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Morning Joe

MSNBC’s morning show holds unique space in media

By Rick PlutaPage 50-51

“Today as a nation we grieve, and today we feel helpless…”

The Monday morning following the Newtown school shootings, Joe Scarborough opened his show with a stern sermon that soon went viral. The host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” laid blame on “…the toxic brew of a violent popular culture, a growing mental health crisis, and the proliferation of combat-style weapons.”

Of course, every morning show, everything on TV and radio, it seemed, was consumed last December with discussions about the how, the why, and the what’s-next after Sandy Hook. But few morning personalities are in a position to deliver such a manifesto, skewering the right and the left:

“There are more common-sense Americans than there are special interests, even if it doesn’t always seem that way. I say, good luck to the gun lobbyist, good luck to the Hollywood lawyer, who tries to blunt the righteous anger of millions of parents by hiding behind twisted readings of our Bill of Rights.”

Joe Scarborough, co-host Mika Brzezinski, and “Morning Joe” occupy a unique space as a crossroads of the nation’s political and media culture. With so much of the national media catering to either end of the political spectrum, including MSNBC, “Morning Joe” garners rave reviews as a hard-hitting news program that welcomes respectful discourse and balanced coverage without reaching to (at least not often) polarizing extremes.

Scarborough’s bona _ des come partly from the fact that he speaks with the authority of someone who’s been there when it comes to politics and policy-making. He served four terms in Congress as part of the Republicans’ “Gingrich Revolution” of the 1990s. He replaced a Democrat who retired in a conservative Florida district. He was part of a freshman class of Republicans who called themselves “The New Federalists.”

His conservative street cred also makes Scarborough a stark contrast to MSNBC’s left-leaning lineup of commentators and personalities that include Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddow.

Scarborough is the central player in the “Morning Joe” cast, but Mika Brzezinski brings her own credibility and attitude to the job. She’s a former CBS news anchor, and contributor to “60 Minutes,” who kept a cool head as she reported live from downtown Manhattan on 9/11. Brzezineski in 2007 famously shredded and tried to burn news scripts that led with professional celebrity Paris Hilton’s release from jail.

“I’m shredding it. This is my Paris Hilton lead story” she said as she dropped the page into the shredder. “Buh-bye.”  She considered Sen. Richard Lugar’s rupture with President George W. Bush on the war in Iraq to be the bigger story

that day. (The incident drew international attention. The Daily Mail called the incident “a long-awaited outbreak of sanity.”)

“Why are you such a journalist?” laughed her partner.

Brzezinski has similarly pushed back against prominently featuring entertainment gossip that’s such a staple of morning TV, helping “Morning Joe” distinguish itself in news quality from other programs.

“Morning Joe” does have a harder edge than other morning shows. It typically has a stable of panelists arguing politics and a  parade of interviews on breaking news and active controversies — and no small dose of Scarborough’s opinions on all of it.

But just as Scarborough is a happy critic of the left, he’s no patsy to the right either, often delivering unto the GOP unsparing scoldings on the direction of the Republican Party. This from an ex-lawmaker who once sponsored a bill to withdraw the U.S. from the United Nations.

Scarborough says his views have evolved since he served as one of Congress’s conservative _ rebrands. For example, he had a solid “pro-life” voting record as a legislator; he now says the federal government should stay out of the abortion question and leave it to states to decide. By 2010, he had become a Newt Gingrich critic, calling the former House speaker “clownish.”

He says Republicans these days have got it wrong on a lot of issues.

“We conservatives have to look at the political landscape in front of us and deal with it,” Scarbrough once told “Hardball” host Chris Matthews. “There is nothing conservative about a country that has 4 percent of the world’s population and spends 25 percent of its energy resources. That’s just stupid economically. It’s stupid environmentally. And it’s stupid when it comes to foreign policy.”

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder is one of the newsmakers drawn by the “Morning Joe” hard news-centric and eclectically opinionated format. (Snyder’s faced his own challenges as a Republican elected official trying to chart a sometimes-independent course in his party.) He has appeared several times to talk about the Detroit schools overhaul, the state’s economic recovery and presidential politics. Snyder also beamed in the morning after signing the law making Michigan the nation’s 24th right-to-work state to face  questions on what the policy means for workers, jobs and the future of unions.

Scarborough chastised “Morning Joe” panelist Carl Bernstein (the Pulitzer Prize-winning Watergate reporter) for groans and sighs delivered throughout Snyder’s explanations.

“Carl, you were sighing more than Al Gore in his first debate with George (W.) Bush. Do you have a question for the Governor and not a statement?”

But Scarborough also jumped in to challenge Snyder’s assertion that right-to-work will ultimately benefit organized labor by forcing unions to be compete for members.

“I would not go so far as to say what you just said,” Scarborough jumped in. “It undermines unions’ ability to stay vibrant, right?” The opportunity to be heard and the prospect of a polite-but challenging interrogation on a controversial question is what put “Morning Joe” on the Governor’s post-right-to-work national  media itinerary, according to Snyder’s spokeswoman.

“Joe’s a thought leader,” Snyder Press Secretary Sara Wurfel said in an email. “The Governor enjoys talking with him. May not always agree, but always a good dialogue and exchange.”

“Morning Joe” is far from the only platform for Scarborough’s opinions and analysis. He’s penned commentaries for the website Politico, an internet must-stop for political junkies. (“Morning Joe” clips are also a staple of Politico’s daily video feed.)  Scarbrough and Brzezinski have an on again, off-again radio presence. And Scarborough has written two books, “The Last Best Hope: Restoring Conservatism and America’s Promise,” and “Rome Wasn’t Burnt in a Day” – both of which helped cement his role as the Republican Party’s chief scold.

Brzezinski is also a best-selling author and columnist. Her memoir “All Things At Once” became a New York Times best seller in January 2010 and her second book, “Knowing Your Value,” which examines the role of women in the workplace, reached #1 on the New York Times best-sellers list for business books in spring 2011. Her newest book Obsessed debuted May 7th of this year and is sure to be another hit. She also writes “Getting What You Want” for Cosmopolitan, a monthly column about career confidence and empowerment.

In 2011, Scarborough was on Time magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people. His future aspirations may include another run at a political office. His official MSNBC bio puts an (R-Fla.) by his name, classic news style to identify the home and party of a candidate or elected official.

Scarbrough was reportedly approached about running for the U.S. Senate from his native Florida following the retirement of Sen. Mel Martinez in 2009. He demurred. He said at the time, he has a bigger influence over policy and the nation’s direction on morning TV than he would as a U.S. senator.

Rick Pluta is the managing editor and capitol bureau chief of Michigan Public Radio Network.