11.19.10

MSNBC Suspends Joe

Scarborough has apologized for violating NBC policy by giving eight $500 campaign donations. But he’ll be off the air until Wednesday. Howard Kurtz reports.

Joe Scarborough was preparing to interview Vice President Joe Biden on MSNBC this morning, but something was clearly weighing on him.

Before the program began at 6 a.m., the host confided to his colleagues that he was about to fess up to making a series of political donations in Florida, where he had been a Republican congressman before jumping into cable news.

Once Morning Joe wrapped, Scarborough asked to see network president Phil Griffin—and realized he would not escape without punishment.

“You know I'm going to have to suspend you for two days,” Griffin told him, according to a network official familiar with the conversation. Scarborough quickly said he understood.

Skeptics are questioning whether Scarborough could truly have forgotten a series of donations made to candidates in the Sunshine State since 2005.

Once he learned of the series of eight contributions to local candidates, Griffin took his morning man off the air until Wednesday. Scarborough’s two-day suspension matched the penalty given Keith Olbermann after he made contributions to Democratic congressional candidates, but without the accompanying drama.

Network spokesman Jeremy Gaines said Scarborough’s punishment was designed to be “in parallel to what was done two weeks ago” with Olbermann.

Scarborough soon issued a full-throated apology, which he wrote himself, to the network. Olbermann, by contrast, apologized to viewers, but not to MSNBC, three days after the news broke, and questioned the “inconsistently applied” rule.

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“I recognize that I have a responsibility to honor the guidelines and conditions of my employment, and I regret that I failed to do so in this matter,” Scarborough said. “I apologize to MSNBC and to anyone who has been negatively affected by my actions.”

Scarborough said that after realizing he had made the string of $500 donations to Republicans in Florida, he called Griffin “and agreed with Phil's immediate demand of a two-day suspension without pay.”

The contributions, made to candidates running for state legislature in and around Scarborough’s hometown of Pensacola, were first reported by Politico.

Scarborough said he made the donations “to my brother and three longtime family friends. These contributions were nothing more than simple acts of friendship. I gained nothing personally, politically, or professionally from these donations.

“To be blunt, I had no interest in their campaigns other than being kind to longtime friends.

“Because the contributions involved local, non-competitive races—and were given for personal rather than political reasons—I mistakenly believed I did not need approval from MSNBC. I also apologize for that oversight.”

Scarborough was described as resolute in accepting the penalty, but some of those around him are depressed by the turn of events. “The worst thing he committed here is that he’s too nice to people,” one colleague said. “He’s always trying to help out people in his hometown.”

Griffin notified NBC Chief Executive Jeff Zucker and NBC News President Steve Capus of the suspension. “In my conversation with Joe two weeks ago, he did not recall these contributions,” Griffin said in a statement. “Since he did not seek or receive prior approval for these contributions, Joe understands that I will be suspending him for violating our policy…

“As Joe recognizes, it is critical that we enforce our standards and policies.”

Given the uproar over Olbermann’s donations, skeptics are questioning whether Scarborough could truly have forgotten a series of donations made to candidates in the Sunshine State since 2005. But MSNBC insiders note that Scarborough did not remember the contributions during the Olbermann flap when Griffin was asking network staffers if they had given money to candidates—which would have been the logical time to speak up. These insiders say Scarborough’s wife, Susan, often handled such checks.

Scarborough’s contrite tone boosts the chances that MSNBC can quickly ride out the incident. Olbermann, by contrast, challenged the wisdom of NBC’s ban on contributions, and MSNBC stretched out the drama by first suspending the Countdown host indefinitely, sparking a debate over how long he would be sidelined.

Some critics have questioned the policy, saying it makes little sense to stop commentators from making donations when their views are no secret. But NBC has defended the standard that even its most opinionated talent should not financially support candidates for public office.

Scarborough this week knocked down a speculative Huffington Post piece suggesting that he and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg were exploring joining forces for an independent presidential ticket in 2012.

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program "Reliable Sources," Sundays at 11 am ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.