NBC is a “liberal” news network—everyone knows this. When Sarah Palin blasted media bias in her speech to the Republican National Convention in September, the crowd loudly chanted “NBC, NBC.”
NBC’s cable outfit, MSNBC, is often singled out for particularly flagrant liberal bias—the mirror image, we are told, to the right-wing Fox News. One of the network’s first prime-time ratings hits was “Countdown with Keith Olbermann,” a show where the host has been known to be critical of President George W. Bush. As co-host of Fox News’ Brian Kilmeade explained, it was all downhill from there: “[MSNBC] saw the success of one of their hosts, and now they realize ‘that’s our audience,’ being ultra-left and being very critical of the country… they’ve decided, whenever that guy at eight o’clock complains about the White House they do very well. They’ve decided, ‘let’s just go for it.’”
The White House sent a scathing letter to NBC news in May accusing the network of deceptively editing an interview with President Bush and having “blatantly partisan” news personalities. Sen. John McCain’s campaign also sent a letter later in the year charging the network with “abandoning non-partisan coverage of the presidential race.”
It’s not just Republicans who believe MSNBC is the liberal ying to Fox’s yang. Mainstream media critic Howard Kurtz has repeatedly drawn comparisons between Fox News on the right, and MSNBC on the left. Well, Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, OK. Chris Matthews, not really so much—in fact, not really at all—but we understand that from the far-right perspective that embraced Fox, Kurtz, and others. But Joe Scarborough? What about Joe Scarborough? After all, he’s on MSNBC more than any of those other folks and he’s not exactly Abbie Hoffman.
Scarborough is a former right-wing Republican Congressman from Florida. He nurtured an extremely conservative voting record while in the House. His very first assignment in the House in January 1995 was to head a freshman Republican task force on eliminating the Department of Education. He later introduced a bill that would force the United States to withdraw from the United Nations and boot the U.N. building out of New York, voted to cut funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, voted to cut funding for Medicare, and voted against raising the minimum wage from $4.45 an hour. He also received $1,000 in contributions from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Now, Scarborough co-hosts a three-hour long morning show on MSNBC, “Morning Joe,” his second eponymous show on the network—the first being the prime-time “Scarborough Country.” And his politics, openly asserted on the air, are not much of a departure from his official political career. Just this week, Scarborough claimed during “Morning Joe” that it was the “silliest thing I’ve ever heard” that torture doesn’t work. I know for a fact that waterboarding brought our interrogators, brought Americans, probably about 70-75 percent of what they get. What they got from Khalid Shaikh Mohammed opened doors that we are still going through. Waterboarding has produced and given so much evidence to our people in the CIA and in the other intelligence agencies.”
This contradicts the opinion of many top intelligence experts with experience in interrogations, and when the Financial Times’ Krystia Freeland attempted to tell Scarborough that he didn’t know what he was talking about, he stubbornly repeated, “Yes I do. Yes I do,” and asked Freeland, “Should we just bring them a birthday cake and ask them what soccer match they’d like to see?”
Scarborough has also been on a recent crusade to question Al Franken’s apparent victory in Minnesota, using thin arguments reported nowhere else and previously only advanced by Republican Norm Coleman’s lawyers. The Wall Street Journal editorial board echoed an assertion by Coleman’s lawyers that Franken was “double counting” votes. Scarborough then embellished that claim, saying, “The Wall Street Journal is saying that there’s some irregularities they need to investigate, double vote counts. I’m sure there’s going to be a big debate about that.” But the editorial in question was clearly not based on any reporting, save reporting what Coleman’s lawyers suggested sans evidence. Scarborough has also repeatedly claimed—also baselessly—that Franken was “stealing votes.” Pressed on his evidence, Scarborough did admit that he had none, and that, “I’m like a scientist. This is a theory that I’m trying out there.”
These are recent transgressions by Scarborough in service of conservative politics, but the record holds many more. Scarborough seized on Obama’s bowling performance during the presidential campaign, which he felt was “dainty,” and said, “Americans want their president, if it’s a man, to be a real man.” He at other times mocked community organizing. Scarborough also joked about the “Clinton cackle,” and said that the Clinton campaign was “at war against African-Americans, and now they are at war against the Democratic Party.” Scarborough has characterized Hillary Clinton in the past as “very shrill.”
John McCain fared much better with Scarborough. For example, Scarborough repeated McCain’s claim that he called for Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation—even after MSNBC had already issued a correction to that false claim. Scarborough charged that Obama was unfairly highlighting McCain’s age—a charge deployed often by McCain’s campaign, but without evidence. When McCain mixed up Sunni and Shia, Scarborough explained he wasn’t bothered because “99 percent of Americans wouldn’t know” and “99 percent of Americans wouldn’t give a damn.”
Before the campaign narrowed, Scarborough appeared to be a big fan—if that’s the word—of Rudy Giuliani, saying, “[I]t seems to me you have your Holocaust deniers, and then you have—your Giuliani deniers.” Then again, perhaps an analogy between a mayor of New York City and the Holocaust is not the most complimentary comparison.
Discussing Plamegate two years ago, Scarborough unilaterally cleared Karl Rove of any involvement, and more recently he tried to flush the whole matter down the memory hole. Yet while talking about the investigation into Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, Scarborough wondered, “is [U.S. Attorney Patrick] Fitzgerald going to go 0 for 2 here in national investigations?” which of course ignores the conviction of Scooter Libby.
The list goes on, but Scarborough will insist that he is hated by his own party, and mainstream media critic Howard Kurtz, among others, accepts this argument. Kurtz recently acknowledged that Scarborough is indeed a conservative, but “albeit one who spent plenty of time criticizing his Republican Party over the last two years.” Of course, that’s hard to take seriously for many reasons, including that Scarborough appeared by George W. Bush’s side smiling and clapping the last time he ran for president.
Then there’s the one that really pisses me off, as I take it personally. Scarborough dressed the right-wing pundit Willie Geist in a McCain-Palin T-shirt and sent him to the world’s greatest food store, Zabar’s, just a few blocks from Casa Alterman, to see if he could attract some love from my fellow Upper-West Siders who happened to be strolling by. Also, he didn’t, but after this probing bit of journalism, Joe Scarborough instructed me and my campesinos: “I just hope some people on the Upper West Side will take a closer look at themselves.”
Why, exactly? There were no clues in the MSNBC segment. Every West Sider politely declined the offer to support McCain-Palin. They gave responses like “I don’t hate you, but I wish you’d change your politics,” and “you’ve got to go the East Side for this one,” and “I do not. Thank you, though, for offering.”
Since the piece was edited by MSNBC, this was apparently the worst these people could come up with. And yet stung by these verbal broadsides, these poor bubbies on the Morning Joe show where horrified. Mika Brzezinski, who I think is supposed to be the liberal one, said that the video was “troubling.” Mike Barnicle declared, “that is an important cultural piece, and it proves why so many people are so right—no pun intended—to really loathe so many on the left. Those people are so close-minded.” Scarborough piled on, noting, “there’s some really, really hostile people on the left who just think that they are intellectually superior.” And my goodness, that known left-winger and Scarborough regular, Pat Buchanan wasn’t even around for the fun that morning…
I really do struggle to match what’s seen on the tape with the pundits’ reactions; one is only left to assume that being liberal and saying so is a “troubling” sign of “close-mindedness” and “intellectual superiority.” Scarborough does narrow his criticism a bit, positing that it was a unique New York problem. He believes that educated Obama voters in Nashville would be far more polite. But unless they baked Geist a pie while declining to support McCain, I’m not sure how that could be. Also, the anchors don’t ask the true inverse: what do dedicated McCain-Palin voters have to say? Do they show signs of being close-minded? MSNBC could have picked anywhere—say, Strongsville, Ohio, or Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Maybe next time.
Attacking liberals merely for being liberals may be par for the course on most cable programs, and perhaps it happens less frequently on Scarborough’s show than on say, Sean Hannity’s or Bill O’Reilly’s. But if this is the man who is dealt more time on MSNBC than any other program host—and MSNBC is, we are warned over and over, in danger of infecting our airwaves with dangerous liberal propaganda in lieu of the honest, straight-ahead upon which we’ve learned to depend from the rest of the cable world—well, then, America can rest easy.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, and a columnist for The Nation. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America , was recently published by Viking.
George Zornick is a freelance writer in New York.
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