A Hardball double standard, part II: Media Matters compares O'Donnell's interviews of Dean, Mehlman

A day after interviewing Howard Dean, MSNBC's Norah O'Donnell sat down with his Republican counterpart, Ken Mehlman, affording Media Matters for America the opportunity to make a direct comparison of the two interviews.

On the June 20 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, guest host and MSNBC chief Washington correspondent Norah O'Donnell interviewed Republican National Committee (RNC) chairman Ken Mehlman. As Media Matters for America noted, O'Donnell had aired an interview with Mehlman's Democratic counterpart, Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairman Howard Dean, on the previous evening's edition of Hardball, posing significantly more challenging questions to Dean than to Sen. George Allen (R-VA), whom she also interviewed on the program. O'Donnell's June 20 interview of Mehlman offers the opportunity to make a direct comparison of O'Donnell's interviews with the two parties' chairmen.

In contrast with Dean's interview, during which O'Donnell adopted misleading Republican talking points and attacks on Democrats -- even going so far as to criticize Dean for not conceding one of those talking points -- O'Donnell did not adopt the other party's talking points or attacks in her interview of Mehlman. Moreover, she followed Mehlman's dubious connection between the Iraq war and the “3,000 people we lost” on September 11, 2001, with: “I hear what you're saying.” Further, O'Donnell afforded Mehlman ample opportunities to attack Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) and suggested that President Bush pardon former vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, who was indicted in connection with the ongoing CIA leak investigation. A Media Matters review of the interviews also found that O'Donnell asked Dean a higher percentage of challenging questions.

In a subsequent panel discussion with Sens. Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), O'Donnell also criticized Democratic proposals for a U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq and allowed only Hutchison to respond to Vice President Dick Cheney's assertion that the Iraq war has helped prevent terrorist attacks on the United States. An onscreen graphic during the segment echoed two Republican slogans: "'Cut and run' or 'stay the course'?"

Interview with Mehlman

O'Donnell's treatment of Mehlman differed greatly from her treatment of Dean in that she did not echo the other party's talking points in her questions to the RNC chairman. During her interview of Dean, O'Donnell had defended Cheney's assertion that the war in Iraq has prevented terrorist attacks on the United States. When Dean disagreed with Cheney's assertion, O'Donnell criticized him, asking: “Can't you give this administration some credit? It is true there's not been an attack on American soil in five years.”

O'Donnell also asked Dean if he “honestly believe[s]” that Americans will “vote for Democrats ... who say we can't win in Iraq,” and asked Dean to respond to her assertion that congressional Democrats' policy platform, "A New Direction for America," unveiled June 14, “make[s] absolutely no mention of ... a plan for Iraq,” which, she suggested, “just reinforce[s] the idea that Democrats are weak on national security.” In fact, as Media Matters noted, the “New Direction” platform addressed only domestic policy, but the Democrats' March 29 "Real Security" strategy document did address U.S. Iraq policy.

But far from adopting Democratic talking points in her interview of Mehlman, O'Donnell seemed to endorse at least one of Mehlman's talking points. When Mehlman attempted to justify the “2,500 U.S. troops dead” (O'Donnell's words) in the Iraq war by invoking the “3,000 people we lost on 9-11,” O'Donnell replied: “I hear what you're saying.”

Later, O'Donnell articulated another apparent Republican talking point independently of Mehlman. Referring to “a lot of chatter among Republicans” that Libby -- indicted on perjury and obstruction of justice charges -- would be pardoned by Bush, O'Donnell suggested that Republicans could “clear the deck” if Bush pardoned Libby. “Why not do that?,” she asked.

O'Donnell also allowed Mehlman to attack Kerry, asking him for his “reaction” to the change Kerry made in his proposed date for a U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq from December 31, 2006, to July 1, 2007. She did not challenge Mehlman's suggestion that setting a date for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would be like “if we had said [to Nazi Germany] in 1943, 'Here's when we're going to withdraw from the battlefield.' ” Nor did she challenge a second attack by Mehlman on Kerry, in which Mehlman apparently invoked the deaths of Pfc. Kristian Menchaca and Pfc. Thomas L. Tucker, two Army soldiers whose bodies were recovered after they were kidnapped by Iraqi insurgents. When O'Donnell asked Mehlman to comment on Kerry's statement that Republicans had a “lie and die” policy in Iraq, Mehlman called Kerry's remarks “inappropriate ... when you think of these two soldiers who gave their lives for our freedom.”

Further, a Media Matters review of O'Donnell's interviews of Dean and Mehlman found that O'Donnell asked Mehlman a somewhat lower percentage of challenging questions than she asked Dean. Out of O'Donnell's eight questions to Mehlman, only four required the RNC chairman to respond to Democratic criticism of Republicans or to statements questioning Republican policies. But seven of O'Donnell's 11 questions to Dean required Dean to respond to Republican attacks on Democrats, misleading Republican statements, or statements questioning Democrats' unity on the Iraq issue. Moreover, O'Donnell blunted two of her challenging questions to Mehlman by incorporating criticism of Democrats along with criticism of Republicans. (O'Donnell's questions to Dean contained no criticism of Republicans.)

O'Donnell did, however, play two clips of Democrats criticizing Republicans during her interview of Mehlman. Her interview of Dean included one clip of a Democrat criticizing a Republican and one clip of a Republican criticizing a Democrat.

Panel discussion with Durbin and Hutchison

Additionally, during a panel discussion with Durbin and Hutchison, preceding the Mehlman interview, O'Donnell suggested that Kerry's amendment calling for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq by July 1, 2007, set an arbitrary date -- asking, “Is something happening in July 2007 that the rest us don't know about?” -- and described it as a “fool's errand,” given that it stood little chance of passing the Senate and would “hand[] the Republicans a political weapon” against Democrats. As she had on the previous evening's edition of Hardball, O'Donnell also referred to Cheney's assertion, from a June 15 interview with Fox News' Sean Hannity, that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was “in part responsible” for the absence of terrorist attacks in the United States since 9-11. But O'Donnell allowed only Hutchison, who agreed with Cheney, to respond to this claim. She did not allow Durbin to respond.

During the segment, an onscreen graphic echoed two Republican slogans, one attacking Democratic calls for a withdrawal from Iraq, and another defending Republicans' calls to remain in Iraq. The graphic read: " 'Cut and run' or 'stay the course'?"

From the June 20 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews:

O'DONNELL: Well, then do you support a timetable for withdrawal? First, Senator Kerry said December 31st, now he says July 2007. Do you support that there should be a date certain when U.S. troops are out of Iraq?

DURBIN: I think we should have a reasonable timetable. There should be some considerations there, if circumstances arise that would make a difference. But, by and large, I think the Iraqis have to understand now that they've trained 264,000 soldiers with our help, at our expense, that they have to stand and defend their own country.

O'DONNELL: But the question does exist out there, how -- where does this date of July 2007 come from? Is something happening in July 2007 that the rest us don't know about? What's happening in July of that year that should mean that U.S. troops should come home?

DURBIN: It's a year from now. It also means that if we are not more fortunate than we were in the last year, over 500 American soldiers will give their lives in Iraq during that period of time. We will spend another $90 [billion] or $100 billion in that country. And many of us feel that there reaches a point where the Iraqis have to take over and defend their own country.


O'DONNELL: I'm going to go to you in a second, Senator Hutchison, but, Senator Durbin, I must ask you, because it is your party that is bringing up a resolution and an amendment calling for a phased redeployment or a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

Given that, in particular, Senator Kerry's -- which is the only binding resolution, which would call for this specific timetable for July 2007 -- is only expected to get a handful of votes, isn't this really a fool's errand? What's the point of handing the Republicans a political weapon to use against you if not even the support of your caucus behind this amendment?

DURBIN: The Senate is a deliberative body. There are differences of opinion. I'm glad we have a chance to debate the different approaches that we should consider. But most of us, I think all of us, on the Democratic side of the aisle agree that we need a better plan than we've heard from the president.


O'DONNELL: Let me ask you about what Vice President Cheney said just the other day on Fox Radio. He said, “It's no accident that we've not been attacked since 9-11, and that's in part because of Iraq.” Do you believe that's true?

HUTCHISON: Well, I think that because of all the efforts we're making in homeland security, because of our vigilance and because we are taking the war to the terrorists, the hotbed of terrorism right now is in Iraq. It's the insurgency. They are trying to make sure that we don't stabilize Iraq. And yes, I think the fact that we have not had another attack is very significant. It's because we have been vigilant.

O'DONNELL: You think because of Iraq?

HUTCHISON: I think it's because of a number of things, including homeland security and the efforts we are making in homeland security and making sure that the terrorists are contained.

O'DONNELL: I hear a little hedging there.

HUTCHISON: No, no, no, it is not hedging. It is saying that we are taking it to the terrorists. We are not letting them attack us. And that's very significant.


O'DONNELL: Welcome back to Hardball. The U.S. military confirmed today that the two missing soldiers in Iraq are, in fact, dead. Their bodies, which were found badly mutilated, have been sent back to the U.S. for DNA testing. An umbrella insurgent group in Iraq is claiming responsibility, and as Americans continue to face gruesome news from Iraq, will pressure to bring home the troops only get stronger?

Here's John Kerry today from Imus in the Morning.

KERRY [clip]: My plan is not cut and run. Their plan is lie and die, and that's what they're doing. They lie to America over what's happening on the ground, they lie about why we're there, they lie about what's happening, and our plan is very simple. It's redeploy to win the war on terror. Change to succeed. You have a better chance of success if the Iraqis are given notice that they've got to begin to take over and stand up for themselves. It's very simple.

O'DONNELL: Here to hash through all of it is Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman.

Ken, [White House senior adviser] Karl Rove kicked this off, in many ways, last week, by accusing the Democrats, like John Kerry and [Rep.] Jack Murtha [D-PA], of being cut-and-run Democrats. You heard John Kerry saying today that Republicans, all they do is “lie and die.”

MEHLMAN: First of all, I want to say I think that's an inappropriate statement, when you think of these two soldiers who gave their lives for our freedom. All of our prayers should be with their families. I don't think that these two soldiers or the 2,500 other Marines and sailors and soldiers and troops who died did it on behalf of a lie. They did it to protect American freedom.


O'DONNELL: Senator Kerry, as you know, is putting forward this amendment, which would be a binding resolution, saying that U.S. troops should withdraw. First, he had said December 31st of this year, then he said July of 2007. Part of that change, his office says, is because that -- politics is about consensus.

Your reaction?

MEHLMAN: Again, it's such the wrong approach. Can you imagine in World War II, if we had said in 1943, “Here's when we're going to withdraw from the battlefield” ? What would it have said to the Nazis? What would it have said to the enemy?

Think of how we got [Abu Musab al-] Zarqawi. One of the ways we got him was the Jordanians and Iraqis cooperated with us. Are they going to cooperate in the future? Are they going to help Iraqi troops cooperate in the future if they think America won't be with them when we do a political timetable for withdrawal?

As Senator Hutchison said, no one wants our troops to come home more than their commander in chief. But shouldn't, like every other war we've fought, the decisions be made based on the battlefield, not the political field?

O'DONNELL: For argument's sake, let me challenge you on that, because the other argument is, “You know, it's been three years, and this administration has argued for a long time when Iraqis stand up, we will stand down.” I can remember, it's been years now that [Defense Secretary Donald H.] Rumsfeld has been telling us that the Iraqi security forces are up and running, more are trained, and yet they're still not ready to do the job.

What about the argument that Democrats make? Senator Durbin was just on this program saying, “We've got to tell the Iraqi government we're not going to be there forever. We're leaving. So get it together, because our troops -- it's time for them to come home.”

What about that argument?

MEHLMAN: Well, I think that's an important argument, and I think we are telling them that. But if you set a time certain that the enemies know and the Iraqi people know, it's the wrong approach.

Let me give you an example of why it's so wrong. If we had followed the approach that Mr. Murtha suggested, we would have withdrawn last November. Think of what's happened since November that wouldn't have happened if we had followed his approach.

We wouldn't have gotten Zarqawi. Fourty thousand troops, Iraqi troops, would not have been trained. The government probably would not have been formed. Would the election have been held? That's all happened since then.

We got 200 people in the last few days, just since they've gotten Mr. Zarqawi. We have a treasure trove of intelligence and information. All of those things wouldn't have happened if we had followed that approach.

O'DONNELL: But we also have 2,500 U.S. troops dead.

MEHLMAN: We do. And we -- no one more than their commander in chief honors their sacrifice, prays for their families, and feels the pain involved, but what we have to remember is the 3,000 people we lost on 9-11.

And the lesson there is you've got to stay on the offense against these terrorists.

O'DONNELL: I hear what you're saying. And, you know, part of what Karl Rove said last week, really accusing Democrats of cut-and-run, is a very charged comment. And Howard Dean, your counterpart on the Democratic side, was on this program yesterday. Here's what he said in response to that.

DEAN [clip]: John Murtha and John Kerry served in Vietnam. Karl Rove did not. George Bush did not. Dick Cheney did not. John -- Don Rumsfeld did not. And they wouldn't listen to the people who did. The fact is, you can't trust these folks. They didn't serve abroad defending America. What about standing up for what the troops really need and not just talking a good game? You can't rely on the Republicans to defend America.

O'DONNELL: What about that argument, that none of the -- those in this administration served in Vietnam?


O'DONNELL: Let me ask you and switch subjects to the CIA leak investigation. Of course, Karl Rove has been cleared in that investigation, but “Scooter” Libby is still facing trial on this matter.

There is a big fund-raiser here in Washington for him for his legal defense fund tonight. I know you've contributed to that fund.

There's a lot of chatter among Republicans, a lot of buzz that “Scooter” Libby will be president -- excuse me, pardoned by the president of the United States.

MEHLMAN: This is a big announcement: Scooter Libby is running for president. You just --

O'DONNELL: Will he be pardoned? You've heard some of that talk, haven't you, that the president should pardon him?

MEHLMAN: Look, I'm not going to comment. This is a pending investigation. “Scooter” Libby is presumed innocent. He's a good man. He's someone I --

O'DONNELL: Yes, but you talk to a lot of Republicans at cocktail parties and --

MEHLMAN: I certainly don't talk about with people who know the facts about things of pending investigations and pardons and things like that. I think that cocktail chatter and what is a serious investigation ought to not mix.

O'DONNELL: Yeah, but Scooter Libby is going to face trial. The vice president of the United States, Dick Cheney, may be forced to testify in that. I think there's a lot of Republicans who say, “We could clear the deck, here, if the president pardoned 'Scooter' Libby.” Why not do that?

MEHLMAN: I'm going to leave that to others to consider and decide. And again, as a former lawyer, maybe that's my approach. I'm not going to comment on an investigative matter. I will say this. I know Scooter well. I have tremendous respect and affection for him. And I think we ought to all presume he's innocent, because that's the fair way to be.

O'DONNELL: All right. Thank you, Ken Mehlman --

MEHLMAN: Thanks a lot.

O'DONNELL: -- the chairman of the Republican National Committee. I know we'll have you back.

MEHLMAN: I look forward to it.

O'DONNELL: Thank you very much.