October 3, 2013

Third in a multi-part series.

This edition of Politico “Playbook” contains an approving pitch for a Scarborough column in Politico, categorized by “Playbook” author Mike Allen as among his “TOP-EDS.” Here’s a blurb touting Scarborough’s take on a new NRA ad. This edition of “Playbook” contains a gigantic transcript of a Scarborough “Morning Joe” monologue on the lessons of Newtown, fronted with this headline: “JOE SCARBOROUGH has Nixon-to-China moment on ‘Morning Joe.’” This edition of “Playbook” carries a piddly four-line mention — routine for Mr. “Morning Joe” but just the sort of stuff other cable hosts would kill for. This edition of “Playbook” inventories the views of the “Morning Joe” co-hosts on the pick of Rep. Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney’s running mate:

“MORNING” JOE SCARBOROUGH on the Ryan pick: “This is the first time that I’ve been excited by something that the national Republican Party has done, in well over a decade. … There couldn’t be a tighter fit – ideologically, at least – through the years with what a small group of started trying to do in 1994: … Yes, we’re conservative socially, but we talked about the budget … There could not be a better pick …

“This is the first time that … the national Republican Party has done something in over a decade that I go, ‘Wow, you know what? That may be my party. That may be the party that I joined when Ronald Reagan inspired me in 1979, 1980. … It’s a GREAT campaign, because people on the left are salivating. Some of them are making fools of themselves: They’re overreaching.”

– Mika Brzezinski: “It certainly makes it a real conversation. … I find it exciting, as well.”

QED: Loyal “Playbook” readers may be excused for concluding that Joe and Mika are the king and queen of cable news.

Pump “Joe Scarborough” into Politico’s excellent site-search tool under the byline of Mike Allen, and you get 235 results. Do the same with “Bill O’Reilly,” the longstanding and undisputed king of cable news, and you get 86 results. That’s not a scientific sampling — some results are non-”Playbook” items, for instance — but it’s helpful in understanding what matters to Mike Allen. The people who put him on television, that is.

“Morning Joe” has to appreciate the free publicity. As Mark Leibovich noted in his classic 2010 New York Times Magazine profile of Allen, Politico was then charging a good $15,000 for companies seeking a weekly sponsorship on “Playbook.” That number, wrote Leibovich, “is expected to rise.”

Correct. According to three industry sources, Politico recently jacked up its “Playbook” sponsorship rates and now collects around $35,000 for a weekly sponsorship. For that price, companies get a little blurb in “Playbook” surrounded by a disclosure that it’s a paid advertisement. Though not for sale, un-sponsored shoutouts from Allen are worth even more — the ultimate in Beltway earned media. The frequent mentions of “Morning Joe” in “Playbook,” accordingly, amount to a publicity service worth hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of a year.

MSNBC declined to answer specific questions about the relationship with “Politico,” instead passing along this statement: “Politico brings our viewers insight from the beltway every morning and the team has become part of the ‘Morning Joe’ family, “ said Alex Korson, Executive Producer of “Morning Joe”

Politico Executive Editor Jim VandeHei declined to answer specific questions about the relationship with “Morning Joe,” instead passing along this statement: “We are huge fans of the show and see it as a great partnership, given our shared passion for serious political discussion and our shared success in reaching the country’s most influential news consumers. It’s unusual for media partnerships to work this well, but it does because of Joe, Mika and their staff rock.”

Sounds like an endorsement. So how is Politico’s media shop supposed to cover these close friends? Cautiously, if one episode from last year is any indication. On Sept. 17, 2012, not even a week after the Benghazi terrorist attack, Scarborough used “Morning Joe” to rip terrorists. “You know why they hate us? I talked to intelligence people all weekend. They hate us because of their religion, they hate us because of their culture, and they hate us because of peer pressure,” said the host.

Politico media reporter Dylan Byers, who doesn’t miss cable-news controversies, picked up on the hosts’s remarks in a blog post. He slipped a bit of “analysis” into his copy:

Lest you thought the “they” to which referred was a small group within the world’s Arab and Muslim population, Scarborough clarified: “One intelligence person told me, if you scratch the surface, and if you gave every street vendor to prime minister in that region a chance to throw a rock at the U.S. embassy, they would,” he said.

That material comes from the version of the post that’s now available on the Politico site. Judging from the italics at the bottom of the post, however, it has undergone some editing:

NOTE: This post has been updated to include more context; editorial commentary has been removed. Updates appear in the body of the text, and are signified by asterisks.

There’s one for the Newseum: Politico editors found some leisure time in the midst of a presidential campaign to go back and edit one of its 10 million blog posts for contextual shortcomings. An outlet that’s always moving toward the next posting, Politico doesn’t do that without pressure from someone. Just who could have been agitating for those edits?

Reached by phone, Byers said that the post speaks for itself. Another thing that speaks for itself: Be careful the next time you contextualize Joe Scarborough.

Over the next two days, “Morning Joe” bumped its standard “Playbook” segment in favor of the Huffington Post, as BuzzFeed noted at the time.

Stories regarding “Morning Joe” and MSNBC can trigger special reviews and a “heads up” to the upper reaches of the Politico masthead, according to sources familiar with the process. Among the questions that VandeHei declined to answer was one about whether he recuses himself when stories about “Morning Joe” hit the planning stage.

To its credit, though, Politico won’t suppress a scoop even if it embarrasses a close ally. Back in November 2010, Politico reporter Ken Vogel busted Scarborough for making campaign donations. The host was suspended for the contributions. Politico also nailed then-MSNBC host Keith Olbermann for the same offense.

Whatever ethical queasiness Politico stomachs at present would worsen if Scarborough were to jump back into electoral politics — a door that he refuses to shut. “I’ve got no plans to run in 2016, or in 2020. But you never know what’s going to happen,” Scarborough told Politico last year.

But who really cares about media ethics? Whatever conflicts Politico entertains vis-a-vis “Morning Joe,” after all, cannot be any worse than all the ties that the co-hosts of CNN’s re-launched “Crossfire” don’t have to disclose, right?

Next: The implications of the Politico-”Morning Joe” alliance for new acquisition Capital New York and beyond.

Previously in this series:

No. 1: Mike Allen, Politico and ‘Morning Joe’: Inseparable

No. 2: Politico and ‘Morning Joe’: The balance of power

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.