“Morning Joe” anchors Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough in 2011. (Vicky Pombo)

Just how cutthroat is the ratings competition in cable television news? Cutthroat enough that anchors think nothing of ripping rival networks in the light of day, as in this New York Times story by Bill Carter: “Ratings Slip at MSNBC as Jet Coverage Lifts CNN.”

A goodly portion of the piece focused on how CNN’s morning show “New Day,” which launched last year, had begun eclipsing MSNBC staple “Morning Joe” in the ratings via heavy coverage of missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. To that, “Morning Joe” host Joe Scarborough replied:

“CNN has made itself a punch line on the ‘Daily Show’ for its phony breaking-news headlines and breathless coverage of random ocean debris,” Joe Scarborough, the anchor of “Morning Joe,” said. ” ‘Morning Joe’ topped CNN in the first quarter by covering hard news, just as we have for the past five years. We will do the same in the future and won’t be distracted by ‘X-Files’ cable news programming.”

Spoken like a fellow who’s responded to an attack or two in his day.

The Erik Wemple Blog cites a couple of problems with Scarborough’s broadside: 1) “Morning Joe” itself earned an entire segment of “Daily Show” parody for being cozy with the powerful. 2) Rip CNN all you want for MH370, but concede that it is hard news: After all, it requires correspondents posted across the globe and a significant investment in explanatory props.

Eager to put those points to the hosts of “Morning Joe,” we reached out to them and asked if they’d talk. In a miracle of cable-news transparency, they said yes.

Reality of interviewing Joe Scarborough: If you dare suggest that “Morning Joe” skews more toward analysis than his preferred term “hard news,” prepare for presidential-campaign-style blowback: “Well, if you can find another place that covers the range of topics that we cover for three hours, other than the BBC or the ‘NewsHour’ on PBS, then … well, you just can’t.” This morning’s “Morning Joe,” he argues, was a “perfect example,” complete with input from Zbigniew Brzezinski and David Ignatius and David Axelrod and Bob Costas and others on topics ranging from Iraq to Syria to Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. And other stuff.

Impressive, but isn’t covering the fate of 239 Boeing 777 passengers who’ve disappeared from the face of the earth also a worthwhile pursuit? Initially it was, says Scarborough, noting that the New York Times weeks ago placed the jetliner on its front page. Yet what followed on CNN wasn’t so glorious: “Their breathless coverage of random ocean debris is fake news,” Scarborough said. “You know CNN — they’re churning this story up for ratings and they’re doing it 24 hours a day.”

Hold on a minute — doesn’t MSNBC and any self-respecting cable-news outlet play for ratings? Doesn’t “Morning Joe”?

Scarborough: “I can tell you, Erik [Wemple Blog], no we don’t, because we have influencers that watch the show, and if we start covering Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears or other fake news, if we keep churning a story over and over again,” “Morning Joe” will lose the attention of those opinion elites.

Then we asked whether MH370 coverage may well help the families of the passengers. Brzezinski telephonically spat at this blog: “What about the families of the hundreds of thousands of victims in Syria?… Please stop!”

Whatever the merits of MH370 relative to Syria, it’s curious that Scarborough would get in a fight with CNN over audience numbers in the first place. As this blog noted last October, “Morning Joe” is to cable news what Politico or National Journal is to print/web — that is, a refuge for elite opinion makers. Elizabeth Wilner, vice president of Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group, told us: “Among the range of programs advocacy advertisers could choose from on the cable news menu, ‘Joe’ is probably a standout.”

Scarborough confirms the sentiment: ” ‘Morning Joe’ makes MSNBC and NBC a lot of money, not because of the number of eyes but because of the viewers we reach.”

Despite those considerations, Scarborough decided to take a shot or two at CNN because the network “obviously” lobbied the New York Times to do its ratings piece. “It’s curious that the one month that CNN beat us, it suddenly turns into a massive story,” said Scarborough, who expressed hope that the paper will pay as much attention when/if the tables turn back. “I thought it was humorous, so I decided to make a statement.”

UPDATE May 1: CNN spokeswoman Neel Khairzada says this about Scarborough’s recent criticism of CNN: “Joe has clearly become unhinged by his third-place ratings.”