Scarborough bumps heads with colleagues

DENVER — Is it something in the coffee?

Joe Scarborough, the former GOP congressman-turned-host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” show, has been bumping heads with his on-air colleagues lately, notably correspondent David Shuster during Tuesday morning’s broadcast from the Democratic National Convention here at the Pepsi Center.

The tense exchange, starting with a discussion about Iraq but quickly surging into a clash over political slant at the cable channel, lasted nearly five full minutes — more air time than some so-called special reports.

As a result, media speculation was rife Wednesday that Scarborough’s patience with MSNBC’s lefty tilt in primetime coverage has grown thin. Moreover, citing unidentified sources, Page Six of the New York Post — owned by News Corp., which also owns Fox News Channel, MSNBC’s primetime nemesis — reported that MSNBC talking head Keith Olbermann is trying to get former NBC “Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw banned from the channel. Why? Because Olbermann is “unhappy” about concerns Brokaw has expressed about partisan show hosts — such as Olbermann and Chris Matthews — also anchoring convention coverage.

MSNBC spokesman Jeremy Gaines told Daily Variety that “the claim that Page Six is making is completely and utterly ludicrous.”

While discussing debate over a timeline for withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq — and whether GOP presidential nominee-to-be John McCain should endorse such a thing — Shuster said to Scarborough that the Republican Party is “your party.”

Scarborough launched an attack on Shuster, raising his voice and refusing to be interrupted as he lectured Shuster on how “my party loathes me more than your party, the Democratic Party.” Scarborough has criticized Bush administration policy on Iraq.

When Shuster replied that he was instead an independent, Scarborough laughed and derisively said, “I bet everyone at MSNBC has ‘independent’ on their voting cards. Oh, we’re down the middle now!”

Scarborough then blasted Shuster for either “sleeping through shows” or simply failing to show up for them.

MSNBC exec producer Phil Griffin said the clash had no significance.

“Look, it happens,” Griffin said. “Everyone is working hard here, and people are passionate about their feelings, and this is the rough-and-tumble world of politics.”

He said he’d prefer if staff didn’t have fights on air, “but it wasn’t the first time and probably won’t be the last. The main thing is, this does not define us. Don’t make more of this than it is.”

Griffin emphasized a distinction between talent having a point of view — which he seeks for certain programs — and the network having a point of view. “We as a network do not have a point of view,” he said.

But with MSNBC’s most popular programs getting increasingly popular for liberal points of view, that distinction can be lost on some.

Robert Lichter, president of the nonprofit Center for Media and Public Affairs, said the incident is symptomatic of the transition MSNBC is undergoing. Griffin’s decision to feature liberal views on primetime programming (vs. Fox’s conservative views in the same period) is still fairly recent.

“So people on staff like Scarborough, who’s politically in the other direction, are made unhappy,” Lichter said. Ultimately, Scarborough may have to leave the channel. “The ground is shifting under his feet, and he’s trying to keep his footing,” Lichter added.

Fox has not experienced the same problems among staff since its ground has long settled, having established its conservative viewpoint in commentary early on, Lichter added.

Peter Hart, media analyst for the watchdog org Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, attributed the on-air tensions to some hosts having little experience sitting comfortably among colleagues whose outspoken political views are sharply different from their own. “People like Scarborough feel out of place and don’t know what to do and so lash out,” Hart said.

The Scarborough-Shuster contretemps followed an exchange on Monday between Scarborough and Olbermann and Matthews over a discussion about the McCain campaign’s having “dug itself out of a grave,” as Scarborough put it, to become competitive with Barack Obama.

Olbermann asked for evidence to back up the claim. Scarborough provided a lengthy explanation, after which a pause ensued, finally broken by Matthews saying dryly, “Are we done?”

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