MSNBC's Sexist Hypocrisy: Open Season on Conservative Women

On February 7, 2008, MSNBC's David Shuster claimed Chelsea Clinton was being “pimped out” by her mother Hillary Clinton's, presidential campaign.

Retribution quickly followed. News broke the very next day that Shuster's comments had earned him a two-week suspension. The National Organization for Women (NOW) quickly issued a statement that called on NBC to “skip the sexism and report the news.” And while NOW praised NBC for its “swift and decisive action” against Shuster, the group also pointed out “a pattern at MSNBC: insult, apology, insult, apology.”

Yet, just over a year later, the network and NOW are hewing to a very different standard when it comes to women on the right. MSNBC personalities refer to a Republican congresswoman as a “Mata Hari,” and call a former female Republican vice-presidential nominee a “mail order bride” and characterize her as a dragon and a dog, and there's no apology and no outrage. 

For conservative women, it appears the strategy at MSNBC is “insult, insult, insult.”

Tarring Mata Hari


Back in February of 2008, NBC News President Steve Capus suspended Shuster for two weeks for what were deemed “irresponsible and inappropriate” remarks. While filling in on the since-canceled MSNBC show “Tucker,” Shuster said to Bill Press, “Doesn't it seem like Chelsea's sort of being pimped out in some weird sort of way?”

So we can expect NBC News to come down hard on any of its personalities when they disparage women public figures in sexist ways, right? Right. Unless those women are conservatives like Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn.

Since the fall of last year, “Hardball” host Chris Matthews has made it a mission to hone in on Bachmann, one of 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, beginning with an  aggressive line of questioning when she called some liberalism, including that coming from Obama associates William Ayers and Rev. Jeremiah Wright, “anti-American.”

On his March 27 show, he questioned her desire to protect the United States dollar and referred to her as “the Mata Hari of Minnesota” for her efforts in the House to statutorily defend the U.S. Dollar.

“It's not clear why she did it since nobody on the planet, least of all here in America is talking about switching to some new multinational currency here,” Matthews said.

He got worked up about an interview Bachmann did on conservative talk show host Sean Hannity's radio show earlier in the week when she referred to her job as being a "foreign correspondent behind enemy lines" and called Obama's policies “economic Marxism.”

“In other words, the people who disagree with her are the enemy,” Matthews said, referring to her as an exotic dancer accused of spying for the Germans in France during World War I. “She is the Mata Hari of Minnesota.”

In that same show, Matt Taibbi, editor of Rolling Stone magazine, took it a step further and suggested she had less mental capacity than someone under the influence household chemicals.

“It's funny, this morning outside of Penn Station, I saw a guy huffing glue out of a paper bag and he was making more sense than Michele Bachmann was making," Taibbi said, drawing laughter from Matthews and Michelle Bernard, MSNBC contributor and president of the Independent Women's Forum. “I can't believe - you need to pass a written test to drive a car in this country, but I bet this woman can't even write her name in the ground with a stick. It's unbelievable to me that this person is in the Congress.”

Sliming Sarah

The liberal media's disdain for conservative women has a long and varied history, from Florida's Katharine Harris, who was called “Cruella De Vil,” to the hated Ann Coulter to the “blond and witchy” Elisabeth Hasselbeck.

But no woman has drawn liberal ire like former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, and nobody has attacked Palin with the vitriol of MSNBC.

Starting with its coverage of the Republican National Convention in August, Matthews and several of the other on-air NBC News talent that appeared on MSNBC's special coverage – including former “Nightly News” host Tom Brokaw and NBC correspondents Chuck Todd and Andrea Mitchell -- immediately keyed in on the pro-life candidate's stance on abortion.

MSNBC's bomb-thrower, Keith Olbermann labeled Gov. Palin a “fire breather” during a rant on his August 29, 2008 “Countdown” program. Of her stance on issues, he stated, “She's this side of 'melt the Arctic,' this side of 'imprison abortionists,' she's run up the debt, 'purge the lefties' fire breather.”

Imagine the outrage had Olbermann referred to Hillary Clinton as a dragon.

“When it came to abortion, no exceptions – rape, incest, didn't make any difference, they were opposed to abortion,” Brokaw said on MSNBC's Sept. 2, 2008 coverage. “That is Senator, pardon men, Governor Palin's position as well but it has not been John McCain's position.”

Later, on Sept. 3, 2008, Matthews and Olbermann dismissed GOP complaints that the media had questioned Palin's parenting capabilities:

OLBERMANN: Alright Andrea thank you. Thank you Governor. It would, I'd love the governor or anybody else repeating those talking points to give us the names of those news organizations that have actually questioned whether or not mothers have a right to sit in office. But we haven't heard that list yet.


MATTHEWS: Well I have to agree. I sit here waiting for that list of major news organizations who have questioned her motherhood or her right to become Vice-President, given her motherhood. I don't think it has ever happened. But of course it's become the talking point for all the spokesmen.


Matthews implied on September 8, 2008 that Palin was John McCain's Gal Friday. He opined, “Let me try my theory about why Sarah Palin seems to be catching on. I don't think she's running as a traditional VP, which is no big deal. She's running as kind of like the other partner, somewhere between a VP and a First Lady, maybe.”

Although Palin, according to Matthews, couldn't be a “traditonal VP,” she couldn't be the victim of sexism from the left either. On his Sept. 10, 2008 “Hardball” program, after the controversy arose from Obama using the “lipstick on a pig” metaphor to describe Palin's policies, which some construed as a reference to Palin's 2008 RNC Convention speech when she used “lipstick on a pit bull,” with the distinctly unflattering “pig” thrown in. Matthews dismissed any possibility that the Democratic nominee was exhibiting sexist behavior.

Following the vice-presidential debate on MSNBC's Oct. 2, Matthews referred to Palin's camera demeanor as a “dolt.”

The end of the campaign wasn't the end of the network's Palin bashing. On the March 30 broadcast of Matthews' show, MSNBC political analyst Pat Buchanan and Newsweek's Howard Fineman were discussing what they perceived to be a rift between Palin and her running mate, former GOP presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. McCain had recently been unwilling to commit to supporting Palin as a presidential candidate in 2012. The discussion gave Matthews the chance to compare the Alaska governor to a mail-order bride:

MATTHEWS: You're a great reporter, Howard – I'm going to set you up. You are a great reporter. You are the best – the best in the business. What happened between those two?


FINEMAN: It was a lost weekend that didn't go beyond the weekend.


MATTHEWS: He thought she was something special. He thought she was the genuine article.


FINEMAN: He had no idea. He had no idea, with all due respect to the Senator. He had no idea what he was getting. They came into the convention and I was covering it closely at the time.


MATTHEWS: What was she, a mail-order bride? What do you mean he had no idea who she was?


FINEMAN: Practically he really didn't know. He didn't know her. They didn't have any other good choices. They had a boring convention they were facing in St. Paul. They wanted to liven it up. They said, hey, let's pick this conservative young woman governor from Alaska. And he crossed his fingers and said fine. It was a great convention, it was exciting. It was fun.


After Palin spoke out against the character assassination the media carried out against her, Olbermann joked on January 13, 2009, “What's the difference between a governor of Alaska and a pitbull? You can train a pitbull to occasionally keep its mouth closed.”

As for NOW, they issued no statements on the treatment Palin and Bachmann received from MSNBC during the 2008 general election cycle except to say of Palin, that her nomination was “a cynical effort to appeal to disappointed Hillary Clinton voters and get them to vote, ultimately, against their own self-interest.”


MSNBC has now compared outspoken conservative women to a dog, a dragon, an exotic dancer, a mail-order bride, and implied that a female governor and vice-presidential candidate carried less weight on the ticket than her male counterpart.

We have seen in the case of Shuster how quick the network was to take action when NOW brought pressure to bear. Likewise, prior to the Shuster incident, Matthews himself had gotten in hot water with management for suggesting that Hillary Clinton's political career was dependent “on being a victim of an unfaithful husband.” Criticism from women's groups forced him to later apologize. Clearly, NOW and other feminist groups wield the power to make MSNBC reign in the sexist attitudes of its talent. If only they'd use that power.

But they let cartoonish characterizations of courageous, intelligent and strong women go unanswered. NOW's only public statement about Palin was that her nomination was “a cynical effort to appeal to disappointed Hillary Clinton voters and get them to vote, ultimately, against their own self-interest.” Calls to NOW seeking comment on their lenient views of how MSNBC treats conservative woman remain unreturned.

Colleen Holmes, executive director of the conservative Eagle Forum told CMI, “Michelle Malkin summarized it perfectly when she noted that the liberals have a tendency to infantilize, sexualize, demonize and dehumanize conservative women.  It's astounding how intolerant liberals are of jokes about liberal women, and yet they'll say, or at least tolerate the most bawdy, degrading and patronizing things about conservative women.” 

Granted, it's not just MSNBC who has treated conservative women in this manner. CMI's October 2008 report “A Study in Character Assassination: How the TV Networks Have Portrayed Sarah Palin as Dunce or Demon” found that the broadcast networks did their part to turn Americans off of Palin.

Again and again we see that according to the mainstream media, the only women who enjoy protection from belittling, degrading, sexist comments are those who champion the killing of the unborn and who believe woman are more equal than men.  

 Jeff Poor is a staff writer for the Business and Media Institute. Colleen Raezler is a research assistant at the Culture and Media Institute. Both institutes are divisions of the Media Research Center.