MSNBC may be obsessed with the four men arrested for trying to tamper with Sen. Mary Landrieu’s telephones, but the network says reporter David Shuster crossed the line when he attacked one of them via Twitter.
Just before leaving for New Orleans to cover the story, Shuster used a Twitter message to tell conservative filmmaker James O’Keefe — one of the four men arrested by the FBI — that he’s “not a journalist,” that he “intended to tap phones” and that he “will go to prison.”
“The comments were inappropriate,” an MSNBC spokesperson told POLITICO Thursday. “We have talked to David about them.”
Still, Shuster continues to cover the story for MSNBC. At 3 p.m. Thursday, he’s expected to interview Andrew Breitbart, who pays O’Keefe a salary and published his undercover anti-ACORN videos on his website Big Government.
MSNBC has been all over the arrests at Landrieu’s New Orleans office, dubbing the alleged attempt to tamper with the phones of the Democratic senator “PhoneGate” and “Bayou Break-In.”
On Wednesday night — when other news networks were focused on President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address — MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann devoted the first 20 minutes of “Countdown” to the Landrieu case.
In addition to speaking with Shuster from New Orleans, Olbermann talked with analyst Richard Wolffe and former Nixon counsel John Dean, famous for his role in the Watergate coverup.
Fox News, by contrast, has spent relatively little time on the story.
Media Matters, a liberal watchdog group, reports that Fox devoted roughly 4½-half minutes on O’Keefe’s arrest Tuesday during its evening and prime-time shows, while spending over an hour on the ACORN tapes when that story broke on Sept. 10.
It’s quite a contrast from last fall, when Fox gave loads of airtime to the undercover videos in which O’Keefe pretended to be a pimp seeking help from ACORN. The 25-year-old activist appeared on “Glenn Beck,” “Hannity” and “Fox & Friends” and was named the “Power Player of the Week” by Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday.”
A Fox spokesperson did not return a request for comment.
Ari Rabin-Havt, vice president of research and communication for Media Matters, said that in addition to the airtime Fox gave the ACORN story, the network also allowed O’Keefe, Hannah Giles — who appeared as the prostitute in the undercover tapes — and Breitbart to talk up their legal defense fund.
Rabin-Havt said that given the amount of time Fox provided for what he considers an “unethical piece of journalism,” the network has “some culpability” for whatever O’Keefe may have done next.
But while Media Matters sees Fox as overhyping the first O’Keefe-related story, those on the other end of the political spectrum now see MSNBC giving too much play to the second.
Seton Motley, director of communications for the Media Research Center, said that MSNBC is “hyperventilating in their coverage” and that O’Keefe’s been “convicted in the court of Twitter by David Shuster.”
“I think what the MSNBCs of the world are trying to do is to undo what [O’Keefe] did to ACORN with this,” Motley said.
Breitbart also thinks the media have gone overboard.
“For those in the mainstream media committed to report the false and libelous narrative of ‘Watergate Jr.,’ ‘wiretapping’ and ‘bugging,’ I predict much egg on your J-school grad faces,” Breitbart wrote on his Big Journalism site.
Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, noted that the different levels of coverage between the ACORN story — presumably bad for liberals — and the O’Keefe arrest — presumably bad for conservatives — is just par for the course.
“One thing we’ve seen repeatedly on ideologically oriented shows, in cable and radio, is not only the ideology evident in how a subject is treated but whether a subject is covered,” he said.
During the campaign, Jurkowitz pointed out that Fox hosts Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity focused more on issues such as the controversy over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, while MSNBC hosts Olbermann and Rachel Maddow offered more coverage of issues relating to Sen. John McCain’s campaign tactics.
“If you were watching the Fox hosts or the MSNBC hosts, you’d be getting different subjects of the campaign covered,” Jurkowitz said. “You are getting in some ways a different world.”