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Is ‘Morning Joe’ Too Close to Donald Trump?

CNN has been critical of Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski’s coverage of Donald Trump. Is the charge fair, or is it really a sign of a ratings war between CNN and MSNBC?

02.17.16 5:55 PM ET

GOP front-runner Donald Trump is not simply a polarizer when it comes to the American electorate.

The robust rivalry between CNN and MSNBC—always intense as CNN’s New Day and MSNBC’s Morning Joe fight for second place behind Fox News Channel’s top-rated Fox & Friends in the lucrative morning day part—has turned downright nasty over Morning Joe’s friendly relationship with the reality television billionaire and real estate mogul.

In a vivid sign of the hammer-and-tongs competition, Morning Joe’s eponymous Joe Scarborough and his co-host Mika Brzezinski learned on Tuesday that they’ll preside tonight, Wednesday, over a televised town hall featuring Trump in Charleston, S.C.

The event was hastily arranged as a counterprogramming ploy to lure prime-time viewers away from CNN’s previously scheduled town hall featuring three Republican contenders—Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Ben Carson—who are decidedly not the self-proclaimed “ratings machine.”

(Trump, boasting a massive lead in all the polls before the Feb. 20 South Carolina primary, will appear on CNN, along with Jeb Bush and John Kasich, at a town hall to be aired in prime time on Thursday night.)

In what may or may not be another manifestation of competitive zeal, Scarborough, a former Republican congressman from Pensacola, Florida, has come under fire for alleged coziness with candidate Trump in tough stories posted last week on the CNN Money website and a censorious segment this past Sunday on CNN’s media analyses program, Reliable Sources.

Other media outlets—from The Baltimore Sun to National Review—have also questioned or criticized Morning Joe’s relationship with Trump, and CNN’s team of five media reporters can hardly be expected to ignore an election-year phenomenon that is regularly covered in venues like The Washington Post.

Trump has surely become the media equivalent of crack over the past eight months—nowhere more so than on Morning Joe.

According to data from the media monitoring service TVEyes, the MSNBC program has mentioned Trump’s name more frequently than any other cable show since his June 2015 announcement of candidacy—2,414 times compared to 2,181 on New Day and 1,472 on Fox & Friends; this, despite the fact that MSNBC programs as a whole have mentioned the thatch-roofed billionaire less frequently (9,749 times) than Fox News (10,446) and CNN (16,308).

Yet Scarborough, Brzezinski, and MSNBC executives are targeting their cable rival for special scorn.

They suspect that CNN’s aggressive policing of their professional ethics—by Reliable Sources host Brian Stelter, a respected former media writer for The New York Times, and CNN senior media reporter Dylan Byers, who joined the cable network last September from Politico—have less to do with legitimate journalistic inquiry than a corporate desire to inflict damage on MSNBC’s politically influential morning show.

“I do think that these attacks are unfair,” Brzezinski told The Daily Beast. “They make you wonder what they’re really about.” Calling her co-host “the best prognosticator and analyst on television,” she added, “I have never seen any relationship that he has with a politician on the left or the right ever get in the way of him being able to offer accurate predictions. Ever.”

Morning Joe is a conspicuous bright spot on the cable network’s programming lineup, and has been beating New Day‘s ratings lately by a significant margin.

While New Day has won ratings battles with its MSNBC competitor for much of the past 2½ years, the latest Nielsens reflect a 91 percent gain year over year for Morning Joe in the all-important 25-54 news demographic on which advertising is sold (151,000 viewers), compared to a 7 percent decline for New Day (123,000 viewers), with overall viewership for Morning Joe rising to 602,000 compared to New Day’s 422,000.

“I just find it fascinating that they actually hired independent journalists who then become extensions of CNN,” an angry Scarborough told The Daily Beast. “They get their paychecks from CNN and then attack the very news show that has been the top priority of their boss [CNN President Jeff Zucker] to beat.

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“They spent millions and millions of dollars to launch their show years ago [in June 2013] and they made no secret of the fact that beating Morning Joe was a top priority. They made no secret of the fact that they wanted to become as successful with influencers as we are. They wanted to be No. 1 in Washington and No. 1 in New York. Well, they’re not.”

Zucker declined to comment for this story; The Daily Beast’s editor in chief, John Avlon, is an on-air contributor to CNN who frequently appears on New Day. And in the Acela Corridor media scrum in which everybody seems to know everybody else, regular Morning Joe panelist Mike Barnicle is a columnist for The Daily Beast.

Last June, during a period last year when Morning Joe’s viewership had yet to rebound, Zucker publicly trash-talked Scarborough, telling The Hollywood Reporter, “It’s probably about time to start getting your résumé ready.”

Scarborough said he can’t tell for certain why CNN’s media team has trained its sights on him, but the CNN president’s swaggering taunt could be a clue.

“I just know that the fact that they’re doing it raises a thousand red flags and raises really significant questions about journalistic ethics,” he said. “That would be like Coca-Cola hiring a New York Times reporter to start writing stories attacking Pepsi.”

A CNN spokesman fired back: “Joe Scarborough does not get to choose who covers MSNBC and Morning Joe, and it’s dangerous for him to suggest otherwise. His conspiracy theories and attempts to disqualify our media team from doing its job are both disturbing and peculiar.”

Indeed, the delicate and often self-referential enterprise of media reporting—in which newspapers, magazines, news sites, and radio and television outlets occasionally examine their competitors—is a long-established tradition in the journalistic canon.

The Daily Beast, for instance, has posted stories about potential rivals for online readers such as Arianna Huffington’s Huffington Post and Glenn Beck’s The Blaze.

While MSNBC doesn’t air a program dedicated to media criticism and analysis, CNN’s Reliable Sources has been on the air since 1992, and Fox News has presented a media show, now titled Media Buzz and hosted by former Daily Beast staffer Howard Kurtz, since 1997.

CNN antagonized MSNBC most recently with an appearance on the Feb. 14 Reliable Sources by Baltimore Sun television critic David Zurawik, who has repeatedly castigated Morning Joe for its Trump-centric stance.

The headline on Zurawik’s story Tuesday about MSNBC’s announcement of the Trump Town Hall was: “Trump to do town hall with his favorite media poodle, Joe Scarborough.”

On Sunday, after Stelter showed a clip of Scarborough’s talk last November at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y, where the MSNBC host recounted private conversations with Trump in which he exhorted the candidate to speak in complete sentences and read about the issues before participating in debates, and Trump declined to take his advice, Zurawik declared: “It shows how unashamed Scarborough is, how proud he is, that he’s in the tank for [Trump].”

Zurawik added that Scarborough’s conduct “is damning to the credibility of MSNBC…What about the executives at MSNBC that don’t call him in and say ‘Stop it!’ It’s outrageous.”

Stelter chimed in: “This Morning Joe relationship is intriguing. I think it’s going to keep getting attention.”

Explaining his comments during the 92nd Street Y appearance—during which he quipped, “I hope we don’t have reporters here”—Scarborough told The Daily Beast: “It was a joke… I used that story to illustrate how confounding Donald Trump’s success was…By the way, I say all of this on TV. I say this on my show. I am transparent about my conversations with Donald Trump.”

Meanwhile, two of the Los Angeles-based Byers’s recent online stories especially got under the skin of MSNBC and Scarborough.

Byers’s Feb. 12 story appeared under the headline, “Joe Scarborough-Donald Trump friendship increasing source of discomfort at NBC,” MSNBC’s Comcast-owned parent company.

Byers reported on Scarborough’s 92nd Street Y appearance; he wrote that anonymous “NBC News and MSNBC journalists, reporters and staffers said there was widespread discomfort at the network over Scarborough’s friendship with Trump and his increasingly favorable coverage of the candidate”; and claimed that Scarborough and Brzezinski “are close friends with Trump and members of his family”—a detrimental assertion, if true.

Both Scarborough and Brzezinski reject the claim that they are close friends with Trump, or that they are any friendlier with the Republican front-runner than they are with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Texas Sen. Cruz, former Florida governor Bush, Secretary of State John Kerry, Vice President Joe Biden, or any number of political figures who’ve appeared on their program, and with whom they’ve had off-the-air contact.

Indeed, Scarborough told The Daily Beast that he has never socialized with the celebrity builder, erstwhile casino owner, and resort and golf course developer.

“We know Donald just like we know Lloyd Blankfein [of Goldman Sachs] and Jamie Dimon [of JPMorgan Chase] and about a thousand other influential people in New York City,” Scarborough said. “But do we have a special relationship with Donald Trump? No. I have spent more time, one on one, talking with Barack Obama in the Oval Office, I have had longer conversations with the president, than I’ve ever had with Donald Trump.”

Last week Trump referred to Scarborough and Brzezinski as “supporters” during one of his frequent phone calls to Morning Joe, and the two hosts uncomfortably corrected him.

“I’ve heard advocacy from people before. Or support—Donald said support. It’s not support,” Scarborough told viewers. “And I would dare say that I am the only person who has hung up on Donald Trump on live television. And the thing is we’ve been very critical of his approach toward Muslims, we said he went too far on John McCain, we said he went too far on you name it.”

Scarborough, who calls himself an analyst, has never pretended to be a journalist per se; unlike ABC News chief anchor George Stephanopoulos, formerly a top aide on Capitol Hill and in Bill Clinton’s White House, he has never bothered to shed his identity as a sometime player in the political game, and he clearly doesn’t mind the occasional touting of his name as a possible candidate for this or that public office back in Florida or elsewhere.

Morning Joe, meanwhile, projects a clubhouse bonhomie, with prominent politicians and journalists alike cracking wise, trading stories—punctuated, of course, by the occasional confrontation—but otherwise creating a “safe space” for political gossip and discourse.

Byers’s story for CNN Money noted that Scarborough “has often stayed at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club, in Palm Beach, Florida, with his family and was there during the week between Christmas and New Year’s.”

While MSNBC sources point out that the divorced Scarborough pays his own way, and that the resort offers a comfortable venue for the Morning Joe host to stay in separate accommodations from his ex-wife and spend quality time with his children, it arguably reveals a blind spot for a much-scrutinized political commentator, during a campaign season, to patronize a posh resort owned by the leading Republican presidential candidate.

On the other hand, it is hardly unusual for television personalities or prominent journalists to break bread with public officials. On Tuesday’s installment of Morning Joe, for instance, former NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw mentioned that he once took the late Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia fishing in Montana.

Meanwhile, Byers touted his Feb. 10 story by tweeting that on the night of the Feb. 8 New Hampshire primary, Scarborough and Brzezinski “hung out” with the candidate in his hotel room as Trump’s winning election returns rolled in—suggesting the image of the two TV hosts lounging on the sofa with the victorious candidate, hoisting beers and nibbling on nachos, instead of what MSNBC said was the true situation: a brief conversation with Trump in his hotel room after they met with campaign officials in a downstairs conference room where the candidate wasn’t present.

“I’m going to let my reporting speak for itself,” Byers emailed.

Byers’s tweeted allegation of hanging out with Trump was enough to provoke Scarborough to blow his stack.

“Your sources are wrong, and your sources are CNN reporters,” Scarborough tweeted at Byers, referring to CNN’s chief political correspondent Dana Bash, who was covering the Trump campaign at the Best Western Hotel in Manchester, N.H. “You spread a different lie about us every day.”

In a separate tweet Scarborough demanded: “Did CNN hire you just to lie about Morning Joe? The obsession is unhealthy. I love CNN media ‘reporters’”

Scarborough tweeted once more: “Troll CNN reporters. I understand you guys resent that we double your audience every day, but enough of the lying.”

On Sunday’s Reliable Sources, Stelter called that last tweet, boasting about ratings, “a very Trumpian thing to do.”

Scarborough was far less heated in his chat with The Daily Beast. While acknowledging that he has talked up the serious potential of Trump’s candidacy since the mogul’s announcement eight months ago, while many other pundits treated it as a curiosity or a joke, Scarborough added that he doesn’t support Trump’s quest for the White House.

“Anybody who thinks that I’m going to vote for Donald Trump in the Republican primary in my home state doesn’t know me very well,” he said.

— Andrew Kirell contributed to this story.