Topic: Media

Analysis of an Ethics Mess: The MSNBC "Pimped Out" Chelsea Controversy

A cable news anchorman’s flip comment by about Chelsea Clinton using an unseemly term became a springboard for other more significant unethical conduct.

Summary: MSNBC anchor David Shuster was discussing Chelsea Clinton’s new role courting Democratic “super-delegates” with Clinton surrogate Bill Press when he said, “Doesn’t it seem like Chelsea’s sort of being pimped out in some weird sort of way?”

As is its modus operandi, the Clinton campaign played victim, condemning the remarks in tones that would make sense if Shuster was literally suggesting that Chelsea was being sent out to use her sexual wiles, and implying that Senator Clinton would punish the network by refusing to participate in the upcoming debate it was scheduled to host. MSNBC caved in to the bullying, and Shuster apologized, but he was suspended anyway. The Clinton campaign, gracious as ever, declared that the apology and suspension wasn’t enough. Meanwhile, comely Chelsea was last seen having a private breakfast with a 21-year-old male super-delegate, presumable to beguile him into supporting her mother. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…


Is the Clintons’ using Chelsea to court delegates unethical, improper or unseemly in any way? Of course not. She’s a family member; she presumably wants to help. She’s the only member of the family who is unsullied by multiple ethical breaches, and is an obvious asset.

Was Shuster’s comment appropriate? Not very; it was unfair and mean sounding, and put an excessively negative connotation on a perfectly reasonable political activity. It was especially inappropriate because Chelsea Clinton is an adult who makes her own decisions; if she was seventeen and acting under the directives of her parents, the “pimped out” description would still be mean-spirited, but a lot closer to accurate. But so what? Shuster’s a TV journalist; he should be able to say whatever he wants as long as its his opinion and factually accurate. The spectacle of elected officials and candidates for office demanding journalist’s scalps for inartfully phrased opinions is disturbing, and the fact that MSNBC refused to stand its ground is proof that Freedom of the Press is in the hands of chickens, weasels and fools. The same network has a commentator, Keith Olberman, who regularly spews out far more offensive, irresponsible, unfair and insulting (and wittier) venom about President Bush, Vice-President Cheney and anyone else on the national scene more conservative-minded that Barbra Streisand, and nobody has asked him to apologize — nor should he have to.

Was the Clinton campaign’s response unethical? No, but it was close. Calculated, disingenuous, manipulative, staged, hypocritical and obnoxious, but still within the bounds of political gamesmanship. Realizing that howls of wounded protest could get sympathy from gullible voters who still think of Chelsea Clinton as a child, the campaign decided that it was time for Hillary to play outraged and protective mother, even though 1) if Chelsea actively campaigns, she should be no more immune to criticism, mean or otherwise, than any one else on the campaign trail; 2) the tactic infantilized a full-grown woman; and 3) it was one more example of how Mrs. Clinton simultaneously claims to champion independent women while being quick to slap down the “look at these big mean men picking on delicate girls” card when it suits her strategy. Moreover, there is no chance that Hillary didn’t know exactly what Shuster meant, and that it had no sexual innuendo at all. (In fact, “pimped out” now means “looking good” or “cool” in urban parlance; it is entirely positive. That’s not how Shuster was using it, however.)

Should Shuster have been suspended by MSNBC? Not for his original comment, no. But his apology was a ridiculous lie that really should have gotten him fired. Here’s what he said:

Well, last night, on Tucker’s show, we ran the same clip, and then out of that, I said a lot of wonderful things about Chelsea. I praised her; I said Americans should be proud of her; I talked about how Mike Huckabee has praised the Clintons for how they’ve raised her, and the fact of the matter is, as I said last night, everybody, all of us, love Chelsea Clinton. But we also talked about the fact that Chelsea Clinton, as the campaign has acknowledged, she’s making calls to these super delegates to try to help get Hillary, her mom, the nomination, which can be, as I pointed out, the unseemly side of politics. Well, last night, I used a phrase — some slang about her efforts. I didn’t think that people would take it literally, but some people have. And to the extent that people feel that I was being pejorative about the actions of Hillary — of Chelsea Clinton making these phone calls — to the extent that people feel I was being pejorative, I apologize for that. I should have seen that people might view it that way, and for that, then I’m sorry.

Shuster never said anything about how wonderful Chelsea was, and anyone who reviewed the transcript could discover that. He blatantly lied to his audience to change the context of his “pimped-out” comment. The comment itself was well within his rights as a commentator; his lie disqualifies him to be a nationally broadcast journalist. But MSNBC, whatever its real thinking was, encouraged the public impression that it was his “pimped-out” comment, and not his lying mea culpa, that prompted Shuster’s suspension. So the effect was an abandonment of First Amendment principles and a submissive gesture to Hillary.

So…what’s the final Ethics score?

Hillary and her campaign — for once — crossed no clear ethical lines here, either in their employment of Chelsea nor in their tactical use of Shuster’s statement for political gain. The Scoreboard reaches this conclusion using a lenient standard for political campaign behavior: posturing, grandstanding, and manipulating the news to appeal to voters involves cynicism and dishonesty to be sure, but well within the “rules” of politics.

David Shuster’s original comment was crude but not outrageous; his dishonest apology was horrendous and more than justified his suspension.

MSNBC displayed neither integrity nor guts by caving in to the Clinton campaign’s stratagem, and severely compromised its commitment to free expression by its news commentators — at least when they aren’t attacking the Bush Administration.

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