BY: David Bauder
NEW YORK – Joe Scarborough knew nothing about Rolling Stone magazine’s profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal until he was on the air Tuesday, asked to read a “tease” promoting the story as ‘Morning Joe‘ headed into its first commercial break after its 6 a.m. start.
That changed, very quickly. Off the air, he grabbed an Associated Press account of what McChrystal had said, asked if NBC’s Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski could be found to speak on it. He essentially made the magazine story and its implications the show’s chief topic moving forward.
Barely more than a day later, President Barack Obama fired the Afghanistan war’s top commander.
While it’s simplistic to think MSNBC’s morning show influenced that result, it’s no stretch that ‘Morning Joe’ helped put McChrystal’s words at the top of the national agenda. ‘Morning Joe’ may not have a lot of viewers, but the show tends to be on in important places.
Mike Allen, chief White House correspondent of Politico and a regular on the show, said that a senior Obama administration official told him, “I saw the funnel cloud forming on ‘Morning Joe.'”
A phone call at 6:30 a.m. Tuesday startled Rolling Stone editor Eric Bates, telling him that a car would be by in 20 minutes to take him to the MSNBC studios. Bates had been booked for the show on Wednesday, to talk about a BP story and a “foreign policy story” that Rolling Stone had upcoming that he didn’t identify beforehand. It was the McChrystal story, and it was breaking fast: The general and his aides had been quoted disparaging Obama and his national security aides.
During the hour he appeared, the ‘Morning Joe’ audience of nearly 600,000 viewers far outpaced the season average of 377,000, the Nielsen Co. said.
“If the lights flashing on my phone when I got back from the interview is any indicator, a lot of people saw the interview and wanted to get on it,” he said.
Bates is an occasional visitor to the show, a breakfast salon of people kicking around the news of the day. Scarborough, a former Republican congressman from Florida, and ex-CBS newswoman Mika Brzezinski are the mainstays, adding the droll humor of Willie Geist and rotating semi-regulars. Mike Barnicle is on three days a week. Pat Buchanan, Time magazine’s Mark Halperin, Newsweek’s Jon Meachem, Tina Brown and the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart and Eugene Robinson visit frequently. So does Mika’s dad, former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.
An affiliation with Politico that began about six months ago helped cement the program’s status as an important wake-up call for political and media leaders. That gives a public face to Allen, whose “Playbook” is an essential online map to what’s going on.
“The other morning shows on the networks are largely fluff now,” said Mike Shanahan, a journalism professor at George Washington University. “There isn’t a lot of serious television interviewing or commentary any more, so there is a vacuum there.”
Despite his affiliation, Scarborough’s opinions aren’t predictable. He criticized former President George W. Bush and praised Obama, and vice versa. Brzezinski has a more reliable liberal viewpoint. The two can often look like an exasperated married couple, but no one screams. And people are given the chance to talk.
The show walks no rigid ideological lines, and that’s part of its appeal, Barnicle said.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t strong opinions. MSNBC chief Phil Griffin had to step in and scold his stars earlier this year when Scarborough and Keith Olbermann went after each other.
Fox News Channel’s ‘Fox & Friends‘ has more viewers (a 1.06 million average so far this year), but offices in a Democratic White House are more likely beaming ‘Morning Joe’ as an indication of the day’s news flow. Barnicle said he senses growing interest anecdotally — when a senator tells him he watched in the congressional gym, for example.
When the show started in 2007, Scarborough recalled coming in at 4 a.m. to prepare segments and often found the show fell flat as a result.
He prefers a “free form” approach. “We go where the news takes us,” Scarborough said.
One regular guest would complain frequently of not being prepped about what would be discussed. Finally, Brzezinski tossed her a copy of The New York Times. That was her prep.
Scarborough said ‘Morning Joe’ isn’t out to set the day’s news agenda, and it would be dangerous if it tried.
“I love news,” he said. “I love politics. I love foreign policy and I love the fact that we’ve got a group of people who share that love. It’s just like we’re sitting around a breakfast table talking about what interests us.”
He didn’t get a chance to read Rolling Stone’s McChrystal article until about more than an hour after talking about it on television, relying on the AP account. Scarborough said that was enough for him to realize its importance. He had to think back 60 years to President Harry Truman firing Gen. Douglas MacArthur to find a more significant act of insubordination toward the commander in chief.
On the air, he talked about how his contacts with the military impressed on him the seriousness of the breach of discipline. He quickly advocated that Obama remove McChrystal.
“A lot of people (in the military) didn’t like Clinton,” he said later. “But they saluted and they did their jobs. This was something extraordinary and it was troubling.”
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