Some MSNBC journalists identify a media double standard in coverage of McCain gaffe; others demonstrate it

››› ››› RYAN CHIACHIERE

After Chuck Todd acknowledged a media double standard in coverage of Sen. John McCain's Al Qaeda-Iran gaffe, CNBC's John Harwood asserted on Morning Joe: "I think that at the end of the day, John McCain has got sufficient credibility on that issue that people are not going to look at that and say, 'Oh, John McCain is confused' or 'John McCain's too old' or 'John McCain doesn't get it.' ... But he obviously can't do that too many times or he's got a problem." Harwood was not alone in misrepresenting or excusing McCain's false claim on MSNBC; several MSNBC reporters and anchors have ignored or excused McCain's false claim.

A day after NBC News political director Chuck Todd said of Sen. John McCain's admittedly false claim, "[T]his 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," CNBC chief Washington correspondent John Harwood asserted: "I think that at the end of the day, John McCain has got sufficient credibility on that issue that people are not going to look at that and say, 'Oh, John McCain's confused' or 'John McCain's too old' or 'John McCain doesn't get it.' ... But he obviously can't do that too many times or he's got a problem." During a March 18 press conference in Amman, Jordan, McCain falsely stated more than once that Iranian operatives are "taking Al Qaeda into Iran, training them and sending them back" into Iraq, after making the same misstatement the previous day. Appearing on the March 20 edition of MSNBC's Morning Joe, Harwood, who did not specify how many more times he thinks is "too many" before McCain is deemed to have "a problem" on national security matters, was not alone in misrepresenting or excusing McCain's false claim on MSNBC. In fact, several MSNBC reporters and anchors have ignored or excused McCain's false claim. By contrast, discussing McCain's misstatement during the March 19 edition of MSNBC's Countdown, MSNBC's Jonathan Alter stated of McCain: "[H]e's gotten a lot of breaks over the years for being imprecise from the press."

During the March 19 edition of MSNBC Live, anchor Amy Robach uncritically reported that "John McCain's campaign is downplaying his verbal gaffe on Iraq yesterday, saying he immediately corrected himself." She added, "McCain misspoke when he said Iran, a Shiite country, was helping Al Qaeda in Iraq, a Sunni organization." In fact, as Media Matters for America has noted, McCain made the misstatement repeatedly, including the previous day. Moreover, he did not "immediately correct[] himself"; it was not until after Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) whispered something in his ear that McCain admitted he had made a mistake. Robach's description of the events echoed the McCain campaign's false assertion that "John McCain misspoke and immediately corrected himself."

During the March 19 edition of MSNBC's Race for the White House, Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough suggested the misstatement was the result of McCain's lack of sleep, saying: "John McCain also doesn't know the difference between Sunnis and Shia after he's been awake for 48 hours," adding, "Boy, that's a winning platform."

By contrast, during the March 19 edition of MSNBC's Verdict, host Dan Abrams stated: "The problem is, when you're running for president and you're running on your foreign policy experience -- if it had happened to Obama or Clinton, I mean, I think it could have devastated -- if it happened to Obama, let's say, with this sort of lead that he's got, I think it might have even devastated his campaign." Later, The Hill's A.B. Stoddard said: "I agree completely. I think that if Barack Obama had confused Sunni and Shia, Al Qaeda, et cetera, it would have been a disaster. He would have been Mr. Green, wet behind the ears, can't find his way around." She added, "If Hillary Clinton had done so, it would have been, 'Oh, that poor first lady. She's just trying so hard to pretend that she could be president, but it's not going to work.' I think the problem for John McCain is that we assume that he knows his stuff, that he's Mr. National Security, so we say, 'It couldn't be an indication of his ignorance. He must be tired.' "

As Media Matters noted, during the March 19 edition of MSNBC Live, anchor Mika Brzezinski stated that McCain "had this little slip of the tongue on the Iraq war." After airing a condensed clip of McCain's misstatement, Todd said: "[T]his was not a one-time 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 Clinton or 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 19 edition of MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann:

KEITH OLBERMANN (host): He insisted to [NBC Capitol Hill correspondent] Kelly O'Donnell in Jerusalem tonight: This was a slip. This is the quote: "To think that I would have some lack of knowledge about Sunni and Shia after my eighth visit, and my deep involvement in this issue, is a bit ludicrous."

So, how do you slip three times, get corrected by your friend Joe Lieberman, and then come back the next day and slip again?

ALTER: Well, first of all, this is something that John McCain and those of us who covered him for many years are familiar with. This kind of -- it's almost like out of the old SNL skit where Chris Farley goes, "I'm so stupid!" and he bangs himself on the forehead and gets kind of charm points for admitting having slipped up because of fatigue -- and it is very tiring during all this travel and all that kind of thing -- or just sort of human error. So, he's gotten a lot of breaks over the years for being imprecise from the press, in part because there's a lot of fatigue with playing gotcha games with all these politicians, and at a certain point, it does get a little bit silly.

But, having said that, what John McCain is clearly trying to do here is to conflate, again, all of the bad guys over there in a way to confuse Americans who are not paying close attention. When I asked them for evidence that Iranian Shia were supporting Sunnis inside Iraq, they referred me to an American Enterprise Institute study that was very old. The sourcing was old and not at all explicit.

This is not the main thrust of what's going on there and it's counterintuitive since the Shia and the Sunni don't like each other --

OLBERMANN: Right.

ALTER: -- for anybody who's been paying any attention. And so, what he's trying to basically do is say, "Look, they're all a bunch of bad guys. Trust me because I'm the one who has experience here." And Obama and Clinton are trying to call him on it.

OLBERMANN: Yeah, but he's saying -- he's saying all terrorists are Al Qaeda, all extremists are Al Qaeda. You're basically, then, offering the public two choices and neither of them seem to be very good for Mr. McCain, which is it's a senior moment -- it's not Chris Farley, it's Emily Litella -- a two-day-long senior moment interrupted by the second or two of clarity, or it's a conflation worthy of George Bush, which is to say, a bald-faced lie about it. It's one of those two things. It has to be one of those two things. It would seem that the Republicans, you know, have a rather large hole in their defensive line on this.

ALTER: I think it was some kind of combination. I mean, it wasn't a senior moment but a little bit of a slip. And he corrects it, then part of him is thinking, well, why make a big deal of correcting this since I want to conflate, as you say, and convey to the American public that, you know, there are people in Iran who want to do us dirty. And if we have to kind of mess a little bit with the facts in order to convey that impression, he's willing to do that.

From the March 20 edition of MSNBC's Morning Joe:

SCARBOROUGH: Hey, what's happening with John McCain? He's gotten -- he's been confused a couple of times, and this isn't a "gotcha" moment, but he's been confused a couple of times on an issue that he should have down -- and I've gotta believe he has down -- but twice, he talked about how Al Qaeda was getting trained -- Al Qaeda was getting trained in Iran. That is -- that's just not even close to being accurate. He should know better. What's going on?

HARWOOD: You know, I talked to [McCain campaign manager] Rick Davis about that. Certainly that was embarrassing for them. His point is, slip of the tongue, the guy's running around the Middle East doing a bunch of events in a bunch of different countries. I think, at the end of the day, John McCain has got sufficient credibility on that issue that people are not going to look at that and say, "Oh, John McCain's confused" or "John McCain's too old" or "John McCain doesn't get it." I think he's going to be able to withstand that argument. In fact, I think he would welcome the argument going in that direction. But he obviously can't do that too many times or he's got a problem.

From the March 19 edition of MSNBC's Verdict with Dan Abrams:

ABRAMS: It's time for our new segment: "Teflon John." Much of the media has been giving John McCain what sure feels like a free ride, barely going after him for flip flops and a host of issues from torture and taxes to abortion and gay marriage. The press just loves his image: the maverick from Arizona riding around on a bus called the "Straight Talk Express." That's why we're calling this segment, "Teflon John."

Tonight, the tepid response to a major McCain gaffe, the kind of mistake that would have devastated Clinton or Obama, and we would have called either of them out on it too -- but Teflon John walks away unscathed. It happened yesterday during McCain's Mideast trip, a press conference in Jordan, he needed fellow Senator Joe Lieberman to bail him out.

[begin video clip]

McCAIN: Well, it's common knowledge and has been reported in the media that Al Qaeda is going back into Iran and receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran. That's well known, and it's unfortunate.

[...]

[Lieberman whispers into McCain's ear]

McCAIN: I'm sorry. I'm sorry, the Iranians are training extremists, not Al Qaeda.

[end video clip]

ABRAMS: All right. So, McCain had made the same mistake twice before, earlier in that press conference and in a radio interview. But here's what's really bizarre: Even though McCain admitted that he was wrong, today his campaign issued this statement, quote: "Al Qaeda and Shia extremists -- with support from external powers such as Iran -- are on the run but not defeated."

"Such as Iran." He already admitted he was wrong. McCain's running on the strength of his foreign policy knowledge and judgment. So, how is this not a major story? Back with us is A.B. Stoddard, associate editor with The Hill, and Republican strategist Brad Blakeman.

All right, Brad, first, let me ask you this. If this had happened to Obama or Clinton, wouldn't the media have been all over it to the point that this would have been a huge issue for either candidate?

BLAKEMAN: I don't think so. I --

ABRAMS: Really?

BLAKEMAN: No, I don't. Let me tell you why. I think the press were all over McCain for his misstatements, as they should be. He misspoke, but what he was right about was the fact that Iran, a Shia state, is supplying aid and comfort and killing Americans in Iraq with --

ABRAMS: But that's not -- that's not the point here. I mean, look. I understand that you want to sort of help justify what he said. And look, I accept the fact that people make mistakes. The problem is, when you're running for president and you're running on your foreign policy experience -- if it had happened to Obama or Clinton -- I mean, I think it could have devastated -- if it happened to Obama, let's say, with this sort of lead that he's got, I think it might have even devastated his campaign.

BLAKEMAN: No.

[...]

STODDARD: I agree completely. I think that if Barack Obama had confused Sunni and Shia, Al Qaeda, et cetera, it would have been a disaster. He would have been Mr. Green, wet behind the ears, can't find his way around. If Hillary Clinton had done so, it would have been, "Oh, that poor first lady. She's just trying so hard to pretend that she could be president, but it's not going to work."

I think the problem for John McCain is that we assume that he knows his stuff, that he's Mr. National Security, so we say, "It couldn't be an indication of his ignorance. He must be tired."

From the March 19 edition of MSNBC's Race for the White House:

RACHEL MADDOW (MSNBC political analyst): That's exactly right. And that -- what we've got there is a situation between public actions and private actions. In Barack Obama's private life, he has a pastor. In John McCain's public life, in which he is running for office, he sought and received and said he was publicly honored by the political endorsement of two pastors who are really controversial.

SCARBOROUGH: All right, nice spin. It's just not going to work.

MADDOW: It's not spin. It's the truth.

MIKE MURPHY (Republican strategist): Aw, you got nothing here, Rachel.

[crosstalk]

MURPHY: You got nothing.

SCARBOROUGH: Good try, though.

DAVID GREGORY (host): All right, we're going to move on. We're going to move on.

SCARBOROUGH: Hey, and you know what? John McCain also doesn't know the difference between Sunnis and Shia after he's been awake for 48 hours. Boy, that's a winning platform.

From the 4 p.m. ET hour of the March 19 edition of MSNBC Live:

ROBACH: And John McCain's campaign is downplaying his verbal gaffe on Iraq yesterday, saying he immediately corrected himself. McCain misspoke when he said Iran, a Shiite country, was helping Al Qaeda in Iraq, a Sunni organization.

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