David Shuster, 37, is a D.C.-based correspondent for NBC News and 'Hardball with Chris Matthews.' Before joining NBC in June 2002, Shuster spent 6 years as a D.C.-based correspondent for Fox News Channel. Shuster led Fox’s coverage of the Clinton investigations including 'Whitewater,' the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the Starr report, and the Senate impeachment trial. Shuster began his journalism career in CNN’s D.C. bureau. From 1990 to 1994, he was an assignment editor and field producer, helping CNN cover the Persian Gulf war and the 1992 Presidential election campaign. Shuster graduated with honors from the University of Michigan in 1989 with a degree in political science. He spoke with JournalismJobs.com about coverage of the 2004 campaign.
JournalismJobs.com: In light of the scandals involving Dan Rather, Bill O'Reilly and Sinclair Broadcasting Group, have journalists and media organizations become bigger news than the candidates themselves this election season?
David Shuster: Good question. No, they're news, and they're big news. But I still think the campaign and the election itself trumps whatever news may develop involving Bill O'Reilly or Sinclair or Dan Rather. There's a growing interest in news figures and what we do. Part of that may be the charges of either conservative bias or liberal bias or even some of the charges being made by organizations like Sinclair. At the end of the day, as interesting as Sinclair may be, or Dan Rather may be, or Bill O'Reilly, which was probably the most interesting of the three, I think people are most interested in the campaign news and the story we're covering and not any sort of story related to the person delivering the news... It certainly hurts Bill O'Reilly's credibility for him to be any sort of conservative voice on family values. Likewise, it certainly hurts Dan Rather's credibility that they didn't check out the documents. It may hurt Dan Rather and CBS the next time they want to do a big investigative story. Sinclair was already hurt because of the refusal to broadcast 'Nightline.' While the credibility of each of these organizations will suffer, and maybe media in general will suffer every time one of these things happen, there's still enough sources of information out there that people are still more interested in the campaign news and what the candidates are saying and not necessarily the latest foibles involving a newscaster.
JournalismJobs.com: Because of the Iraq war and its deep contentiousness, this campaign seems to be more inundated by spin than previous campaigns. How do you cut through that spin to tell viewers the true story? How do you avoid letting coverage turn into a ping-pong match of attacks and counter-attacks?
David Shuster: I'll just speak for my show 'Hardball.' I think Chris Matthews is one of the best to not let the b.s. -- the charge, counter-charge -- be the order of the day. There's a very strong effort on 'Hardball' when somebody comes and says either a talking point or spin, they're immediately held accountable. Sometimes in a fashion that may not be the most polite, but they're held accountible and presented the facts. I think that's one of the reasons why our audience is growing. The other thing is what we've done with television advertisements in this campaign. We have an ad unit that I'm in charge of that basically dissects every campaign commercial that's been released. It gives us an opportunity to go line by line, 'Okay, here's what the campaign says. Which candidate is going to cut social security. Well, here's the truth of the matter.' There are some places on top of 'Hardball' that are doing that. There are also a lot of programs out there that simply want the combat -- two people screaming at each other. [The Senator Zell Miller interview on 'Hardball'] goes to show how frustrated some people are when Chris Matthews is an aggressive host... I think that's why [Miller] exploded.
JournalismJobs.com: Since you've worked at Fox and MSNBC, how has the experience covering the 2000 presidential campaign for Fox differed from covering the 2004 campaign for MSNBC?
David Shuster: With MSNBC, you have the enormous resources of NBC at your disposal. There must be literally ten times as many people within NBC who are involved covering this campaign, whether it's researchers, people watching ads, people putting out political notes, staff correspondents. It's unbelieveable how many resources NBC has. MSNBC gets to get all of that information, and it makes the reporting so much easier. At least 75 to 100 people everyday are working on NBC's coverage. At 'Hardball' we get the benefit of all their notes and memos and e-mails. The commitment to accuracy and getting the story right is so much greater at an organization associated with NBC. With Fox, it was something of a shoestring budget four years ago. I was covering McCain. It was basically me, a producer and a camera crew. We were responsible for making sure we knew about every ad, every campaign talking point, every change in strategy. The entire network leaned on us to do it, and that's tough. I think we did it pretty well. I think the correspondents at Fox do it fairly well. The campaign has so many moving pieces that the more people who you have that are really trying to ferret out fact from fiction, the better your coverage is.
JournalismJobs.com: What do you think the responsibility of the media, especially broadcast, is in an election year such as this -- tracking the horse race, or stepping back and giving broader analysis?
David Shuster: I think it's better to give a broader analysis. First off, it's important for news networks to let the campaigns have their say. If the campaign wants to frame an issue a particular way, play it the way they're framing it, but then step back after you play the soundbite and give a little analysis and context and put it to the test. Is this a factual comment that's being made? Is it spin? Is this a misleading comment that they're making? As far as the horse race is concerned, it's important to keep track because it indicates the extent to which polls change and it helps to indicate the mood of the public and what's resonating with the public. The constant horse race of who's ahead and who's behind doesn't help a lot.
JournalismJobs.com: Back to Fox, in one of your blogs in mid-October, you referred to Fox News as the 'partisan worst' in broadcast news. Why is that?
David Shuster: I'll just let that comment stand. I think it's not that difficult for people who watch Fox compared to other news organizations to be able to tell what the difference is.
JournalismJobs.com: Is that why you left Fox?
David Shuster: I left Fox for a variety of reasons, primarily because I thought I had a better opportunity at an organization like NBC. I had a great time while I was at Fox. I had developed some great friends. I led their coverage of the Clinton investigation and had a lot of support from Fox News Channel management during that period. I just felt I had done about as much as I could do at Fox and felt that in the long run it wasn't a great place for me to be. I prefer to work at a news organization that simply lets the chips fall where they may. I felt in the long run NBC was a better organization to do that than Fox.
JournalismJobs.com: In that same blog, you pointed to a statement by Ted Koppel, who said: "Reporting what we learn, not concealing it." How can television reporters do a better job of doing that?
David Shuster: Four years ago reporters looked into the controversy that Florida was in two different time zones. The panhandle was open to 8, whereas the rest of Florida was open to 7. There was a theory put out by Republicans that because the networks called Florida early that it discouraged tens of thousands of people in the panhandle from voting because then they've heard about it. The problem is that too many reporters would repeat and parrot that claim, and just say that Republicans say by calling Florida early it disenfranchised tens of thousands of voters. What reporters should have done -- and some of them did -- was to go to the panhandle and try to find these supposedly tens of thousands of people who were disenfranchised. There were some reporters who were able to say there's no story there. We only found a couple of people who heard about that when they were waiting in line, but continued to vote. A lot of people continued to let that talking point be out there either because they didn't want -- for whatever reason -- to get in the way of the Republican spin or maybe because they hadn't sought out the truth about what happened in the panhandle. When it comes to sort of concealing it, it's not only a matter of trying to look for the truth, but you have to also be willing to find out what the truth is. Unfortunately, whether it was a lack of resources or laziness, it's easier to just take someone's point and say, 'Okay, this side says this and this side says that,' and no effort is made to find out what is the truth. It's incumbent for all of us journalists to go out and try to find the truth.
JournalismJobs.com: Some fault 24-hour news cable stations for reducing the substance and context of news into overused soundbites and overhyped headlines to fill the time. What's your response to that, and how do these cable news stations battle against that?
David Shuster: I think cable has done a great job in this campaign. Because you have so much programming, there's an opportunity to run speeches live. There's an opportunity to run ads in their entirety. There's an opportunity to have campaign spokesmen come on. Instead of giving a 10-second soundbite, they can argue for a couple of minutes about a point. You can have a reporter come on and take a complex issue like Social Security and sort of lay out what the truth is. Because you have greater time restraints on the network side, you can't always do that. I think in general cable news channels have done exceedingly well. Are we guilty of not throwing as much depth and resources at coverage as we could? Yeah, of course.
On the other hand we don't have the deep pockets and don't make huge amounts of money, so we can't justify throwing endless resources at any story. With the resources we do have, I think we're extremely efficient at doing as much reporting as we can, and I think we're fair in trying to dig out the truth in all these stories. I think that CNN and Fox are at a huge disadvantage in that they've got to fill the 24 hours, and they don't have huge resources to be able to find out the truth in a story. It's just easier to fill up programming by having talking heads. Whereas when you have a highly produced 2 1/2 to 3 minute story, that requires a lot more work. I don't think CNN and Fox necessarily are as well equipped to do that sort of thing. They just don't have the resources that a broadcast network has. At MSNBC, we have a huge advantage. We've got all the resources of NBC, we've got all the NBC correspondents, we got Tim Russert and Tom Brokaw. It brings a certain level of integrity that is missing from the other two.
JournalismJobs.com: Will MSNBC ever eclipse Fox or CNN?
David Shuster: Yeah, of course. I think it's all sort of cyclical. Over the last year, MSNBC has done a much better job at defining what its mission is. I think MSNBC has shown the greatest growth in the third quarter of any cable news channel. One of the challenges with cable is people want to turn on cable and know what they're going to get. MSNBC has been a lot more consistent over the last year than at any point in its history. The challenge is it takes a while to develop a cable news audience. I remember at Fox, Bill O'Reilly, his ratings were awful for the first four years. At one point there was discussion about moving O'Reilly's timeslot and whether he would survive. It really took until after 9/11 when he did the big stuff about the Red Cross, that's finally when it took off. That was five years after Fox was on the air. MSNBC has only been sticking with the format we have now for a year. It's going to take awhile, but we're going to get there.
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