USA Today's Page on McCain's Al Qaeda-Iran falsehood: "[M]ost Americans can't tell you the difference between Sunnis and Shiites, either"
On Hardball, USA Today Washington bureau chief Susan Page asserted of John McCain's admittedly false claim that "[i]t's common knowledge and has been reported in the media that Al Qaeda is going back into Iran and is receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran": "I think it's a verbal error. And, you know, most Americans can't tell you the difference between Sunnis and Shiites, either."
During the March 20 edition of MSNBC's Hardball, while discussing Sen. John McCain's admittedly false claim  on March 18 that "[i]t's common knowledge and has been reported in the media that Al Qaeda is going back into Iran and is receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran," MSNBC senior campaign correspondent Tucker Carlson asserted, "This is ridiculous. He misspoke." After host Chris Matthews asked, "Did he do it on purpose? Did he conflate on purpose, like the terrorists with 9-11 and Iraq?" USA Today Washington bureau chief Susan Page asserted, "I think it's a verbal error. And, you know, most Americans can't tell you the difference between Sunnis and Shiites, either." Matthews responded, "Well, they're not leading the campaign for war either." Carlson's and Page's characterization of events followed a pattern -- documented  by Media Matters for America -- of media figures echoing the McCain campaign's assertion  that he simply "misspoke" without noting that McCain made the misstatement twice  during the press conference and also to nationally syndicated radio host Hugh Hewitt during a March 17 interview .
Media Matters documented  that several MSNBC journalists and anchors, like Carlson, have dismissed McCain's gaffe. By contrast, on the March 19 edition of MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann, Newsweek's Jonathan Alter stated of McCain that "[h]e has gotten a lot of breaks over the years for being imprecise from the press." Additionally, during the March 19 edition of MSNBC Live, after airing a condensed clip of McCain's misstatement, NBC News political director Chuck Todd asserted: "[T]his was not a onetime slip and so, you know, this just shows you how much bank -- how much of the foreign policy experience stuff he's got in the bank, because had [Sen. Hillary] Clinton or [Sen. Barack] Obama done something like this, this would have been played on a loop, over and over, and would have absolutely hurt them politically."
From the March 20 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews:
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you this question: Did John McCain boot it by not really being clear about who our guys and women are fighting and dying for to fight over there?
E. STEVEN COLLINS (radio talk show host): You know, Chris, it's so interesting to me to see him stand there and have to have a United States senator in Lieberman remind him that it's the Shiites, and to just see him not know that at this critical stage in the campaign, because the whole Middle East trip was really about him showing to be presidential. I mean, you look at that and you say, this looked great, and he doesn't know what is essentially an important fact about that part of the Middle East.
MATTHEWS: You're wincing?
CARLSON: Well, look, I've spent a lot of time with McCain talking about foreign policy. I don't agree with McCain's foreign policy, by and large. I don't. I think it's utopian. But the guy knows a lot. This is ridiculous. He misspoke.
MATTHEWS: OK. Second alternative. Second assessment. Did he do it on purpose? Did he conflate on purpose, like the terrorists with 9-11 and Iraq? Did he purposely say we're facing a threat --
PAGE: No, no.
CARLSON: Boy, no. I actually don't give McCain credit for that level of guile. I just don't -- I don't think that's him.
MATTHEWS: So it's a verbal error, that's all?
PAGE: I think it's a verbal error. And, you know, most Americans can't tell you the difference between Sunnis and Shiites, either, so I'm not sure --
MATTHEWS: Well, they're not leading the campaign for war either.
PAGE: True. But there's no question he actually knows a lot about this area, and I think, you know, he travels a lot, he campaigns --
COLLINS: Yeah, but he made this mistake more than once.
MATTHEWS: I don't know how you can say that Al Qaeda is being trained in Iran. Go ahead, E. Steven.
COLLINS: No, no, no. He made this mistake more than once. And I don't know. It's like, first of all, fundamentally, I'm curious as to how he can be so sure that most of America wants us to remain for 10 or 20 or 100 years in Iraq, and run on that, and to be to so close to the Bush administration. It's amazing to me.