Booing Bush at MSNBC


MSNBC host and former Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough caused a media stir last week when he claimed that on-the-clock MSNBC newsroom employees brazenly jeered President Bush while watching his 2003 State of the Union Address.

MSNBC host and former Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough caused a media stir last week when he claimed that on-the-clock MSNBC newsroom employees brazenly jeered President Bush while watching his 2003 State of the Union Address.

Personally, I don't buy it. At least not the way Scarborough described it: that news producers in charge of coverage (note the plural) openly booed Bush from the beginning of the State of the Union until it ended nearly 60 minutes later. There are just way too many gaps in the story, not the least of which is that during the winter of 2003, MSNBC distinguished itself as one of the most gung-ho war cheerleaders on the television dial. (Just ask Phil Donahue.)

More important, I'm told that people working at MSNBC also don't believe Scarborough's tall tale.

His anecdote took on added importance last week when conservative press worriers used that story, along with the news that some staffers at The Seattle Times had cheered upon hearing that Karl Rove was going to resign his White House duties, to whip themselves into the type of frenzy that always accompanies a fresh discovery of so-called liberal bias in the newsroom. For them, the two episodes confirmed, yet again, the existence of a vast left-wing conspiracy made up of a monolithic collection of journalists who are universally liberal and who purposefully, yet secretly, tilt the news in order to advance a Democratic agenda. (I guess The New York Times never got the memo during the 1990s, when it was concocting the faux Whitewater scandal.)

But as is often the case with "proof" of liberal media bias, the substance didn't equal the hype. For instance, despite attempts by right-wing media figures to suggest "everybody stood up and started cheering" at The Seattle Times (Rush Limbaugh) or that "a spontaneous cheer went up" in "the newsroom" (Fox News' John Gibson), Seattle Times chief political reporter David Postman informs me that a grand total of four staffers cheered (during a closed-door news meeting, nonetheless) and that one of them was a columnist -- a paid opinionist.

And did you notice how the deep bias at The Seattle Times was finally ripped from the shadows and brought to public attention, how "the secret," as Gibson put it, finally got out? It was when the newspaper's editor drew attention to the incident by writing a widely read memo admonishing his staff. Boy, those left-wingers sure do a crummy job covering their tracks.

But I'm more interested in the MSNBC episode. To me, it was far more startling and, if true, damaging. Here's how Scarborough, riffing on the Seattle Times incident, told the story during his morning MSNBC program on August 16:

SCARBOROUGH: [M]y first night here at MSNBC was the president's State of the Union address in 2003. And I was shocked because there were actually people in the newsroom that were booing the president basically from the beginning to the end.

Half an hour later, Scarborough expanded his comments, insisting the booing was done by "a lot of the people that were actually charged with the coverage." The next day Scarborough emphasized that "bias is not allowed at MSNBC" and that executives there had "cleaned up" the situation. (The host announced most of the people who did the booing had been "cycled out" by MSNBC.)

Scarborough's mini-bombshell came as a shock to people who worked at MSNBC in 2003. Liberal commentator Bill Press, who co-hosted a show on MSNBC in 2003, told me Scarborough's comments were "unbelievable": "From what I know and saw during my two years at MSNBC, I find it impossible to believe because I know the staff at MSNBC, and it's not a whole bunch of whacko liberals." Press was not present with Scarborough the night in question, but he noted that even the scenario painted by Scarborough did not add up because "the staff doesn't sit around and watch the State of the Union together, they're too busy working."

Asked specifically about Scarborough's claim that MSNBC producers in charge of news coverage booed Bush's 2003 State of the Union from start to finish, Press was adamant: "That's just impossible. Seriously. It's not a believable statement." From what I hear, Press' verdict is shared by others inside MSNBC today.

And if I worked at MSNBC, I'd be upset because Scarborough's story clearly smeared the MSNBC newsroom by suggesting producers there displayed a complete disregard for journalistic ethics. That meant MSNBC management had three options. It could confirm Scarborough's embarrassing account. It could debunk Scarborough's tale. Or it could play dumb and let the cloud of suspicion hang over the newsroom, allowing conservative partisans and MSNBC's news rivals to beat up on the channel by portraying its staff as unprofessional and untrustworthy. (Fox News had a field day with the Scarborough story.)

MSNBC management chose Option C; no comment.

How to judge MSNBC

Even if the episode happened as Scarborough described (and I don't think it did), that wouldn't prove MSNBC's programming was liberally biased and slanted. That allegation must be proven by the journalism that's produced for public consumption. And by any sane measurement, during the winter of 2003, MSNBC was doing everything it could to provide the Bush White House with a loyal cheering section as it marched toward war.

Specifically, let's look at the programming MSNBC aired immediately following Bush's 2003 State of the Union Address, the one that allegedly generated such hearty boos within the MSNBC newsroom. Chris Matthews hosted the cable channel's post-SOTU roundtable. Among the highlights:

  • Matthews' first question to John McCain, the pro-war senator from Arizona, was, "Did the president hit a home run tonight or a triple?"
  • While bantering with another Republican senator, the host sarcastically mocked the Democratic response to the State of the Union given that night:

MATTHEWS: We go to now to Senator Rick Santorum. I was a bit emotionally overcome by that address from the Democrat, Gary Locke. Have you composed yourself yet, Senator, after hearing that speech?

SANTORUM: Give me a minute. Hold on -- OK, I think I got it back.

  • Matthews later declared that "the Democrats deserve a little trashing tonight," which was made easier when four of the five guests on the program were pro-war Republicans.
  • Matthews scolded Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) for allegedly talking too much during Bush's speech: "It's called good manners, lady."

(By the way, the most memorable moment during MSNBC's State of the Union broadcast came when McCain and retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf differed on just how short the war in Iraq would be. McCain announced it would be over "within three weeks," while Schwarzkopf hinted it might not even last that long. For real.)

But that kind of programming was absolutely par for the course for MSNBC in early 2003, which is just another reason to question Scarborough's account about rampant Bush-bashing within the newsroom on the eve of the Iraq invasion.

Recall that MSNBC was so nervous about employing an on-air liberal host opposed to Bush's invasion that it fired Phil Donahue pre-emptively in February 2003, after an internal memo pointed out the legendary talk-show host presented "a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war." MSNBC executives would not confirm or deny the existence of the memo, which stressed the corporate discomfort Donahue's show might present if it opposed the war while "at the same time our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity." By canning Donahue, MSNBC made sure that cable viewers had no place to turn for a nightly opinion program whose host forcefully questioned the invasion. The irony was that at the time of Donahue's firing -- one month before bombs started falling on Baghdad -- MSNBC officials cited the host's weak ratings as the reason for the change. In truth, Donahue was beating out Chris Matthews as MSNBC's highest-rated host.

Weeks later, just to emphasize the direction its programming was going, MSNBC hired mad man Michael Savage as a host. Several months later though, MSNBC, to nobody's surprise, had to fire Savage after he revealed himself, yet again, to be a truly deranged individual. Specifically, during his MSNBC show, Savage berated a caller as a "sodomite" and said he should "get AIDS and die, you pig ... you piece of garbage."

Fast-forward to Bush's prime-time press conference on March 6, 2003, held just days before the invasion. On MSNBC, Matthews again hosted a full hour of discussion. And in order to get a wide array of opinion, he invited a pro-war Republican senator (Saxby Chambliss, from Georgia), a pro-war former Secretary of State (Lawrence Eagleburger), a pro-war retired Army general (Montgomery Meigs), pro-war retired Air Force general (Buster Glosson), a pro-war Republican pollster (Frank Luntz), as well as, for the sake of balance, somebody who, 25 years earlier, once worked in Jimmy Carter's White House (Pat Caddell).

In April 2003, during the height of the pro-war press frenzy, one war correspondent stepped forward and asked serious questions about the mainstream media's often glossy, feel-good news coverage from Iraq. That was Ashleigh Banfield at MSNBC. And for doing that, her career came to a screeching halt.

On April 24, 2003, Banfield gave a speech at Kansas State University addressing the state of cable TV journalism. In the wake of September 11, Banfield had emerged as one of the most well-known correspondents for MSNBC and its parent, NBC, filing reports in Afghanistan as well as Iraq. In her poignant campus address, Banfield bemoaned television's unrealistically soft coverage of the Iraq invasion:

So was this journalism or was this coverage? There is a grand difference between journalism and coverage, and getting access does not mean you're getting the story, it just means you're getting one more arm or leg of the story. And that's what we got, and it was a glorious, wonderful picture that had a lot of people watching and a lot of advertisers excited about cable news. But it wasn't journalism, because I'm not so sure that we in America are hesitant to do this again, to fight another war, because it looked like a glorious and courageous and so successful terrific endeavor, and we got rid of a horrible leader: We got rid of a dictator, we got rid of a monster, but we didn't see what it took to do that.

The repercussion for Banfield? She was reportedly taken to the woodshed by her bosses, who effectively ended her career at MSNBC.

That's why I have doubts about Joe Scarborough's Bush-booing story.

Joe Scarborough
State of the Union Addresses
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