Reflections on Joe Scarborough and Idiot-Bush Segments on MSNBC

Last Sunday morning, I threw up a blog on the Sunday Washington Post publishing a story based on MSNBC host Joe Scarborough airing a segment on his show titled "IS BUSH AN ‘IDIOT’?" A few days later, Joe Scarborough granted an interview to the hard-left website Salon.com, ostensibly to discuss how conservatives can't handle dissent well. At interview’s end, interviewer Alex Koppleman threw NewsBusters at him:

Tim Graham, from the Media Research Center, recently referred referred to your criticism of the president as "Scarborough syndrome" and said that "being a conservative host inside a liberal network -- not to mention a liberal network that has a history of changing prime-time hosts like socks -- might compel you to being [sic] more critical of Bush and conservatives." What's your reaction to that?

Scarborough grew very defensive, and accused me of a long-time campaign of "snarky" attacks:

I have his boss [Brent Bozell, also of the Media Research Center] on all the time, and his boss doesn't seem to mind it. I think I'm usually on the same side as his boss. It's interesting. Tim had problems with me from the very beginning, when I was with the president 100 percent, because I wasn't on Fox. Sometimes I think he's on Fox's payroll, because, again, just right out of the box back in 2003, when I was the biggest supporter of this war, I was still getting snarky comments from Tim Graham and the Media Research Center. Again, interestingly enough, I get those snarky comments and then they ask me to be the emcee of their yearly event, which I do, and I'm still getting those snarky comments from Tim, despite the fact, again, that Brent Bozell comes on, and again, usually when he's on the show we're in total agreement. Who knows? Maybe he's more of a Bush loyalist than he is a conservative.I would love for Tim Graham to find one position that I didn't take -- that he didn't take -- in 1999, when Bill Clinton was president, or in 1995, during the Contract with America, or 1994, when we were all campaigning for smaller government. Is he upset that I'm against NSA wiretapping without congressional consent? Is he shocked that I criticized the president for rolling up the biggest deficits and debts in history and not vetoing a single spending bill? What, exactly -- what, exactly -- have I said on my show over the past month or two that I wasn't saying in Congress for eight years or on the campaign trail? The answer is absolutely nothing. I'm saying the same exact thing. So I would redefine "Scarborough syndrome" as remaining consistent to the conservative cause instead of blindly following a Republican president who is more Rockefeller Republican than Reagan Republican.

Let’s start with the facts. If you go the MRC home page and hit "Site Search" on the left-hand side and search the site for mentions of Joe Scarborough, you will not find any examples of snarky MRC attacks on Joe Scarborough in 2003. Throughout the last four years, Scarborough is mostly cited for having liberal media stars or celebrities on, and getting them to say something noticeably goofy. (There's an item or two on John Kerry or Hurricane Katrina that might raise eyebrows.) It’s also important to note on the yearly MRC event, Scarborough served as a presenter at our Dishonors Awards once, in 2004, which we appreciated and enjoyed.If you Google "Tim Graham and Joe Scarborough," you do find something I forgot: a 2003 article by Eric Deggans in the St. Petersburg Times, where I said much the same thing about MSNBC changing hosts like socks, and noted that Scarborough had no experience as a talk-show host:

Conservative media analyst Tim Graham of the Media Research Center, based in Washington, said right-leaning viewers probably have a simpler question regarding Scarborough: How long can he last?"Everything on MSNBC, they tend to try it for a couple of months and then shuffle things," Graham said. "MSNBC has always been incredibly uncertain of its mission, and I don't think they're a particularly good judge of talent. I could ask, "Why Joe Scarborough?' I'm not saying he's doing a bad job, but why give him a show? He's a host who doesn't have a big history as a TV host or even as a radio host. He doesn't have the "big mo.' "

It’s true that MSNBC has been quick to change the lineup, and it’s true that Scarborough had no experience (and that I thought Scarborough wouldn’t last, which he has.) But this paragraph, I fear, comes across a lot snarkier in black and white than I meant it at the time. (And I don’t remember what I was trying to say about "big mo," except maybe he didn’t have a record of scoring boffo ratings at another network.) There’s no doubt that the subject of this story would read this and see "Joe Scarborough has no talent." I can see where that would sting. I’m sorry for the "snarky" echoes of that paragraph.As for the question of being "on the Fox payroll," while it would be true I don’t generally attack Fox News in interviews with media-beat reporters, and I would probably generally hit MSNBC as a land of liberal hacks, I think that’s a wee bit overstated. To the question of being "more of a Bush loyalist" than a conservative, I would not too simply equate supporting Bush with supporting conservatism. Almost every conservative has complained about Bush veto-phobia, Bush’s adding a massive new prescription-drug entitlement, Bush signing "campaign finance reform." As I noted in the blog, Rich Lowry and William F. Buckley also provided the Post with some anti-Bush fodder on Iraq, and I didn’t attack them – because unlike Scarborough, they don’t have liberal bosses to please, and unlike Scarborough, they didn't suggest the president needed a bib to catch the drool. I do like President Bush, and generally support him, but not to the point where I can’t make an argument against him when I think he’s liberal or he’s goofed up.As for Scarborough challenging me to find fault with him as a Congressman, well, that’s completely irrelevant to this discussion. I imagine it’s fair to suggest that I’m "mind reading" in guessing (with the word "might" in the sentence) that Scarborough’s trying to please liberal bosses with an idiot-Bush segment. It’s certainly not designed to please people who voted for or campaigned for Bush. (Ahem, and Joe sat behind Bush at campaign events in 2004. Was Bush an idiot then? Apparently not.) I’ve accused Scarborough of nothing more than what he suggested of Bush in his Salon interview: that maybe "staying in power is more important than staying true to the values that put you in power in the first place." (Replace "power" with "TV" in the sentence. Sometimes the terms are closely related, sometimes not.) I didn’t see the idiot-Bush segment when it aired. Without the Washington Post picking it up and spreading it around (after probably seeing it picked up on the Huffington Post or gleeful leftist blogs), I don’t know if I would have discovered it any time soon. But it’s clear that the segment was overwrought and designed to grab attention. As Scarborough stated to Salon:

Somebody had suggested that we get Linda Ronstadt's quote where she called the president an idiot and do what we've been doing for the past three or four years, where we make fun of a Hollywood star questioning the president's intelligence. It's something we've been doing mindlessly over the past several years, but as I was reading it, I couldn't help but think, "Well, wait a second -- I've been hearing this from conservatives for the past year or so. Why don't we ask a question: whether Linda Ronstadt, Democrats and Hollywood left-wing types are on to something." So we put the question up, and I suppose if our lower third had read "Is Linda Ronstadt right?" instead of "Is Bush an 'idiot'?" in quotes, it would have garnered a lot less attention. But we put it up that way, and it has sparked a firestorm. The White House is unhappy. A lot of conservatives are unhappy. Well, not conservatives. A lot of Republican loyalists are unhappy. But again, the only thing I did was ask publicly what a lot of conservatives have been saying privately since Katrina and the Harriet Miers nomination.

It would be defensible to do a segment on whether Bush is intellectual, or intellectually curious, or stifles dissent, or is losing ground among conservatives. That’s a defensible debate starting point. It’s much less defensible to hype Bush’s potential sputtering idiocy to hold an audience (even Keith Olbermann's little audience of Kosmonauts). I’m quite sure from this Salon interview that Scarborough would not find it was a journalistic high point if Fox hosted a segment titled on screen "IS SCARBOROUGH AN ‘IDIOT’"? You don’t have to be a "Republican loyalist" to see that turnabout wouldn’t feel like fair play.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis