Joe Scarborough: The Humor of a Conservative

When it comes to viewership, you cannot stop Fox News—you can only hope to contain it. But while the pioneers of finger-jabbing conservatism still dominate the cable-news ratings, the battle for No. 2 has taken a twist. Last month, MSNBC moved ahead of CNN to claim second place in the evenings. When those Nielsen numbers rolled in, CNN president Jonathan Klein had a rejoinder ready, saying his network was "more than ever the source of reliable news." The implication was that MSNBC had succeeded by going full-tilt liberal—fair enough if you're just talking primetime, when Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow occupy the anchor chairs. But Klein couldn't explain away another milestone. For the first time since it launched in 2007, MSNBC's "Morning Joe" defeated CNN's "American Morning" among younger viewers—the demographic advertisers prize most. That show is hosted by Joe Scarborough, a former Florida congressman—and a registered Republican.

To clarify: Scarborough is not, by temperament or in his policy preferences, a Limbaugh Republican. One reason for the success of "Morning Joe" is that Scarborough and his team generate an ideologically unpredictable vibe. Asked about the Iowa Supreme Court's recent decision to strike down a ban on gay marriage, the 46-year-old veteran of the 1994 Republican Revolution says, "I'm not concerned with what men in Des Moines are doing tonight. I'm more worried about this country going bankrupt." He also supports green-energy investment and jumpstarting ties with Iran. His co-host, Mika Brzezinski, is the daughter of Jimmy Carter's national-security adviser. Their combined backgrounds helped lure Obama and McCain boosters during the presidential campaign—both viewers and guests. Yet the show's middle-way success was hardly guaranteed beyond the inauguration, given that cable news is increasingly packaged in two basic colors: red and blue. MSNBC further solidified its primetime liberal brand this month by hiring heartland progressive Ed Schultz to take over the 6 p.m. slot. "Morning Joe" appears to be a comparatively moderate aberration that is allowed to persist because of its success. Can they keep it up?

"Absolutely, we can," the host says, adding that he's always believed "there's a hunger" for nonideological discussion. (He'd better hope so, since he's already tried and failed, during an earlier stint on the network, to out-outrage Sean Hannity in the evenings.) The pairing of an ex-House member and a daughter of a former presidential adviser makes a certain intuitive sense, since the cordial Washington insider-ness of the program serves two discrete constituencies: the clubby D.C. clique that wakes up with the show while scanning BlackBerry e-mails, and the rest of the country, which receives an entry point into that otherwise inaccessible world. While other shows employ the strategy of throwing haymakers at Beltway elites, "Morning Joe" refuses to player-hate, instead inviting the rest of the country to imagine itself as part of the coffee klatsch. (Disclosure: Jon Meacham, NEWSWEEK's editor, is a regular guest on the program, and is friendly with Scarborough. And I have freelanced for both MSNBC and Fox in the past.)

It also helps that "Morning Joe" stays (mostly) friction free, even though its stock in trade is debate—it's like a serious-minded evening show still wearing its bathrobe and slippers. Given its amiable approach to critical issues, the show is a good fit for the public mood forged by Obama's "post-partisan" rhetoric. Not that Scarborough won't take a stand. A self-described "economic libertarian" who dislikes deficits, he gets prickly if a guest suggests Obama can have all his budget priorities at once. But here's what sets "Morning Joe" apart from its competition: as soon as he finished having that particular on-air fight with Democratic operative Bob Shrum, Scarborough made certain no ties had been strained. "Shrum's a friend," he said afterward, as he will about almost anyone you can name. (Scarborough also retains an ex-pol's work ethic for greasing new acquaintances—shaking my hand no fewer than five times in the minutes before we parted.)

Suffice it to say this "everyone is a friend" approach is not a big trend on cable. The field's fastest rising star, Glenn Beck of Fox News, plays the role of id-enabler for the paranoid set by identifying enemies for his viewers—such as when he recently projected images of elites like Ben Bernanke and Tim Geithner in mammoth proportion to his own head, in what seemed like a brought-to-life version of the Two Minutes' Hate from George Orwell's "1984." But even as the overwrought becomes fashionable, "Morning Joe" producer Chris Licht claims they can keep viewers tuned in by peppering sober disagreements with more ribald fare. Licht cites as an example the balance achieved a few weeks ago just before Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs sat down for a segment. As the professor prepared to take his seat mid–commercial break, Licht advised him to wait in the wings a bit longer, saying: "Dr. Sachs, you should just stay out here until the vibrator discussion is over." It's an understatement to say the guest looked grateful for the heads-up. The show didn't invent this mix; Don Imus, who held the slot previously, blended locker-room humor with newsmaker chats, too. But if the balance on Imus was 80/20 in favor of the former, it's fair to say Scarborough has reversed that ratio—while stripping the humor of any desire to shock.

Ultimately, Scarborough's segment with Sachs didn't inspire any follow-up coverage from other media outlets. But that "vibrator discussion"—during which panelists made gentle sport of Brzezinski's unease—was written up in The Huffington Post and talked about on "The View." And so the cable world turns. You pay for your Ivy League policy discussions with a little downmarket ribbing around the margins. If making those concessions allows Scarborough to break other cable rules—like the one that holds that klieg lights don't cotton to wrinkly old guests, or that segments about policy should run no longer than four minutes—he seems game. And so does the audience.