Still addicted to ‘Morning Joe’

Mika Brzezinski, Willie Geist and Joe Scarborough on "Morning Joe." Photo courtesy of MSNBC.

Mika Brzezinski, Willie Geist and Joe Scarborough on Morning Joe. Photo courtesy of MSNBC.

The political addiction built during the 2008 presidential campaign wasn’t that hard to break after all.

Once the votes were counted, it became easier to miss those appointments with Chris Matthews, Campbell Brown and the other cable news and commentary shows that saw their ratings soar during the months leading up to the election.
In the new year, with Jack Bauer back to save the nation, American Idol gearing up with some local rooting interest, 30 Rock as the focus of Tina Fey’s work, and plain old lives to lead, the compulsion to tune in to Rachel Maddow or Hannity-now-minus-Colmes isn’t there.

But I’ve still gotta have my Morning Joe.

We’re talking about MSNBC’s 6-to-9 a.m. chat show featuring Joe Scarborough, a former Republican representative from Florida; Mika Brzezinski, a veteran broadcaster and daughter of former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, and a rotating band of regular guests led by Boston writer Mike Barnicle, conservative icon Pat Buchanan, and former Democratic Tennessee representative Harold Ford, Jr.

There is an obvious reason I still keep this appointment: Many mornings, I am on a treadmill shortly after 7 a.m., and TV is the easiest way for me to get my mind off of walking in place for nearly an hour. But there have been mornings when the prospect of watching Joe has kept me from skipping the walk, and there have been occasions I’ve extended my time because I was interested in an upcoming guest. Yes, Morning Joe helped me burn calories.

Then again, I don’t have to have that excuse at all.

Mornings I haven’t hit the treadmill, I’ve tuned in — made a point of it.

The show has bucked this political junkie’s trend for several reasons.

First, it’s a bipartisan show. In the evening, the trend has been to race to an ideological extreme: Bill O’Reilly on the right on Fox News while Keith Olbermann is on the left at MSNBC at 8 p.m. every night. After a while, these shows get really predictable, and you sort of have to be part of the choir to stay interested.

But at the top of the ticket on Joe, you have the title man on the right and Brzezinski to the left, but neither so stridently partisan they become unbearable. Usually. There have been a few times Scarborough has gone off on some ideological rants that make you think, “there’s already a Sean Hannity for this.” But usually, the show features opinionated but substantive debate.

That, and an often noteworthy lineup of accomplished, knowledgeable guests are the keys to making the show worthwhile.

Sure, the show is fun, particularly with segments like Geist’s News You Can’t Use. The morning of the November election, he did this wonderful bit skating across the electoral map on the ice rink at Rockefeller Center, all the while subversively highlighting how ridiculous the map was. If only he’d been on the network with the “hologram.”

Then there was the funniest, most spontaneous moment I saw on television last year when, talking about White House chief-of-staff-designate Rahm Emmanuel’s famous potty mouth, Scarborough accidentally used the f-word . . . live . . . on national television . . . before 9 a.m. The fun was watching his stunned colleagues gasp while the host went on chatting, blissfully unaware of what he’d done.

Joe has done a great job of creating the feeling you’re hanging out with a bunch of friends that is usually reserved for FM radio morning shows. But the value of the show is seen when those conversations turn thoughtful and provocative, like recent extended chats about automotive company bailouts, torture, and Middle East conflict that ended up illuminating all sides of the issues presented.

It helps to have guests like Newsweek’s Jon Meecham, the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman and Frank Rich, former Reagan speech writer Peggy Noonan, presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and numerous others who know that the great issues of the day can’t really be summed up in partisan sound bites. And frequently, the show really gives these issues room to be explored, defying a notion that morning TV has to be a fast-cut fest because people are watching between grabbing a shower, making breakfast and getting the kids out the door. It’s a TV show with a bit of a print media sensibility.

Yes, the show is far from perfect, and occasionally aggravating, like this week when Scarborough showed a streak of sexism dealing with the torture issue. Monday morning, he wouldn’t even entertain a conversation questioning U.S. interrogation methods with Chrystia Freeland, managing editor of the Financial Times, calling her views “sophomoric.”

But the next day, with Meecham and Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, he was much more open to the same conversation, which did turn into one of those illuminating, thought-provoking exchanges.

That Joe can be so good is what makes moments like Scarborough’s Freeland exchange aggravating. But the depth of the discussions is also what keeps me coming back — that and hanging with Joe, Mika and Willie.

While this political junkie’s viewing habits have gained far greater post-election balance, Morning Joe is still as essential as the beverage it’s named after.

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