By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 22, 2008
Mika Brzezinski doesn't mince words about what happened when CBS dropped her as a correspondent two years ago.
"Nobody wanted me," she says. "I spent a year looking for a job. You spend 10 years at a place, you gave your heart and soul and blood for it, and all of a sudden it's over? I was 40 and, quote, fired, and I'm sure people were thinking, what's wrong with her?"
No one is asking that now. Brzezinski has parlayed her role as co-host of MSNBC's morning show, with Joe Scarborough, into a syndicated radio show with the former congressman and a brand-new book deal. She is, for the first time, bursting with opinions.
"I've been in a box as a journalist for 20 years," she says. "That is a very safe and lazy place to be. You can hide behind objectivity. It is much harder to put yourself out there."
Brzezinski's comeback occupies the eroding line between news and commentary, but it reflects more than that. In a fickle culture that swoons over celebrities and spits them out, media people can be hot and then, suddenly, not -- particularly women who reach a certain age and are supplanted by younger rivals.
As the daughter of Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, she found her name to be a mixed blessing. For years, she says, "people made fun of me and assumed doors were opened because of my last name. In some cases it was true, and in others it wasn't. I had to triple-prove myself and compensate for inbred resentment in newsrooms."
The move to radio seems a bit much, given that Brzezinski gets up at 3:30 a.m. for her three-hour stint, starting at 6, on "Morning Joe." Now the two move on to a separate New York studio for another two hours of blabbing at 10 a.m.
"We feel we've just got more to say," Brzezinski explains. "We're either at each other's throats or getting completely fired up." Even before the radio show launched two weeks ago, "we have not gone a day without continuing the conversation, sometimes on the phone, sometimes still fighting."
On Thursday they are dueling in a Washington studio, the morning dominated by a 5 a.m. incident in which the rail-thin Brzezinski was mugged by a man demanding money outside a Ritz-Carlton. Brzezinski had asked Scarborough not to talk about it, and she seems mortified when he returns to the subject again and again, ripping her for expressing sympathy for the robber -- whom she gave all of $6.
"This left-wing attitude of yours. . . . Isn't Mika responsible not only for her mugging, but for the mugging of everyone?" he asks one caller.
During a break, her father calls her cell. "I'm fine -- I'm on the radio. It's no big deal . . ."
"It's a huge deal, Doctor Brzezinski!" Scarborough shouts.
"Do not freak him out," she pleads.
There is a bit of old-married-couple slapstick in their act. He declares that "you are boring me." She punches him in the arm for calling her a "Marxist." She texts friends while he is talking, sometimes sharing gripes with Scarborough's wife, Susan. Brzezinski shakes her head and rolls her eyes, saying things like "stop it," "you're crazy" and "you're just absolutely sick." It's all part of the routine.
"She finds herself playing the straight man a lot of the time," Scarborough admits. But at times, he says, "she does stick it to me. You stick a needle in the balloon and let the air out and people love that."
Citadel Broadcasting, which debuted the show on its New York station, WABC, and will carry it on KABC in Los Angeles next month, is looking for other syndication deals. Washington's Citadel station, WMAL, is sticking with its Chris Plante show, so the company is hoping to sign up another station.
Several television hosts -- Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Lou Dobbs, Rachel Maddow -- are successfully juggling radio shows. Bill O'Reilly recently dropped his radio gig, saying he was stretched too thin.
Brzezinski finds radio "more intimate" than television. She takes off her makeup and shows up in a T-shirt, jeans and scarf.
When "Morning Joe" began last year, after the controversy that knocked Don Imus off MSNBC, Brzezinski was installed -- at Scarborough's insistence -- as the news reader. She was uncertain how much banter she could engage in and still be viewed as fair.
The turning point came when Brzezinski refused to read a report about Paris Hilton -- "I hate this story," she declared -- setting a lighter to the script, ripping it up and putting it in a paper shredder. That was her YouTube moment, one that has been viewed 3.8 million times, and the reaction was overwhelming. A shtick -- and a co-host -- were born.
While their sparring clearly puts Brzezinski to the left of Scarborough, a onetime GOP lawmaker from Pensacola, Fla., she tries to resist being typecast as a liberal. She demurred when John McCain, during a September appearance, called her a "supporter" of Barack Obama. Brzezinski likes to point out that one of her brothers provided foreign policy advice to the McCain campaign and the other to the Obama team.
When Brzezinski was a teenager, her father would take her along when he was interviewed on such programs as "Today" and "Nightline." It was then that she decided she wanted to be a television reporter. While attending Washington's Madeira School, she and a friend started the "Mika and Melissa Show," which aired on a cable-access channel.
At 15 she tagged along when her father, by then out of office, met secretly in Tunisia with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, an encounter she remembers mainly for "being surrounded by men with guns."
The elder Brzezinski, a native of Poland, is not surprised by his daughter's newly combative role. "It reminded me a little bit of dinners we used to have at home, where she got her training," he says. "Her brothers were dominating. She had to fight, and she had to have something to say."
After serving as an intern at Washington's WUSA and WRC, Brzezinski launched her career at the Fox affiliate in Hartford, Conn., where she met her future husband, television reporter James Hoffer. Brzezinski joined CBS in 1997, left to briefly co-anchor an MSNBC afternoon show with Ashleigh Banfield, and then returned to CBS, where she broadcast live from Ground Zero on the day of the 9/11 attacks. Five years later, she had a fat new contract to take over the Sunday night news and contribute to "60 Minutes," and made a demo tape as part of a possible new anchor team. But she and other correspondents were dropped after a new management team hired Katie Couric for the anchor job.
Feeling "sort of battered" after a year of job hunting, Brzezinski took a freelance job at MSNBC that consisted of doing four 30-second news cut-ins every evening. She spent much of the time talking by phone with her daughters, now 10 and 12, at their home in New York's Westchester County, discussing homework or listening to them play piano. Ten seconds before air time, she would put down the phone, read the headlines and say, "Now back to 'Scarborough Country,' " lowering her voice to make the title sound ironic.
When Scarborough, who was based in Florida, came to the Secaucus, N.J., studio to try out for the morning slot, he asked Brzezinski if she was poking fun at the program. "I can't make fun of your show because I've never seen the show," she replied. But as they talked, something clicked.
"I could tell she was not a talking head," Scarborough says. "She wasn't like anyone I'd met in television news. She didn't take herself too seriously and was obviously very quick on her feet."
Scarborough called MSNBC boss Phil Griffin and said he wanted Brzezinski on the morning show. But there was resistance. Management wanted either a traditional newsman or a young news reader. "Nobody saw it," Scarborough says.
He kept pushing, and Brzezinski got her tryout. As the presidential election unfolded, "Morning Joe" gained traction as a kind of political salon, with long segments built around pundits and campaign aides. "No cooking, no lingerie, no missing girls," Brzezinski boasts.
One occasional guest was her dad, who had endorsed Obama. "I think she felt a little awkward about it," the former White House adviser says. "I once corrected something she said about me, and she said, 'Oh, here I am, 10 years old again.' "Obama Adulation Watch
"You could call it 'Obamalot.' . . . Barack and Michelle Obama bear superficial similarities to John and Jacqueline Kennedy of the 1960s 'Camelot' White House -- charisma, vigor, her fondness for sheath dresses, for instance." -- Thursday's USA Today.