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From AJR,   April/May 2008  issue

Country for Political Junkies    

Former “Scarborough Country” host Joe Scarborough's “Morning Joe” takes a less scripted approach to morning television than its competitors. The MSNBC program's freewheeling format features interviews with political figures and pundits that are longer than the ones offered elsewhere; they seem more breakfast table than news desk.


By Matthew T. Felling
     

After "Popcorn Lung," it all became clear.

Early in a September broadcast of MSNBC's "Morning Joe," host Joe Scarborough and cohost Mika Brzezinski huddled up with me, a cohost for a few days, during the commercial break to line up the next segments of live television.

With Executive Producer Chris Licht in our ears, we drew up the division of labor. Scarborough would go in-depth on the previous night's Republican debate, Brzezinski would give details about a U.S. military mishap with an armed missile flying across America and I'd jump in where needed, discussing the Republicans' performances (I had some thoughts about how they resembled members of the "Dirty Dozen") and sizing up the upcoming Red Sox/Yankees series.

That left us with "Popcorn Lung." Licht said he and the production staff had noticed something in the news about the developing issue of this potentially fatal respiratory ailment suffered by some who work in microwave popcorn factories--and that we should give it some airtime. Not involving a missing white woman or a compelling piece of video, the story hadn't received much attention from the cable networks. Instead, it was consigned to the "Nation in Brief"-type capsules tucked inside America's newspapers.

Figuring it just a tad more hefty and important an issue than the winner of the American League East, I told the three of them that I'd been following the story over the past few months and shared with them the myriad health concerns and the uproar.

Game, set, match. The decision was made.

I was to weigh in on the issue of "Popcorn Lung" on national television, passing along the necessary details in much the same way that a quote-unquote News Correspondent would, but--in line with the program's feel--as if I was recounting a news story to colleagues over coffee.

And that, in short, is when I figured out why people are tuning into and talking about "Morning Joe." It's the loosest yet most comprehensive three hours in morning television today--going so far, to some, as to set the agenda for the day's news.

The morning news universe is a bizarre one, inhabited by politicians, starlets, diet experts and quiche chefs. And it's not just the broadcast networks. The cable newscasts, in an attempt to court both the hard news audiences and the breakfast table crowd, bring in a reality TV star or a recording artist here or there. And, man oh man, they scramble for Spelling Bee champs like sharks for chum.

The morning news genre exists on the very news/entertainment fault line that media industry types are both lamenting and trying to straddle--and you pity the writer who has to craft a segue between Spring Fashions and Kenyan Strife--between the news that fills the mind and the news that pays the bills. Later on in the day, after twilight, it's safe to say that primetime cable news programs tend toward the tone of a drill sergeant; the morning shows are more akin to a den mother.

Even in this fairly settled morning television environment, MSNBC has always been a bit of an outlier. Instead of a studio-set news show like CNN's "American Morning" or Fox News Channel's "Fox & Friends," MSNBC used to hand over its 6 to 9 a.m. shift to the TV simulcast of Don Imus' New York-based radio show. The program, which was an odd mashup of New York scuttlebutt and Beltway coffee klatch, drew in famous names from inside the Beltway while never losing its Gotham mentality. It was as if the program was of two minds — but one of them was Tim Russert's and the other belonged to Regis Philbin. In my view, the program had also started to struggle under the weight of Don Imus' ego, as his show devolved into a daily fit of promotional Tourette's syndrome: If he wasn't patting himself on the back about his philanthropic work, he was hawking his wife's window cleaner. But still, it drew viewers accumulated over the years to the tune of 369,000 households every morning.

Then came the contretemps over Imus' racially charged characterization of the Rutgers University women's basketball team in April 2007, and the fallout was enormous. His apology didn't curb the controversy, and his stable of big-name guests started backing away, as did advertisers. So MSNBC was forced to act, and the premium real estate of 6 to 9 a.m. was foreclosed. The land was up for grabs, and MSNBC conducted a real-time, on-air casting call to see who among the network's talent could perform adequately in the auditions.

There was an occasionally confusing parade of NBCers like David Gregory and Jim Cramer, along with radio types like Michael Smerconish and Stephanie Miller--with the result turning the morning slot into a daily algebra quiz for the cable network: A+B=? on a Monday, B+D=? on Tuesday. It continued on for several weeks, with the controversy and the confusion turning away viewers until MSNBC bottomed out at about 177,000 in May 2007.

Then, in a crazy media version of life imitating art (and, sure, I use the term "art" loosely here), along came Joe Scarborough and his "Jerry Maguire"-esque Mission Statement.

Joe Scarborough, the telegenic former Republican congressman from Florida and host of MSNBC's primetime show "Scarborough Country," saw the Imus time slot yawning open in the morning and made a serious push for the gig. "Scarborough Country," seen at 9 p.m. EST, was a news and commentary show with tightly scripted segments that followed a strict formula: news, media and pop culture--in that order, every night. (Full disclosure: I was a frequent guest on the program.)

With the opportunities to inject his personality into the show limited, Scarborough felt constrained by the format, and the wide-ranging possibilities of the morning show appealed to him. Of his night show, he says, "It was terrible. We did the best we could do. We fought hard to have more news in our broadcast, to have war and media and pop culture, but it was such a frenzied pace that you couldn't sit back and dig deeply enough to get a newsmaker to open up.

"That's one of the reasons I jumped at the chance to replace Imus."

Not content to merely stovepipe a suggestion through corporate offices, Scarborough went the Full Maguire. Just as Tom Cruise's character in the movie had an epiphany and wrote a treatise pushing his agenda, Scarborough acted boldly as well. "I knew that because of my night show, I'd be the last guy that NBC would have considered for the morning spot," says Scarborough. "So I photoshopped a promotional poster--I used to publish a newspaper, so I knew how--and spent a weekend making it up, since most TV people are visual."

But wait. It gets even more Maguire-y. After wrapping up his electronic pitch, he sent it to a Kinko's in New York City and had it delivered to NBC Senior Vice President Phil Griffin, who oversees MSNBC. It achieved the desired result: Scarborough was given a shot to show what he could do. He was given some mornings in May 2007 to trot out his vision of what the morning show could be. Joining him were Willie Geist, now one of Scarborough's cohosts, and screenwriter John Ridley. Given the chance to wing it for three hours of topical conversation, Scarborough started talking with the two fellows on set before the red light went on, and continued on uninterrupted into an on-air chat about the morning's news.

Which leads us back to "Popcorn Lung."

What "Morning Joe" was envisioned to be--and what it has streamlined into--is a freewheeling discussion that feels more breakfast table than news desk. Where most morning shows are plotted and timed down to the second, "Morning Joe" is far less regimented. "In a medium of tightly scripted segments, he's stolen the old Imus formula of rounding up smart political guests and just letting them talk," Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz said in an e-mail interview. "You get the impression that he and Mika and Tim Russert and Chris Matthews are just shooting the breeze in a bar."

It's true. Conversations with newsmakers and presidential candidates that might last a few minutes on any other morning show sometimes last twice as long, with the hosts peppering the guests with questions that take them off their talking points--but not antagonistically. Scarborough compares it to his longtime love of playing music, where "you could play a song for five to 15 minutes, and if you stay in the groove, you go with it for as long as you need."

By giving the candidates and political players a little breathing room and letting them relax, the show stands out, said C-SPAN's Steve Scully, who hosts "Washington Journal," a morning show competitor. In an e-mail interview, Scully said: "For those of us who love and follow politics, we want more than just a 5-7 minute segment on 'Today,' we want the stories behind the headlines. Next to C-SPAN, of course, 'Morning Joe' really does go behind the scenes, to understand the players, the political maneuvers, the backroom deals that may result in what the candidates are doing."

Yes, the show has its own pace and follows a different path every day. But don't confuse freewheeling with stream of consciousness, says Executive Producer Licht. "The ability to be loose means you have to overprepare. We have to overprepare because we have to be ready for any eventuality. If some topic comes out of their mouth, we have to have the ability to back those elements up."

The behind-the-scenes staff is plugged into the news stream constantly--"There is somebody working on 'Morning Joe' 24 hours a day," says Licht--to the point where they will pick up on a story that other morning shows miss. Says Huffington Post media writer Rachel Sklar, "If it's going to be on the news agenda that day, it's going to be on 'Morning Joe.' If you watch the show, you won't be caught unaware that day."

It's not just the production team, either. The on-air hosts are in touch with each other every day to toss ideas out for the next day's show. "We talk about it all the time, content," says Brzezinski. "We'll be on the phone the night before--Chris, Joe and I--we make sure we're careful... It's a constant conversation we have, because it's become an important show."

Brzezinski says that during the madcap political chaos in January, she frequently was on the phone late into the night, booking guests for the following morning.

So what the production team puts together--rather than a script and a minute-by-minute breakdown--is a rough outline of the day's news stories, along with printouts of the topics that may (or may not) be discussed, depending on how the show goes. Guest segments are plotted into the show at certain times, for sure, but they are apt to slide into the course of the conversation, rather than being a concrete "Insert Guest To Discuss Topic A Here" entity (with the exceptions of financial and weather forecasts). The approach is a bit surprising for the occasional guest host, says Willie Geist. "What we're doing is totally unique in the news media. When other newspeople come from the outside and see our show, they're shocked by how we do things. The teleprompter doesn't go on unless it's Mika updating the news. There's no script. It's very loose."

A veteran of courtrooms (he's a lawyer) and political campaigns, Scarborough says that working without the safety net is the only way to go for him. "Since I started on television," he says, "every executive producer I've had said that I was better without a teleprompter. The more they could get me speaking off the top of my head without a teleprompter, the better things could be."

The three principals work extremely well together. As the leading man, Scarborough sets the table and weighs in the most. Brzezinski plays the straight (wo)man role to a T, with her news and journalism background serving in her 'play-by-play'-type role. And Geist--who offers up a "layman's point of view," just ask him--brings some Gen-X energy and wit to the table.

The combination works for viewers, who see it as an accessible summary of what's going on in America's political scene. The former CBS weekend anchor and otherwise famously connected Brzezinski--her father, Zbigniew, served as national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter--says that while she gets feedback from Colin Powell or Madeleine Albright, it floors her that "I've never been recognized more than I [am] now, even when I look horrible with no makeup...and I've been on some high-profile shows."

"Morning Joe" is not reinventing the wheel, says St. Petersburg Times media writer Eric Deggans. "The tone of the show is not a particularly groundbreaking one. It seems to be a modern-day salon." But, he adds, "It's very hard to do that well. Everybody tries to do something like that. But they've hit on a combination that works. You're hanging out with people who are knowledgeable but hip enough to be fun."

How fun? Horseplay fun. When the on-air behavior ends up with Tim Russert on the receiving end of an unexpected Mike Barnicle headlock, it's clear you're watching something quite different. When the show was broadcasting on location from New Hampshire before that state's primary, a Scarborough/Russert conversation about campaign dynamics was interrupted by an embrace that fell just short of an all-out noogie. And at 7:45 in the morning, at that. Barnicle, an MSNBC contributor, was apparently unclear that the breezy breakdown was part of the live broadcast--walking on set without makeup, his dress shirt unbuttoned over an undershirt (untucked, natch), tie dangling over his shoulders--to wrap his arms around Russert before taking a knee and embarking on a joke about the uncertain paternity of Barnicle's son Timmy. It's the sort of exchange we all see every day--at Happy Hour. And that's par for the course on the program. The show manages to stay informal yet stick to the day's news stories, veering in tone from "Huntley-Brinkley" one minute to "Swingers" the next.

The jocular quality isn't limited to the people on the set. With the conversations being predominantly political, the hosts provide constant fodder for ideological bloggers on both sides of the political debate. And they know it. So it's not uncommon for Brzezinski to call out the Web site "Newsbusters," run by the conservative Media Research Center, to engage it; nor is it rare for Republican Scarborough to challenge the watchdogs at the liberal Media Matters for America organization.

With a former Republican congressman cohosting with a "liberal elitist," as Newsbusters' Tim Graham called Brzezinski, the program is bound to draw some shots from the media bias police. But rather than opt for the defensive crouch like some in the media, Brzezinski takes the time to digest the feedback. Not that she's a "masochist," she says, but "if ever somebody has a reason to give me something to think about, I want to know about it. I think it makes me sharper and better."

Some feedback, though, doesn't pass muster, and in those cases they're not afraid of sticking up for themselves--as with the to-do surrounding Scarborough's pre-Iowa caucus guitar jam session with Republican presidential contender Mike Huckabee. It fed the concerns of liberal viewers--like Media Matters' Eric Boehlert, who calls Scarborough "more open (and narcissistic?) than most other hosts"--that the host's political sympathies would extend to how he treated the former Arkansas governor on air.

"If Karl Marx had a guitar and there were 2,000 people in the audience and they asked me to play 'Sweet Home Alabama,' I'd do the same thing," says Scarborough, who insists, "after I did that, I had some of the most heated exchanges with Huckabee."

But the very fact that the hosts acknowledge the criticism on air adds to the conversational tone of the show, with viewers feeling as if they're participants — Scarborough and Brzezinski occasionally respond to e-mailers in real time, building a repartee with the audience one by one. But this casual, inclusive approach doesn't mean they're deluding themselves into thinking the show's crosshairs aren't focused squarely Inside the Beltway. "For the D.C. crowd, that gives it a familiar, comfortable feel, and it's the kind of show where, more often than not, you are familiar with (and potentially friendly with) the people on the show," says Patrick Gavin of the DC Examiner and FishbowlDC. "They speak the same Beltway language and are part of the same tribe."

For all its buzz, "Morning Joe" still hasn't climbed back to the audience numbers that the "Imus in the Morning" simulcast was putting up, although it's getting stronger. Its February Nielsen numbers were up to 325,000, compared to Imus' 369,000 before the Rutgers flap. This puts the show squarely in third place in the cable news race, distantly behind the tried-and-true-and-even-more-social scene of Fox News Channel's "Fox & Friends," which 988,000 Americans tune into every morning, as well as CNN's "American Morning" and its 433,000 viewers.

But if buzz is the first step in building a success story, then the "Morning Joe" crew is well on its way. Between the stiffer, more formulaic CNN broadcast and the breezy, Three-Hour Happy Hour on "Fox & Friends," they have carved out a firm, fun and watchable niche of middle ground in the morning. Call it the Goldilocks Gamble if you will, but for the legions of political junkies in America, it's just right.

Matthew T. Felling (matthewtfelling@hotmail.com), a host at National Public Radio, is a former editor of CBSNews.com's "Public Eye" and a former media director at the Center for Media and Public Affairs.