Aug 1 2007

MSNBC’s ‘Truth Squad’

Democrats labeled 'untruthful' for criticizing Bush

After the August 7 Democratic debate, MSNBC reporter David Shuster weighed in with what the cable channel called a “truth squad” segment, ostensibly intended to fact-check various claims by the candidates. But the result had less to do with clarifying the facts than with protecting Bush from harsh criticism.

In concluding his report, Shuster singled out two candidates who “gave some untruthful descriptions of the Bush administration.” He noted that Sen. Hillary Clinton, when asked “the first thing you would do as president to improve the recovery in New Orleans,” responded that “the first thing I would do would put somebody in charge to actually cared about the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.” Shuster’s other example was Sen. Joe Biden remarking, “We know how badly this president has ruined the country.” In what way would those opinions be considered “untruthful”?

Shuster only said that using the word “ruin” was “pretty amazing” because it is “defined as irreparable damage, and for Joe Biden to say the nation is irreparably damaged, is ruined permanently, that is a bit of a stretch.” It’s not clear why Shuster uses the phrase “ruined permanently” if he thinks “ruin” is always permanent, but he might consider interviewing some residents–or former residents–of New Orleans about whether Bush has “irreparably damaged” the country.

Referring to Clinton, Shuster offered only that to “say that the Bush administration does not care about New Orleans, that’s a leap.” He did not explain why his insight into the personal feelings of government officials is superior to Clinton’s.

Shuster also took on former Sen. John Edwards’ statement that he had marched on 200 picket lines, though he did not attempt to debunk the claim. Instead, Shuster tried to cast doubt on Edwards’ motives by citing a Chicago newspaper report that Edwards marched on one picket line for just 10 minutes, and was apparently recording part of it for a possible campaign ad.

Shuster surely knows what the schedule of a presidential candidate is like; if a candidate took any amount of time out of a campaign day to support a local labor dispute, he ought to be able to mention it without his “truthfulness” being attacked. It’s unlikely that many of the striking workers that Edwards stopped by to support were unhappy with the attention that a visit from a national political figure brought to their cause.

And if Edwards actually has made 200 such appearances, that is a noteworthy expression of commitment to labor. But the approved media storyline on Edwards is that he’s a hypocrite for expressing concern for poor and working people while being personally wealthy himself, so Shuster reflexively ridiculed him.

In response to Edwards’ remark, “I was on a picket line on Saturday. I was on a picket line on Sunday,” Shuster reported, “John Edwards was in fact on a picket line on Saturday and he may have been on two picket lines.” The fact that Shuster was unable to determine whether or not a presidential candidate surrounded by media was on a picket line two days before his report calls into question his ability to fact-check anything.

The other aspect of the debate that Shuster examined was a dispute between Sen. Christopher Dodd and Sen. Barack Obama over a recent speech in which Obama said that if the United States has “actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets” in Pakistan, and Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf “won’t act, we will.” Dodd claimed that Obama had made the “dangerous” suggestion “that going in unilaterally here into Pakistan is somehow in our interest,” to which Obama responded by saying, “I did not say we would immediately go in unilaterally. What I said was that we have to work with Musharraf.”

Shuster sided with Dodd, stating that “Obama is incorrect and Dodd is right on this one.” As proof, MSNBC aired a clip from Obama’s speech:

It was a terrible mistake to fail to act when we had a chance to take out an Al-Qaeda leadership meeting in 2005. If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf will not act, we will.

Shuster concluded, “Barack Obama was misleading tonight about his own speech.” However, the clip did not contradict Obama’s assertion that he did not propose to intervene unilaterally in Pakistan “immediately.” Nor did Shuster note the parts of Obama’s speech where he encouraged working with Musharraf, such as supporting his efforts to invest in secular education.

The exchange between Dodd and Obama actually highlighted a substantive difference between Democratic candidates on a difficult question: On the one hand, Obama is suggesting that it might be worth violating the sovereignty of a volatile, nuclear-armed nominal ally in order to go after Al-Qaeda leaders, while Dodd is suggesting that it might sometimes make sense to allow terrorists to continue operating in safe havens.

Discussing the pros and cons of these approaches in terms of U.S. security and world peace might make for a fruitful discussion. Treating it as a “gotcha” moment does little to help voters make up their minds about which candidate to back–and the same could be said of Shuster’s report as a whole.