MSNBC's David Shuster Mocks 'Fantasy' That Media Was Too Easy on Obama

"Countdown With Keith Olbermann" guest host David Shuster slipped an incredible claim into Monday's program when he highlighted "independent reports" showing that presidential candidate Barack Obama received harsher media scrutiny than did John McCain during the 2008 election.

As a way of introducing a discussion on why the President didn't attend the 2009 Gridiron dinner (a longstanding occasion for journalists and politicians) on Saturday, the MSNBC anchor oddly suggested, "Even though independent reports have shown the media was more critical of Barack Obama than John McCain during the presidential contest, there is still a fantasy that the press is gaga over now-President Obama." What independent reports? He didn't say. It's possible that Shuster was referring to a Center for Media and Public Affairs report from August of 2008. They claimed that, through the first six weeks of the general election, McCain received more favorable coverage. [Updated 2009-03-25 15:32:49 to reflect CMPA study.]

Even moderate Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger mocked the media's performance at the Gridiron dinner. Shuster quoted the California governor as joking, "You did such lovely work for Obama. You put your lives on hold to put him in the White House. Now you get all dressed up, the champagne is on ice and you find out he is just not that into you."

In contrast to the Indiana University study, an August 2008 Media Research Center investigation found much different results. After looking though 1365 evening news broadcasts (going back to Obama's first appearance in 2000), the MRC concluded that the then-candidate received almost seven times more positive stories than he did negative.

Shuster didn't exactly offer penetrating questions to his guest, columnist Clarence Page, on Monday. At one point, he mentioned how Obama was spending time with his family at Camp David and asked, "Whatever his specific motives regarding this event, do you think the President is quickly developing a reputation, quite naturally too, as being, basically, a family guy?

A transcript of the March 23 segment, which aired at 8:55pm, follows:

DAVID SHUSTER: Even though independent reports have shown the media was more critical of Barack Obama than John McCain during the presidential contest, there is still a fantasy that the press is gaga over now-President Obama. But, the so-called honeymoon may be over, since, in our number one story in the "Countdown," the President skipped the annual event where journalists and commander in chief happily co-mingle, the beloved Gridiron Dinner. And that's the first time a president has missed the dinner in his first year in office it since President Grover Cleveland in 1885. Instead, President Obama spent time with his family at Camp David. And though he not seated at the head of the table, as he might have been, he was still the focus of the annual bash in Washington, D.C. on Saturday night. The dinner hosts journalists and politicians and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger teased the crowd about the most conspicuous no show. "You did such lovely work for Obama. You put your lives on hold to put him in the White House. Now you get all dressed up, the champagne is on ice and you find out he is just not that into you." And this: "Here you were expecting, yes, we can. Instead, what do you get? Hasta la vista, baby." Vice President Joe Biden was there too, with a different explanation, quoting, "President Obama sends his greetings. He can't be here tonight because he is getting ready for Easter. He thinks it's all about him." Let's bring in Pulitzer Prize winning syndicated columnist for the "Chicago Tribune," Clarence Page, who attended the Gridiron Dinner and performed, as is tradition, along with many other journalists. Good evening, Clarence.

CLARENCE PAGE (Chicago Tribune): Good evening, David.

SHUSTER: Obviously, there was much levity about the President's absence. But, were some people there truly shocked and maybe a little bit miffed that the President missed the big event?

PAGE: I think by the time the evening came along, we had gotten over it. Boy, it was only a couple of weeks or so before the night of the big event that we found out he wasn't coming. That, as you mentioned, has never happened in the first Gridiron of a new President's administration since Grover Cleveland. Very seldom has any president missed. Bill Clinton missed one when he had knee surgery, you remember. George Bush missed one one year when he was meeting with the Mexican president. We were just kind of wondering, especially, this is a newspaper club, really, the charm of it all is we've been keeping this tradition alive for over a century. It's a partisanship-free night, you might say, where that old spirit of comity that we had before politics got so polarized lives anew. Republicans and Democrats, independents together and make fun of each other. And Obama had been, I must say in fairness- before he became President, he was our Winter Dinner speaker and our Spring Dinner speaker here in recent years. So, we were just really shocked that he suddenly wasn't coming to this dinner. And the reason was family.

SHUSTER: Do you think that the President, other than wanting to simply spend time with his family, may have been thinking he just did not think it would be appropriate to be whooping it up there amidst the current economic crisis?

PAGE: We thought about that. But, you know, it was just a few weeks ago that he appeared at the Alfalfa Club Dinner, which is like ours, only they are newer. They only go back to 1912, I think. And they don't have any music and satire. They do have the roast, and the same kind of VIP crowd of administration folks and Republican, Democratic leaders. They have a lot more CEOs in their group, like we have journalists. But, you know, I don't think that was the reason. Of course their official reason is that they had planned this weekend at Camp David, because this is the spring break for the private school that the two Obama daughters attend. We were kind of miffed that it is only like a 20-minute helicopter ride away. He could of, kind of, have flown in. We promised to get him back by midnight.

SHUSTER: Whatever his specific motives regarding this event, do you think the President is quickly developing a reputation, quite naturally too, as being, basically, a family guy?

PAGE: He certainly is a family guy. And you can't begrudge him that. Me and my fellow Gridiron members are thinking about the times we had to be away from our families for professional reasons. You never get that time back. And besides, we're only a media group. It is hard to find anybody outside the media who sympathizes with us on anything. But this is an old tradition. And newspapers are going through a tough time right now. We are not just a newspaper group now. We have some broadcasters and some magazine people as well. But, you know, media have been going through a tough time, especially newspapers. We have been losing a lot of our colleagues in recent weeks, bureaus shutting down, that kind of thing. So, having this occur at this time, having the President not show up at this time was just kind of another morale blow. But, we'll get over it.

SHUSTER: Certainly, there is a lot of fascination with the entire Obama family. There has been a lot of attention on Michelle Obama, rumors that she was pregnant when she was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey and was asked about that. Then, of course, there was the new vegetable garden, which got plenty of attention. As does everything else Michelle Obama takes on, is it pretty clear that Michelle Obama so far is a huge asset to this administration?

PAGE: Oh, certainly, she is. I think she has done a great job of that and being a first lady, a role model. Arnold Schwarzenegger did get off a good line Saturday night about her having bigger arms than he does. And he was funnier saying that than I just was. But no question everybody has a real heart warming feeling about Michelle Obama.

Update 18:38 | Matthew Sheffield. One hopes that Shuster was not referencing the CMPA report cited by Scott above considering that it was a preliminary study. Following the election, the media monitoring organization released a final study which reached the following conclusion:

In 2008 the Democratic ticket won the race for good press even more handily then the election itself.  Barak Obama  garnered the most favorable coverage of any presidential candidate CMPA has tracked since 1988,  with 68% positive evaluations by reporters and nonpartisan sources.  His two to one ratio of good to bad press was the reverse of John McCain’s media portrait.  McCain attracted only 33% positive evaluations, a two to one negative ratio.

For all the novelty of Sarah Palin’s candidacy, her two to one negative ratio was almost identical to that of McCain. Her Democratic counterpart Joe Biden received very light but balanced coverage.  Overall the Democratic ticket’s coverage was twice as positive as that of the Republicans.

Scott Whitlock
Scott Whitlock
Scott Whitlock is the senior news analyst for the Media Research Center and a contributing editor for NewsBusters.org