How bad does unsubstantiated gossip have to be to get an on-air rebuke from an MSNBC host — especially about a Republican presidential contender? Washington Post reporter Janell Ross joined Alex Wagner to discuss Jeb Bush’s support for “shaming” policies to deal with issues like welfare and unwed pregnancies, expressed in a book he wrote in 1995. Ross strongly implied that she had personal dirt on Bush that would cause some shame to come his way, but Wagner stopped her before she went much further (via Daniel Halper):

ROSS: I guess I was rather stunned, I guess, to hear that these things had been written in a book at a time when the governor probably had his own issues that he was struggling with in his personal life.It seems like a strange time in your life to suggest that public shaming is a good way to address problems.

WAGNER: Well explain. You’re intimating something there.

ROSS: I am, I am, and I’m trying to be as delicate as possible. But in all honesty the governor has some own issues in his own family that some might argue are worthy of some public discussion or shaming.

WAGNER: To be fair, none of those have been corroborated. We have no reporting on that, NBC News cannot report any of that that. You are a reporter for the Washington Post — if you have independent reporting on that, what — [cut off].

Does Ross have independent reporting for such a story? That’s a good question. Assuming that they are working on a story, then this would be a media tease for a scoop, which isn’t exactly a new strategy. If they’re not working on a story, then it’s a shameless smear by innuendo, and Wagner did the right thing in cutting it off.

I called the Washington Post’s national desk and asked for comment, and got directed to one of their political reporters. I left two voice mail messages and an e-mail to the editors requesting a response. If and when I get a response, I’ll update this post.

Bush’s comments on shame came in a chapter dealing with the breakdown of societal values and structures, especially the family and the necessity of fatherhood. The Post’s Karen Tumulty asked Bush whether he stands by those positions twenty years later, and the response was a bit nuanced:

Amid a new controversy a book he wrote two decades ago, former Florida governor Jeb Bush said that his views on whether shame should be a tool to curb out-of-wedlock pregnancies “have evolved over time, but my views about the importance of dads being involved in the the lives of their children hasn’t changed at all.” …

In a chapter titled “The Restoration of Shame,” he argued: “One of the reasons more young women are giving birth out of wedlock and more young men are walking away from their paternal obligations is that there is no longer a stigma attached to this behavior, no reason to feel shame.”

That passage has drawn new attention after the Huffington Post wrote about it earlier this week. While appearing to distance himself from his writings on shame, Bush said here in Poland that he remains concerned about the impact of single parenthood on children.

“It puts a huge, it’s a huge challenge for single moms to raise children in the world that we’re in today,” Bush said. “And it hurts the prospects, it limits the possibilities of young people being able to lives of purpose and meaning.”

He’s right about the need to be concerned over unwed pregnancies, but shame can lead to other outcomes that are worse — like abortion, which has claimed more than 50 million lives since Roe v Wade. A better strategy, and one which Bush appears to now prioritize, is to emphasize the necessity of fatherhood and responsibility among young men. Condemnation exiles; compassion, in this case, has the opportunity to unite. In any case, this chapter is hardly a scandal, but a political reporter floating unsubstantiated gossip about a political candidate on national television should be.