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." When asked "the first thing you would do as president to improve the recovery in New Orleans," Sen. Hillary Clinton said, "Well, the first thing I would do is put somebody in charge who 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."
Actually, the word "ruined" does not always imply permanent destruction--otherwise Shuster's phrase "ruined permanently" would be redundant. But he might consider interviewing some residents (or former residents) of New Orleans about whether Bush has "irreparably damaged" the country. Constitutional scholars also might have opinions about whether the damage done by Bush can be undone.
Referring to Clinton, Shuster offered only that to "say that the Bush administration does not care about New Orleans, that's a leap." Shuster does not explain why his insight into the personal feelings of government officials is superior to Clinton's; judging by Bush's actions in the immediate aftermath of Katrina and in the slow rebuilding that followed, claiming that Bush administration did care about New Orleans might be seen as more of a leap.
One would expect presidential candidates to express critical opinions of an incumbent from another party; when that candidate is strikingly unpopular, such criticisms are likely to be harsh. Shuster's main problem with these Democratic candidates would seem to be that they weren't Republican candidates instead.
Shuster also took on John Edwards' statement that he had marched on 200 picket lines. Shuster's fact check didn't even attempt to debunk the Edwards claim. Instead, Shuster tried to cast doubt on Edwards' motives by citing a Chicago newspaper reporting 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 modern presidential candidate is like; that a candidate has taken any amount of time out of a jam-packed campaign day to support a local labor dispute ought to be something that that candidate is entitled to mention without being attacked on his "truthfulness." 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 ridicules him.
(Edwards had said, "I was on a picket line on Saturday. I was on a picket line on Sunday." Shuster said in his report, "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 does 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 points up a substantive difference between Democratic candidates on a difficult question: On the one hand, Obama is suggesting that it might be worth ignoring 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.
ACTION: MSNBC general manager Dan Abrams includes a "Beat the Press" media criticism segment during the channel's 9 pm newscast. Ask him to explain why correspondent David Shuster's August 7 "truth squad" report on the Democratic debate labeled the candidates' opinions "untruthful."
NOTE: A video and critique of the Shuster segment is also available at the Huffington Post.