It started, as so many things do these days, with a tweet.
The New York Times political reporter Maggie Haberman, covering Donald Trump’s New Year’s Eve festivities, observed Saturday night that Joe Scarborough and his MSNBC co-host Mika Brzezinski were among the president-elect’s Mar-a-Lago revelers.
Indeed, they were there. Haberman wasn’t making a judgment, just reporting. The former CBS reporter Sopan Deb (soon to join the Times) took it further, describing them as “partying” with Trump.
Scarborough, a former Republican congressman from Florida, wasn’t having any of it. He shot back at Deb, charging “fake news.”
Under Deb’s questioning, Scarborough explained that his and Brzezinski’s purpose was professional, not social. The morning-talk duo was just trying to line up an interview with Trump. They were not partying, and, Scarborough later stressed, they were “dramatically underdressed,” and he was headed home soon to a quiet night with his kids.
A few accusations and counter-accusations later, Scarborough delivered a scathing piece to The Washington Post’s online opinion section, PostPartisan.
It may not prove much about why he and Brzezinski were there on New Year’s Eve. He says that Brzezinski was unable to attend Scarborough’s prior dinner with the president-elect — “so Trump asked that she come by the next night for a few minutes before his annual New Year’s Eve party.”
Since when does an interview request require this much discussion? But then again, they talk a lot. Scarborough told Politico last month that he speaks to Trump several times a week, conversations in which he makes the same observations as he does on the air.
The Post piece proves a couple of other points. One, that Scarborough is almost as thin-skinned as Trump himself.
Scarborough’s opinion piece — he writes regularly for The Post — may have been headlined “The media’s hypocrisy and hyperventilating in the age of Trump,” but it was in part a convoluted defense of his interactions with the man, complete with language like this: “This past week, I met twice with President-elect Donald Trump attempting to secure an interview for inauguration week.”
Second, he has an extraordinarily high opinion of himself and his place in the political firmament. Pointing to past relationships between American politicians and journalists, he invoked some of the greats, indirectly comparing himself to Edward R. Murrow, Ben Bradlee and Walter Lippmann. He sarcastically advised those who criticize him not to “bother yourself with boring details of history that show how Washington Post legend Ben Bradlee was extraordinarily close with JFK . . . . And forget the fact that Walter Lippmann constantly offered LBJ advice.” (All the references were from decades ago, and they involve contact now considered inappropriate and unwise. They also happened at a time when such elbow-rubbing made few blink but nowadays would be considered well over the line of ethical acceptability.)
Despite all the silliness that’s piling up here — and it is getting almost as tall as Trump Tower — there is a serious principle at hand. It’s this: There should be some distance between journalists and elected officials. If that doesn’t exist, independence and impartiality are sure to be questioned. And rightly so.
In a phone interview, Scarborough told me that friendships between politicians and journalists are the norm in Washington — “that has been the Washington way for a very long time.” He suggested that it was naive to think there is anything wrong with it, and that it is possible to “do two things at once.”
He can be friends with Trump, he said, and be plenty tough on him, as he was at times during the campaign, when he vowed he would not vote for him. As for the meetings with Trump, scoring a major interview requires “a comfort level” on the part of the elected official, and that’s what he and Brzezinski were striving for.
In other words: Nothing to see here. Move along.
What’s more, Scarborough said, he doesn’t really view himself as a journalist — he prefers the label “news analyst.” (In the piece, though, he does call himself a “Republican reporter.” When I asked him about that, he scoffed at those who hide behind a “veneer of objectivity.”)
I see it differently. Granted: News people don’t constantly have to be dukes-up adversarial with the elected officials they cover. And the old “he said/she said” style of objectivity is increasingly useless.
But if newspeople intend to serve the public interest, they do need to maintain professional distance. Call it independence or impartiality.
And there are plenty — yes, in Washington, and many other places — who maintain those standards, who would never see it as their job to advise politicians or befriend them.
Maybe that’s not what Scarborough calls “the Washington way.” But it’s the right way.
An earlier version of this story misquoted the reference to Walter Lippmann.
For more by Margaret Sullivan, visit wapo.st/sullivan