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Chelsea and the kid gloves

I MUST be woefully misaligned with family values or linguistically tone deaf to be so deeply offended by MSNBC's suspension of Emmy award-winning Washington correspondent David Shuster. His crime: uttering a word no one liked.

As a substitute host on "Tucker" Feb. 7, he discussed Chelsea Clinton's phone calls to superdelegates. Shuster asked pundit Bill Press, "Doesn't it seem like Chelsea is being pimped out in some weird sort of way?"

I learned of Shuster's question and its fallout while watching "Countdown," from its increasingly self-important and bombastic anchor Keith Olbermann, who added his own wah-wahs - "Utterly inappropriate and indefensible" - to the network's apology. ("We are literally, dreadfully sorry. The Clintons have every right to be furious, hurt, and appalled.") I waited for the "Not!", unwilling to believe that Olbermann's cynical ears had gone so delicate that he believed that Shuster for one millisecond was assigning any sexual-trafficking connotation to the Clinton campaign.

It is sensitivity and sanctimony gone round the bend. "Pimped?" OK, not so nice. But Shuster apologized at least three times on three different MSNBC programs. Chelsea Clinton was 12 years old when she stood with her parents on the stage at the Democratic Convention in a polka-dot sailor dress. She'll be 28 at the end of this month. One hopes that the protective shield the press honored throughout her childhood - and well beyond - allows innocuous semi-insults to bounce off without her mother's campaign making a threat, since withdrawn, to pull out of a debate with Barack Obama on the cable network.

I watch political coverage religiously. The insults fly back and forth. Pundits yell at guests. Guests yell at one another. Words slip out. I would like to think that someone among the NBC brass noted, "That's live TV for you," or cited its noble twin, "Whatever happened to freedom of speech?" A little humanity and a little less hysteria would be nice. (Cries of "indiscriminate sexism and blatant misogyny" and "by attacking Chelsea Clinton in this way they are attacking all women" can be found on blogs.) Boo hoo; equality will be helped along when wisecracks roll off the backs of both women and men with equal ease. Pimped? Really? As my mother used to say, "Keep whining and I'll give you something you can really cry about."

Which brings me to Don Imus, who surely scarred and scared the Human Resources department of MSNBC. In April I squirmed as I listened to the funereal earnestness of the deeply offended Rutgers women's basketball coach. Inherent in Vivian Stringer's testimonials was seemingly an odd given: that sane people for one second took Imus's offensive words seriously. It was as if she had to prove to a jury that these young women, caught in the crossfire of a stupid joke, weren't in fact - you'll forgive me, but for journalistic accuracy -"hos." Did anyone in his or her right mind need to be disabused of Imus's characterization? No more than the Clintons need to stage a rally to prove - as Shuster said in his on-air apology - "that all Americans should be proud of Chelsea Clinton."

If "pimped" is offensive enough to get a commentator suspended, where was the famous delay button? And where - most importantly - is due process? The union members who waved their signs behind Hillary Clinton might ask how she feels about an employee getting suspended, fired, demoted or down-sized for uttering one cheeky word.

(A hot-head's aside: Pimping in deed but not word is popular at NBC. Did Tom Brokaw and Tim Russert not promote their own books on NBC so shamelessly, so intramurally on every sister show that Big Russ and the Greatest Generation were sandwich-boarded into programming like infomercials? No suspensions for those two pillars! Au contraire: Brokaw has been anointed Mr. World War II and Russert is Mr. Father's Day.)

I wouldn't be surprised if the estimable Chelsea Clinton stepped forward to say, "Oh, c'mon. What's the big deal? I'm no sensitive plant. An apology is enough. Sticks and stones can break my bones, but no one should lose his job over this."

She could pass the mike to her mother for the talking points: "We didn't mean that woe-is-me stuff. In fact, this suspension reminds me of my Iowa friends who lost their jobs when Maytag closed, and my Michigan friends - hello, unseated Michigan! - who might be getting pink slips from General Motors. As John Edwards' father and I like to say, 'Workers of the world unite!' "