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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