MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, left, and Mika Brzezinski arrive for the 2015 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)
Media critic

MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough is a politician-turned-media figure. In both worlds, deflection is a helpful skill, and one that the “Morning Joe” co-host deployed in a much-trafficked podcast with Politico’s Glenn Thrush.

The subject was Scarborough’s cable-news competition. CNN, said the host, had “turned over its airwaves to Donald Trump.” And there’s some chumminess at the highest levels of CNN and the Trump campaign, alleged Scarborough. “He and [CNN Worldwide President Jeff] Zucker are very close,” said the host. “Zucker personally calls Trump and books Trump and Trump laughs and calls Zucker ‘my personal booker.'”

Now for some fact-checking: Indeed, CNN has gorged on Trump coverage, though MSNBC hasn’t precisely pulled back on the real estate mogul, as various studies have shown. And Zucker has had a relationship with Trump harking back to 2003, when Zucker, as head of NBC Entertainment, green-lit Trump’s program “The Apprentice.” That the relationship remains strong is beyond doubt. After interviewing Trump for a People Magazine article, Charlotte Triggs said in a video, “It’s really interesting, when I was at his office six months ago, I was at his office, people were dropping in just to say hi, the head of CNN just walked in.”

Yet Scarborough wasn’t attempting to merely deepen the public’s understanding of just how enmeshed is Donald Trump in the web of New York media elites. He’s on a mission here, to push attention away from his own, soft treatment of Trump for months and months last year — and toward the coverage of a rival network. He’s practiced in this particular strain of polemics. When he faced criticism earlier this year for assisting Trump with his messaging imperatives, Scarborough said, “We’ve asked the tough questions about Muslims, we’ve asked the tough questions about Mexicans, we’ve asked the tough questions about John McCain.”

And about Judge Gonzalo Curiel. Commenting on Trump’s racist attacks on the federal judge overseeing lawsuits against Trump University, Scarborough advised Republicans on how to approach the mogul these days: “The third choice is this: ‘Hey Donald guess what? I’m not going to support you until you get your act together. You’re acting like a bush league loser, you’re acting like a racist, you’re acting like a bigot. Until you come back to the table and get on the other side of the table and prove to me that you’re not a bigot and prove to me that you’re not gonna take my party down in the ditch, you don’t have my endorsement.”

So that’s all very sharp-elbowed. Yet no matter what Scarborough may say about CNN or Zucker or his tough questions of the past, there’s just no hiding the welcome mat that Scarborough and co-host Mika Brzezinski laid out for Trump over the course of 2015. Despite some skeptical moments, the sweep of the interviews with Trump was sweet and helpful for a novice politician introducing himself as a presidential candidate. When the Erik Wemple Blog reviewed the interviews en masse late last year, the prevailing impression was chuckles, as in the hosts and the presidential candidate laughing about this or that. Those moments are encapsulated in this mashup video:

There’s no need to trust the video, or the Erik Wemple Blog, or the many commentators who reached the same conclusion about “Morning Joe’s” approach to Trump. Take it from Trump himself, who told the “Morning Joe” hosts after his big victory in New Hampshire, “Everyone’s great . . . you guys have been supporters and I really appreciate it.” That comment touched off an on-air scramble by the “Morning Joe” hosts to clarify what Trump, in fact, meant with his words of praise — words that a more experienced politician wouldn’t have uttered for fear of compromising friendly journalists. “But let me clarify what supporters mean,” said Brzezinski.

No matter what Scarborough tells Thrush and no matter what tidbits he discloses about other media bigwigs, “Morning Joe” can’t shake those indelible moments. (Scarborough is a contributor to The Washington Post’s opinions section.)

The dig against CNN for handing over its control room to Trump echoes throughout the great American media conversation. Zucker himself has been asked over and over about the network’s wall-to-wall Trump posture, responding that the primary front-runner logically gets a great deal of attention and Trump serially says yes to interviews. The back-and-forth over saturation coverage feeds into a widely traded figure that news outlets had accorded Trump upwards of $2 billion in “earned media,” or, in the words of Trump detractors, “free media.” What this line of argument neglects is that a big portion of that coverage is accountability journalism. Think about CNN hosts Jake Tapper and Chris Cuomo, for instance, cross-examining Trump about his Curiel comments, proposed Muslim ban and many other topics — and extracting soundbites from Trump that get recirculated throughout the Internet.

Volume is a poor approximater for boosterism.

Even if it were, “Morning Joe” might have its own exposure: A February Daily Beast analysis found that the program had mentioned Trump more than other cable-news shows had since the launch of the mogul’s campaign.

The way Scarborough tells it, he’s been a “friend” of Trump’s for more than 10 years. Quotation marks signify shallowness. “I consider myself a friend of Trump’s,” Scarborough told Thrush. “When I was sort of hedging, Mika said, ‘Come on, you’re his friend.’ . . . I am his friend, but to be Donald Trump’s friend is to be somebody that says hello in short bursts. He’s walking through, ‘Hey Joe, thank you so much for being here. Isn’t this the most beautiful place you’ve ever seen? You are great, I love you, you are wonderful.'” More: “When we’ve asked him for help, he’s helped us and actually he’s been a really good guy, at least he has been to us,” said Scarborough, citing charity contributions by the presumptive Republican nominee.

And to his credit, Scarborough honestly addressed something that any cable-news viewer understands about televised accountability journalism — that on one, critical level, the goal of the interviewer is to ensure there’s a next interview. “Do I want to hammer Hillary for 30 minutes on emails and know she’s never going to come back? Do I want to hammer Ted Cruz on the shutdown and just how stupid he was for 30 minutes and never have him come back? It’s always a balancing act.”

UPDATE: Scarborough rips back via email:

You’re being selective.
He also thanked David Axelrod for his support.
Furthermore, no one has been tougher on trump than us. Even last year Mika and I blasted the Muslim ban and I asked “Is this what Germany looked like in 1933?”
I said his david duke comments were “disqualifying” and our townhall meetings that were critiqued were MUCH tougher than CNN’s. If facts matter, check the transcripts.

Here’s a good video link that someone online put together. http://hotair.com/?p=3895580[hotair.com]

Your premise is not accurate. The facts show that.