSCI bill. Senator Obama has missed two out of three of those votes. Neither has stood on the floor of the Senate and spoke out against retroactive immunity during this fight. Worse, neither has dedicated a speech on the campaign trail, a major media push, or a television ad to this issue. I hear that Senator Obama enjoys joking about naming his next two kids Habeas and Corpus, while noting that it’s always his best applause line. Well, just as necessary as it is for these two candidates to use the full weight of their campaigns and their standing in the country to stop sexism and racism against them, it’s time for them to flex their muscle and use their elevated platforms to demand coverage of the warrantless wiretapping and retroactive immunity.

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