Brzezinski: ‘Somewhere over the years, the news media got lost and forgot what news was’

When Mika Brzezinksi and Joe Scarborough began hosting “Morning Joe” in 2007, they told MSNBC President Phil Griffin that they were going to take a different approach to reporting the news.

“He asked what our strategy was and we said ‘We’re going to have long interviews and we’re going to be counter-intuitive. We hear the news hole is shrinking and we hear you have to do more stories about Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton and we hear you have to draw sides and fight,’” said Joe Scarborough, who spoke with Brzezinski in St. Petersburg, Fla., yesterday at a Poynter luncheon. “I said, ‘We’re going to go in the opposite direction.’”

And they did. But at times, the show’s on-air conversations have veered off-course.

Unpredictable outbursts

Brzezinski and Scarborough spoke to an audience of about 500 people.

“Morning Joe” got some negative publicity this week after guest Chris Matthews started a shouting match with Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus during a roundtable discussion on Monday’s show.

Matthews criticized presidential nominee Mitt Romney for making a joke about President Obama’s birth certificate and accused the Republican party of race-baiting. Priebus later told Eric Deggans of Poynter’s Tampa Bay Times that Matthews tried to steal the spotlight by “being the biggest jerk in the room.” He added: “If [Matthews] had more than 10 viewers, I would actually care.”

Brzezinksi and Scarborough said that Monday’s show “hit a pothole.”

“Our strategy for discourse on the show is to have a civil one. … I think things went off the rails a little bit, and it wasn’t our best show. It’s live, it’s three hours a day, and sometimes we have a good show and sometimes we don’t have such a good show,” Brzezinksi said. “It’s very unpredictable, obviously, because we don’t use scripts and because everybody is speaking from the heart and off the top of their heads and there are obvious pitfalls with that.”

Scarborough said he was upset that “Morning Joe” “wasted five minutes of the audience’s time” during Matthews’ outburst by doing “absolutely nothing to illuminate the conversation.”

“We love Chris, Chris loves us, Chris comes on the show all the time, and we want him back again,” Scarborough said. Nevertheless, he doesn’t support political outbursts like Matthews’.

“If people come on our show and do that, they’re not going to come back on our show until we’re certain they’re not going to do it,” Scarborough said. “The problem is, that people who do that, whether it’s on cable TV or online … they are rewarded by either the extremists on the far right or the far left.”

What the audience wants

Over the years, Scarborough and Brzezinski have had to push for certain guests to be on the show, and have challenged assumptions about ratings. Scarborough recalled one time in 2007 when he wanted to invite Walter Isaacson on the show to talk about his book, “Einstein.” He ran the idea by Chris Licht, the show’s executive producer at the time, but didn’t get the answer he wanted.

The conversation was moderated by Poynter President Karen Dunlap (center) and Managing Director Butch Ward (right).

“[Licht] said ‘No, no, that will be ratings death,’ but I said, ‘Let’s try it.’”

Scarborough ended up doing a 30-minute phoner with Isaacson about physics theories from the early 20th century. It wasn’t the most glamorous topic, but it nonetheless resonated with viewers. “The next day, the ratings came back, and that 30 minutes was our highest rated 30 minutes in 2007,” Scarborough said.

Increasingly, Scarborough and Brzezinksi have tried to focus on the quality of “Morning Joe” shows rather than obsessing over ratings. “A funny thing happened after my first show,” Scarborough recounted:

[Tom] Brokaw walked into Phil Griffin’s office after about five minutes and he looked up at the screen and looked at Phil and said, ‘Scarborough. Who knew?’ He obviously was a regular watcher of ‘Scarborough Country.’

When Phil finally figured out that this was getting buzz, he said, ‘I only have one bit of advice,’ and it’s the only input Phil has had the whole time. He said, ‘You have an audience of one, and it’s Tim Russert.’ Tim actually started watching the show, and really one of our breakthrough moments was in Iowa in ‘08 when he came and asked if he could be on the show. I thought, ‘Yeah, sure, take it over for all we care.’ But we kept that in mind.”

“We don’t even look at the ratings anymore because we know that, as long as we do a quality show, we’re going to get the influencers and everything else follows,” said Scarborough, a former U.S. Congressman representing Florida.

Several times during the conversation, Scarborough shared his thoughts on what the public wants from politicians.

“If you have somebody who’s willing to go against party orthodoxy on both sides, that’s willing to speak the truth, that’s willing to talk about the fiscal cliff we’re approaching, not just this year but over the next 30 years, I think people will really respond,” said Scarborough, who advocated for electing more independent candidates. “If there’s a politician out there that will tell the truth, they will get elected, but I don’t think the two party system will allow that to happen because they dumb down their national candidates.”

He also said that it’s too easy for people to turn to news outlets that reinforce their pre-existing prejudices and political views. Doing so makes them more close-minded about those who share different beliefs.

“By the end of the day,” Scarborough said, “your political opponent’s not wrong; your political opponent is evil.”

Transparency and respect

Scarborough and Brzezinksi are open with viewers about their own political leanings, and think this openness builds trust.

Arianna Huffington, Howard Fineman and former Governor Charlie Crist attended the event.

“We’re very transparent about who we are, where we’ve come from, what our world views are, who we voted for, and the viewers choose to watch us because they trust either we’re speaking through our world view and we’re doing our best to be fair,” Brzezinksi said. “I think we’re at a point where the viewer is on to us; they can’t imagine that someone, reporting on the news on a network or a cable program, has no opinions.”

Brzezinksi criticized the media for dumbing down the news and underestimating the audience’s intelligence. Stories about Paris Hilton going to jail, she said, shouldn’t be labeled “news.”

“Somewhere over the years, the news media got lost and forgot what news was,” Brzezinksi said. “I think the viewers got off the bus, and they said, ‘No more.’ They were so hungry for someone to say, ‘This is complete and utter trash and we’re not going to package it as news anymore. I think a lot of networks still haven’t gotten that memo and that’s why people are losing respect and trust.”

There’s a need, Scarborough and Brzezinksi said, for more in-depth coverage that helps make people feel smarter.

“There’s a reason why ‘60 Minutes’ is still one of the top rated shows in America,” Scarborough said. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re on broadcast TV or cable TV, or whether you’ve got a news site on the Web; it all comes down … to really good journalism, great writing, great storytelling.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Charlie Crist’s name.

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  • Robert Knilands

    “Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Charlie Crist’s name.” Seriously? How? Is this really that hard?

  • Ron Helton

    The motto of the news outliets: “Do not offend thy advertisers”

    So the news has devolved into gossip, car chases, and disasters.

    But no in depth reporting of bad Pharma, bad banks, bad corporations, bad government, etc.

    I remember one news channel here in OKC was doing a piece on some shady practices of one of the construction companies. The next week they were running ads for the company and stopped investigating.

    All fluff and no substance. No investigative reporting. All scripted and run over with a fine tooth comb by the legal team to make sure they don’t alienate current advertisers or potential future advertisers. After all; advertising is what pays the bills and fills the bellies.

  • angriestdogintheworld

    I feel sorry for Mika’s father. He must be so embarrassed.

  • angriestdogintheworld

    People who value civility over truth are not journalists. Period. People who think race baiters deserve courtesy are amoral. Period.

  • DefendOurConstitution

    Matthews just told the truth and exposed the RNC lies, but I guess that is not OK with the “liberal” media these days. It probably has something to do with the desire to get a good chunk of the hundreds of millions that will be spent by Republicans (and their surrogates) this year.

  • Tom P.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I love these guys. Watch the show every morning.

  • Anonymous

    RIP Lori Klausutis-

    Brzezinski—->>> Intentionally dresses like an inhumane barbie doll equipped with pink lipstick; stepford colours, and of course glasses on headtop …

    I can count on an arm with an amputated hand how many retired broadcast ready democrats with a DEAD intern in their office, have their own hour long, cable TeeVee naval gazing expose for Phil Griffin’s 1%-

    Tom Brokaw on Scarborough’s show- (Matthews)

    Tom Brokaw had a permanent scowl affixed to his face; asif he has
    carried for years, the guilt, bitterness, pain, and sadness from not
    reporting the truth in news, and sadly now, his type cannot see that his
    grinchy scowl could be remedied, if he just used his sqawker and
    synapse for being something other than a reliable pseudo mendacious tool
    of the corporate elite GOP in the USA-
    Nope; he would rather scowl, and find something or someone to blame;
    and that is why that scowl is permanent; it reveals the frequency he
    vibrates at; and it is getting toward Kenneth territory by the looks of
    his unconscious gazes while others on his panel tried to speak some
    We see you Mr Brokaw; and we still wish you well, and that is the difference-
    Other GOP types would just as well slit your throat, and those of you
    who still carry water for the ones that were denied their long knives
    for now; at GOP convention 2012-

    Probably the most PATHETIC crew of pseudo journo misfits ever to grace universal studios…

  • Anonymous

    The GOP has reached a point of less than one percent support among some people in the United States. They have one of the weakest candidates of all time. Mitt Romney has to hide his taxes, governorship, Bain, conservative credentials, and even his economists. The GOP has chosen a forty year strategy of racial resentment. Mitt Romney has such horrible support that he has decided to stop people from voting.

    And GOP Joe has got no problem with it!
    This is just another show for the GOP. They won’t go anywhere that questions their policies. They have a forty year history of hostility and thirty years of bad policy. They called the war in Iraq easy and they have burnt our resources and they have driven people into the ground. And Joe is just another apologist, desperate for a job.
    The age of Fox Nation is over. The GOP has spent decades hiding behind phony news, and now they threatened not to come on the show if confronted with the truth. Morning GOP is just been other outdated show about nothing. He as three Republican hacks on his show right now, 2 Senators. They spent three years talking about default, communists, and lady parts. The first bill they voted on and proposed has been a bill redefining rape. Pat Toomey got his job with infomercials on Fox. He has rubber-stamped the same fairy and imp set of fiscal policies as the last set of GOP leaders, huge spending and unfunded tax cuts for people with accounts in the Cayman Islands. They got Newt on there right now writing an infomercial for fracking!
    Mitt Romney has the worst campaign in our lifetime, for the worst political party, and Chris Mathews called them on the truth. They can’t even get Harvard professors like Martin Feldstein to figure out the math of their insane budget.

  • Luke Martin

    Mika Brzezinski, you single-handedly,
    dumb down the news, the conversation, thought of any kind,
    to a mind-numbing degree.
    Joe does a pretty impressive job of creating chaotic, and worthless, commentary himself.

  • Anonymous

    I had the misfortune of watching this shoutfest at the doctor’s office. They don’t permit changing the channel and I figured CNN and Fox would be equally inane. Brezinski is basically playing the role originated by Michael Kinsley on Firing Line and made more popular by Alan Colmes on Hannity. Her gravatis is her name and her connection to a “serious person”. Otherwise, she’s not there because she’s Nancy Dickerson or Pauline Frederick (pioneering women broadcasters with actual gravatis). Chris Mathews (who always seemed like Tim Russert’s equally annoying twin) broke out of the usual “both sides are mean script” and Mika tried to put the genie back in the bottle, but came off as the host’s lackey that she was. The show isn’t about news. it’s a shoutfest and like most of these shows, it’s about the host’s point of view and only makes news when someone goes off script.

  • Anonymous

    Brzezinski is right. The media has forgotten what news is. And part of news in confronting elected and party officials when they are lying as Chris Matthews did on Monday. News it not sitting there with your skirt hiked up doing an ‘Entertainment Tonight’ style interview telling your subject how great you think they are like she does every morning.

  • Ariuszme

    this is a joke, right? there is nothing “news” about morning joe.. it is a rw azzhole know it all spewing his distortions and that dumb bimbo who claims to be a democrat, who sits there and smiles, giggles and sometimes hits him.. and looks at him with love and never NEVER has the intellect to stand up to him.. the so called “leftist” they invite on there dare not ever speak up or they won’t be asked back..

    the program NEVEr actually talks about news.. .. NEVER.. they spend 3 hrs talking about one small topic that joe approves.. with a right leaning swag.. no detail, just his spin on things..

    it is one of the worst shows on tv and a perfect example of what is wrong with all our cable news..

    if YOU think they are actually a news program then you’re simply ignorant.. you will find no “news” on morning joe.. ever.

    go back and see how many exact minutes they talked about the sikh killings.. or should i say, go back and count the “seconds” they devoted to it.. i mean it.. go check.. i’ll wait..

    MIka is a disgrace and an embarrassment to all of us.. she was hired for her blonde hair, her legs and her being photogenic next to Joe.. THEY WOULD NOT DARE EVER SIT SOME ONE NEXT TO HIM WHO COULD HOLD THEIR OWN..

    Mika the bimbo, she embarrasses me.. I point to her and tell my 4 daughters don’t ever act like that.. don’t ever become that..

  • Anonymous