Rabbit Hole: What Happened To Joe Scarborough?
A case study in ego, Trump, and "winning" - representative of where our media is in 2023
“Rabbit Hole” is a single-topic deep dive column that comes out twice per month for paid subscribers. The free newsletter returns later this week.
It’s been exactly 10 years since I left CNN to join TheBlaze, in the career move that would eventually bring me down to Texas for good. But before that I was working in the New York office, a few weeks into the job, when the boss, Glenn Beck, was in town — and meeting with MSNBC host Joe Scarborough in his cavernous corner office. There was a buzz in the building about the intriguing private meeting. Eventually Glenn came into the newsroom with a look somewhere between bemusement and confusion, and told a few of us about what had happened. He said Scarborough had asked him “how can we win” (“we” meaning Republicans, who, back in 2013, were going through a pretty big losing slump), and that Scarborough told him “the only thing that matters is winning.”
Scarborough must have been unfamiliar with Glenn’s mindset at the time — he was then pushing a #DefundTheGOP hashtag on his radio and streaming show. When Glenn said he pushed back that “principles mattered too,” he said Scarborough dismissed it. “Winning is all that matters — you have to win first,” he relayed Scarborough saying.
I thought about this moment recently during one of Scarborough’s latest Mediaite-headline-grabbing rants — perhaps it was when he was sounding like every other one of his MSNBC colleagues defending Biden over his Maui response, or maybe it was when he was sounding like every other one of his MSNBC colleagues trashing Trump supporters as part of a cult.
Joe Scarborough used to be different. He was interesting — a unique voice on MSNBC, and in the media landscape. He actually seemed to relish that role. He was also, you know, a Republican. But now he just sounds like every other #Resistance-signaling broken brained Acela Media Trump addict. What happened?
It’s easy to say Donald Trump is the sole cause, but I think that’s a symptom of the problem, not the actual problem. Scarborough changed, but so did the incentives in the media. And when “winning is all that matters,” you start to make some very revealing decisions.
Scarborough was a young GOP Congressman from 1995-2001, when he retired from the job at the age of 37. He would join MSNBC two years later, and go on to start the morning show in 2007. He thrived in the role — the program was never a massive ratings hit, but it was watched by the influential New York and D.C. crowd, both in media and politics. It had cultural cache, and Scarborough himself stood out for being a proud conservative on an increasingly liberal network — and yet someone whose point of view was never predetermined, making it even more interesting viewing.
Then came Donald Trump. Even before the first primary votes were cast, Morning Joe was a venue for Trump to come on and make his case that he was actually a serious candidate and not just a reality TV host (which he had been literally earlier that year). Scarborough was early in seeing that Trump had a real constituency, and early interviews were not softballs, but were venues for Trump to shine. In a January 2016 interview with Hugh Hewitt, Scarborough didn’t exactly say “no” to the question of whether he would be Trump’s running mate. In February, as Trump began winning primaries, he called Scarborough a “supporter” during a phone interview, before clarifying that he meant “believer.” Some leaked audio from a commercial break of a February town hall was made to look like Scarborough and Trump were too cozy, but it was really a media creation. That was like so much of the Trump coverage as 2016 heated up — Scarborough’s “friendship” with Trump is an “increasing source of discomfort at NBC”… reported Dylan Byers, then at MSNBC competitor (and Trump antagonist) CNN.
Could you edit a supercut of nice moments between Scarborough, Trump, and Scarborough’s co-host-turned-wife Mika Brzezinski to make them all look like BFFs? Yes — and people have.
By May, when it appeared Trump had locked up the nomination and everyone just assumed he’d be on his way to losing the general election to Hillary Clinton, Scarborough had publicly soured on him, and was weakly defending his coverage from earlier (although his assessment after Trump’s shock victory on the media’s blind spots was excellent).
The next thing most people remember is when the break-up got really nasty. The “bleeding badly from a face-lift” tweets from June 2017, for example. In an incredible New York Magazine piece by Olivia Nuzzi headlined “Donald Trump is Not Invited to the Wedding,” we get a few very telling pieces of insight.
“He wanted to be president, and he’s not. And, of all people, Donald Trump is. This is crazy,” a senior White House official told Nuzzi. “They lost access in month two, month one, of a White House where part of their stock-in-trade was ‘Donald this’ and ‘Donald that’ and ‘The president told me this’ and ‘People close to the president told me that.’ It became very obvious around here who they talked to every day, and it wasn’t the president.”
Scarborough and Brzezinski denied this to Nuzzi. But a “source close to the couple” told her “If you look at where Joe came from, he has no business being where he is, and that is because he has this internal drive that all politicians have where you look in the mirror and say, ‘I should be leading people.’ He swims a little higher than jealousy. I think it’s not that simple; it’s basically Joe feels that the country should be run a certain way, he believes in a lot of things, and doesn’t like to be dismissed or fucked with, and that’s kind of what Trump’s doing.”
It’s easy to say that when the President of the United States got so aggressively personal, that’s the moment when it all changed for Scarborough — when his brain broke. But I don’t think that’s it. I think to really see what happened, we need to look earlier, to a time period most people forget about. December of 2016 — back when it appeared the relationship between Scarborough and Trump may have hope, after all.
In a Politico piece headlined “How Donald Trump and ‘Morning Joe’ made up,” Hadas Gold reveals how, despite the bad blood for most of the past year, once Trump actually pulled off the victory, Joe (and Mika) were back chatting with the Donald. “The cohosts are now in regular communication with Trump and his circle — so much so that they are fielding criticism for being a house organ for the incoming administration,” she wrote. And later: “Scarborough, in an interview, declared that he and Brzezinski talk several times a week with Trump himself. And last week, Brzezinski traveled to Trump Tower and visited Ivanka Trump for coffee.”
Maggie Haberman reported that Joe and Mika spent New Year’s Eve with the President-Elect at Mar-a-Lago. He got such vitriolic pushback from his colleagues he wrote a Washington Post column defending himself. “This past week, I met twice with President-elect Donald Trump attempting to secure an interview for inauguration week. Judging from the snide reaction of some in the press, you would have thought I offered to sketch the outline of his inaugural speech,” he wrote. “I do not know whether we will end up with an interview with the incoming president next month, but I do know that the reaction from some media reporters has been an equal dose of hyperventilation and hypocrisy that such a meeting ever took place.”
Two days later, Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan absolutely pilloried Scarborough for the New Year’s partying with Trump, and his defense in the same paper. “He has an extraordinarily high opinion of himself and his place in the political firmament,” she wrote.
She also interviewed Scarborough. When she pressed him about the “friendship” between journalist and politician, he said “that has been the Washington way for a very long time.” That quote made it into Sullivan’s headline.
The reason this moment is so crucial is because it became clear that Scarborough being the heterodox thinker about the idea of Donald Trump as a political force, iconoclastically supporting the “Trump as disrupter” possibilities — that was one thing when it was a hypothetical.
But then Trump won. He was the fucking President of the United States. This was serious now. Democracy was at stake. Scarborough’s friends and colleagues in the media were repulsed by his actions. They would ruin him if he didn’t get in line. Within a few short months, Scarborough was incessantly attacking Trump on-air, and Trump was firing back on Twitter.
And Scarborough became, during the Trump years, one of the most vociferous critics not just of Donald Trump, but of anyone who dared to support this horrific figure in American life. In 2019, he implied that Trump was a traitor, winning him praise from his buddies in the Acela Media. In May 2021, he told anyone who believed the 2020 election wasn’t fair should “get the hell out” of America (that would be most Republicans, still).
Meanwhile he has turned into an ardent defender… of Joe Biden. While he slams Trump’s comments as “Hate America First,” he wrote one of the most out-of-touch screeds in recent memory in July in The Atlantic, headlined, “America is Doing Just Fine.” “Uncle Sam deserves a modern-day Atticus Finch to argue his case before the American people, but he doesn’t have one,” he wrote. Maybe Joe can take that on — because there is not a single person who loves Joe Scarborough more than Joe Scarborough.
And to his credit, his star is continuing to rise at MSNBC. Last year Morning Joe expanded to four hours, and as Rachel Maddow made her exit to once-a-week, it’s hard to see Scarborough as anything but the most important person at the network.
But the path to sustainable success meant having to focus on “winning” over everything — to salvaging his good standing within his community of elites over sticking with whatever principles he once possessed. It also meant sacrificing what made you unique in the first place.
Because it’s fair to say you can’t really be interesting and successful in the corporate media anymore. The backlash is too great. If you’re interesting — saying something different and unique — you’re likely in the independent media now. Maybe you’re hugely successful there, like Megyn Kelly (shameless plug). But the media landscape has changed, and if you want to “win” and keep your cable news slot, you better not for a second start praising Donald Trump about anything. Or having coffee with him.
Joe Scarborough learned his lesson. And he adjusted. He got in line. And he’s doing just fine!
But he changed. Because for him, winning is what matters.