Apr 1 2006

MSNBC and the Illegal T-shirt

There was a story the night of the State of the Union address (1/31/06) that may have said more about the actual state of the union than anything in George W. Bush’s speech. Anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan was in the public gallery, a guest of Rep. Lynn Woolsey. When Sheehan sat down and unzipped her jacket, a Capitol Hill police officer noticed that her T-shirt read, “2,245 Dead. How Many More?”—a reference to the number of U.S. fighters killed in Iraq, one of whom was Sheehan’s son Casey.

Accounts differ at this point; Sheehan reports that the officer yelled “protester!” and immediately began dragging her out of the gallery. The official police version—which is the only version that the initial AP report on the incident (2/1/06) contained—is that Sheehan was told to cover up her T-shirt, and was taken away when she refused. Whichever is the case, Sheehan was arrested, either for expressing a political opinion in a non-disruptive way, or for failing to stop doing so, and charged with “unlawful conduct.” (Beverly Young, the wife of a Republican congressmember, was also forced to leave the gallery for wearing a pro-war T-shirt—though she wasn’t arrested.)

The Capitol Hill police later dropped the charges and apologized. If you tuned into MSNBC, however, you’d get the impression that it was Sheehan who should apologize—to the Democratic Party. Chris Matthews (1/31/06) was less concerned about the frightening chill on freedom of expression than of the possibility that Sheehan’s arrest was “going to upstage the Democrats’ response, that someone from the left is now being sort of the icon now of opposition to the president.”

NBC anchor Brian Williams concurred: “I think the Democrats tomorrow morning will end up all kind of agreeing, perhaps silently, that this was not a badly needed sideshow tonight.”

Matthews continued the theme in a question to NBC’s Tim Russert: “Is this going to be the problem for the Democrats who criticize the war in a more, perhaps, sophisticated manner, to try to make a subtle point that’s patriotic, when there’s someone out there who lost a son in the Afghanistan war and feels very passionately, to the point of wearing a T-shirt into the House of Representatives?”

Aside from the fact that Casey Sheehan died in Iraq, not Afghanistan, and aside from the bizarre implication that wearing a T-shirt in Congress is some kind of extreme act, there’s something just strange about a journalist contending that pointing out that government policy has resulted in more than 2,000 Americans being killed is somehow not “patriotic.” Or, for that matter, that “subtlety” is the most appropriate response.