Saturday, February 9, 2008

Pimp My Network

(This started out as a comment in the Fred Thompson thread downpage a bit, but grew.)

A few people are having a hard time understanding just what it was that got MSNBC's David Shuster suspended from work. Some say: "He was just using kids' slang, and the old folks are overreacting." Some say: "What's wrong with 'pimp'? Isn't that what she's doing?" Some say: "Hillary's too sensitive to this stuff."

I say: All three arguments are missing the point entirely.

To the first group, I say: The greatest professional broadcasters have always been (at least on the air) gentlemen of impeccable class. Edward R. Murrow. Walter Cronkite. Keith Olbermann's our best current candidate -- the guy reeks of professional class.

They do not use language that denigrates anyone. They treat people with respect. It's not that they don't make fools of the deserving -- that's their job, too -- it's that they know a hundred ways to do it by letting those peoples' words and deeds speak for themselves. They don't use words like "pimp" in describing people who are not literally selling other people's sexuality for money. (KO may fairly and accurately use the word to describe Britany's handlers, for example.)

Teenage slang is fine in high school hallways. But we're not wrong to hold people who get paid a million bucks a year to read news on the air to a higher standard of communication. David Shuster failed to live up to that standard.

To the second, I say: My mother ran for the California Assembly in 1984, in the largest single assembly district in the country. I spent four months -- and put over 10,000 miles on my car -- campaigning for her full-time, doing pretty much exactly what Chelsea's doing now.

Remember that scene in Erin Brockovich where she walks every street in Hinckley, CA canvassing for possible victims? I canvassed every street in Boron, CA -- just 18 miles up the highway from Hinckley, and absolutely identical in every way (except instead of being a PG&E company town, it's US Borax's company town). I did it in skirt, dress shoes, and panty hose in early September, with temperatures in the 90s and rattlesnakes and scorpions in the bushes. If that was prostitution, I didn't get paid nearly enough.

Chelsea's doing what political children have done forever: she's supporting her parents' dreams. Politics, more than most fields, is a family business; and Chelsea understands her role in that. Too bad David Shuster doesn't.

To the third, I say: If anything, Hillary has under-reacted for way too long. There's a very long backstory here that she chose not to ignore any more. She's got the power now to take a stand and dictate the terms under which the media will cover her -- and she's using it. Progressive media activists have been waiting for years for a Democrat who would force the media to change their incredibly damaging narratives about us. Hillary has taken a big step in that direction, and we should be supporting that wholeheartedly.

And she's got some personal axes to grind. For ten years now, MSNBC's Chris Matthews has been the media's head cheerleader for anti-Clintonism, and I can't fathom why Bill and Hill didn't cut him off long ago. They finally got him to apologize for one particularly egregious crack a few weeks ago -- but neither Matthews nor MSNBC has yet addressed the years and years of anti-Hillary bile that's already flushed under the bridge and into the great sea of our collective consciousness. Still, if this is a first step that makes Matthews either change his tune or change his venue (say, to a late-Sunday-night talk show on a 5,000-watt AM station in Sioux City, IA), I say: bring it.

And, with Matthews, it's not just Hillary: it's women in general. Watching the Super Tuesday coverage the other night, I watched, stunned, as Chris Matthews told KO that he was (rough quote; I don't have tape) "stunned at the degree to which the Democrats are the party of women." He went on to explain how the Democratic agenda was suited to women, leaving heavy in the air the pungent implication that Real Men Vote Republican.

KO sat there, absolutely silently, and took in this odd ramble with the weirdest twisted bemused grin on his face -- as though he didn't know whether to call him on it, brush it over, let him hang himself, or laugh out loud. But he very obviously knew that Matthews was putting his foot in it Big Time. After letting him meander a good long while -- in fact, to the point where even Matthews himself was starting to realize that the point he was making had no point at all -- KO finally threw him a lifeline by offering a change of subject. Matthews grabbed it like a drowning man.

And Matthews, as the network's Biggest Dog, has set the tone for the other up-and-comers-- notably Joe Scarborough and Shuster -- who eagerly follow his lead. The upshot is that this locker-room way of covering women in politics has become a signature piece of the network's house style. MSNBC isn't included in Canadian basic cable, so it's the only channel I actually pay extra every month to see -- and they've pissed me off to the point where I may change that. (Right now, I only keep paying it for the love of Keith.)

For the record, people: It is not OK to use prostitution metaphors to refer to women in politics (apart from the usual "corporate whore" metaphors we also use to describe men). It is not OK to make a female politician's attractiveness or lack thereof an issue: as John Murtha's mug amply proves, this is not a job that requires a pretty face. And it is not, as a broad general rule of etiquette, in any sense OK to treat female politicians differently than you'd treat male ones.

The male broadcasters who are congenitally incapable of growing up, moving into the 20th century, and getting with this simple program -- and that seems to include most of them at MSNBC -- either need to apply to the same charm school that turned out Keith Olbermann (whom I have yet to see ever patronize a woman -- it's one of the main ingredients that makes that chemistry between him and Rachel Maddow a thing of such incandescent beauty) -- or start looking for new jobs. Because women like Hillary and Chelsea and Rachel didn't work their asses off at Stanford, Yale, and Oxford for the right to be insulted on national TV by self-important stuck-in-junior-high goofballs like David Shuster.

They deserve better. The Democratic party and the progressive movement deserve better. The women of America absolutely deserve better. But it's not going to get better until women wth real clout -- like Hillary -- step up, draw their boundaries, and start enforcing serious consequences for crossing them.

NOTE: Nothing in this post should be construed as an endorsement of either Democratic candidate for president. It is an article with facts and opinions about politics. I have not made up my mind, and GNB is not endorsing any candidate until there is a clear nominee. I intend to add this to all my political posts from now till we have a nominee.