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An unlikely homesteader in 'Scarborough Country'

Can this former Republican congressman from the Panhandle use his complex personality to compete against more aggressive on-air conservatives? Not if MSNBC keeps the real Joe Scarborough off camera.

By ERIC DEGGANS
Published June 14, 2003

SECAUCUS, N.J. - Sitting behind a desk at the center of MSNBC's sprawling newsroom/studio set, Joe Scarborough got right to the point with an actor supporting movie star Sean Penn's contention that he lost a big-money film role because of his antiwar views.

"Bottom line," Scarborough asked, "does Sean Penn really have a constitutionally protected right to a $10-million movie deal?"

It was the kind of pointed, "I'm-right-you're-wrong" question that has become a staple of the 10 p.m. hour on MSNBC, when the pointedly conservative Scarborough Country takes to the air.

But Scarborough, a former congressman from Pensacola, isn't your typical conservative.

He's a Republican whose best friends are Democrats; he's a critic of former Democratic vice president Al Gore; his personal hero is Robert F. Kennedy; and he's a supporter of conservative family values and has written rock 'n' roll songs about a transvestite and taking bribes.

Back in 1994, he was elected out of nowhere to Congress as part of former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich's Republican revolution; he joined a cadre of young, newly elected conservative lawmakers who instinctively knew how to use the then-emerging medium of cable TV news to reach their constituents and their peers.

Now Scarborough has burst into the TV business at MSNBC, helming a show he said the newschannel's executives see as "the conservative experiment in prime time."

With content aimed at the heart of ratings leader Fox News Channel's conservative fan base, Scarborough Country sits opposite Fox anchor Greta Van Susteren - a former CNN personality whose opposition to Bill Clinton's impeachment earned her a liberal label among some conservatives.

(The channel tried a similar strategy in January 2002, scheduling a show that featured former Republican presidential candidate Alan Keyes against Van Susteren. It lasted about seven months.)

"MSNBC wanted a conservative, op-ed type of show," Scarborough said. "The targets were obvious . . . the media, Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, the New York Times editorial page. If I were sitting there in a straight news format, I would be very offended by people trying to subtly slip issues into the show. But we're not claiming to be cool, calm and dispassionate. . . . This is our little view of the world in our little time slot."

Still, the road to success may be rougher than Scarborough expected. MSNBC's ratings for the 10 p.m. time period have fallen from an average 794,000 viewers the week of April 14, to an average 264,000 viewers the week of May 26, according to figures from Nielsen Media Research. MSNBC notes that in the slot Scarborough now holds, there was a 5 percent increase in total viewers in May of this year compared with Keyes' show in May 2002.

Scarborough attributes the slide to an inevitable post-war lull and an expected decline in TV viewing during summertime. ("It shows how smart the American people are," he quipped. "In summer evenings, they don't lock themselves in and watch cable news shows.")

Detractors, however, accuse him of copying Fox News star Bill O'Reilly (check out his "Real Deal" commentary, which seems a carbon copy of O'Reilly's "Talking Points" opening). Others wonder how long he can last at a third-place cable channel that changes hosts like the weather.

And one of his biggest struggles may be to create a televised showcase for his complex personality within the black-and-white world of cable TV opinion shouters.

He noticed the problem while serving as a substitute host on CNN's Crossfire during the summer of 2001. The show's format featured liberal and conservative hosts who duke it out over the day's headlines. Producers wanted him to take an extremely conservative stand on every issue, despite his true views.

And Scarborough has already heard from some at MSNBC who say his style - which involves laughing at people he disagrees with, rather than shredding them - isn't powerful enough.

"I've been told by everybody to crank it up . . . to be more intense and to be more disagreeable," he added. "It was sort of the old Goldilocks tale: one day it would be too hot, one day too cold. After being up here two weeks I said, "You guys hired me. You got what you got.' For better or worse, I'm just going to be myself."

That means living up to his history as a 40-year-old, divorced and remarried dad who pushed to get Democratic political legend Bobby Kennedy's name enshrined on the Department of Justice building in Washington - even as he criticized Gore's bid for the presidency and accused Democratic activist Al Sharpton of anti-Semitism.

While in Congress, he had a rock band, dubbed Regular Joe. He also headed a newspaper, the Florida Sun, that carried articles under pseudonyms with titles such as "20 Junk Foods We're Really Thankful For." As a lawmaker, he balanced conservative stands on fiscal policy and reduced government with a concern for protecting the environment and supporting international human rights.

An outspoken conservative, he led an attempted coup against Gingrich in the House and was an early critic of former Republican Senate leader Trent Lott's verbal gaffe that implied Strom Thurmond should have won the presidency as a segregationist candidate.

Is it any wonder the world of cable news might seem a bit limiting?

"When I got elected in '94, I'd go on Hardball and Crossfire and all these shows . . . be angry and pound the desk and be what they want you to be on cable TV. I saw a tape of myself on TV and said, "Geez, I don't like that guy,' " said Scarborough, noting that he once got a phone call from Fox News star O'Reilly, who eventually offered advice on how to improve Scarborough Country.

"He (was quoted in a newspaper article) saying that I was trying to copy his show, but I was going to fail because, to do what he does, you have be obnoxious," Scarborough said. (O'Reilly's quote, as published in the New York Daily News, said, "You need someone as obnoxious as me to run a show like that.") Said Scarborough: "I will take that as a compliment."

Of course, those who object to some of the stands he has taken on air might disagree. Recent positions include implying that racial favoritism kept the New York Times from firing troubled black reporter Jayson Blair, defending a blanket policy at the Red Cross excluding gay men from giving blood, and leading a protest against pro-Fidel Castro actor Danny Glover that got Glover dropped as a celebrity spokesman for long distance company MCI.

Scarborough seems to downplay topics on which his views diverge with hard-line conservatives (during one segment that was built up as a criticism of no-fault divorces, for example, the host never revealed that he had been through a bitter divorce himself).

And despite an eclectic list of guests, ranging from soap actor Eric Braeden to rocker Ted Nugent, Scarborough Country still struggles to marry its host's easygoing attitude with an intensely hard-line conservatism.

Too often, it seems, Scarborough's viewers see only half the man - missing much of the "conservatives can have fun, too" vibe that initially made ideologues such as Rush Limbaugh so attractive to middle-class fans.

Right now, MSNBC is selling Scarborough as part of a lineup of younger, more aggressive hosts with a range of attitudes (minus an aggressively liberal voice, of course).

That roster includes ex-sportscaster Keith Olbermann, onetime Jimmy Carter speechwriter Chris Matthews and former independent Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura (whose show is still under development, fighting rumors it may never see air).

"Joe's going to be on for several years; we're committed to him," said Phil Griffin, vice president of prime time programming for the cable channel. "MSNBC has gone through hell in the last few years . . . and a lot of mistakes have been made as we tried to find the right format. Fox News has a great amount of success because they knew what they wanted to be, they stuck with it, and they scored. (Now) we know what we want to be."

But those who remember similarly enthusiastic words last year for talk-show veteran Phil Donahue, whose left-leaning program for MSNBC lasted about seven months, may remain skeptical.

Controlling the chaos

A brief visit in May to a telecast of Scarborough's show served as a study in controlled chaos.

In a secondary control room (the main one, displaying dozens of satellite feeds from across the world, is often used as a backdrop), producers were jammed tight as they juggled guests, visual elements and taped pieces.

American flag stickers dotted most every personal computer in the cable channel's newsroom studio - an element, along with the huge American flag in the studio's reception area, reflecting the channel's burst of patriotism during Iraq war coverage.

On air, Scarborough was a smiling yet forceful advocate, constantly framing the issues under discussion from his conservative perspective. Behind the scenes, he worked the room like a genial editor - clad in jeans and sandals underneath his TV-ready shirt and tie - trading quips with his young staff as they all worked to build an onscreen showcase for his myriad interests and opinions.

"When I was in Congress, I subbed on Hannity and Colmes and Crossfire, and I didn't think it was all that tough," said Scarborough, smiling at the memory. "But I was stepping into shows that already had their formats. . . . I underestimated the amount of work involved and the difficulty in creating a show. It has actually turned out to be one of the most difficult things I've ever done."

Once the onscreen formula is perfected (it is hoped by summer's end), Scarborough plans to helm his telecasts from a studio near his Pensacola home. For now, he's shuttling between New Jersey and Florida and elsewhere - learning how to craft a staunchly conservative show that also reflects his unorthodox personal style.

Still, MSNBC executives bristle at the idea they're handing the studio keys to bunch of conservatives - even to the point where Griffin resists the characterization of Scarborough as a conservative.

"People want to say he's conservative . . . (but) I think he appeals to the idealism of Americans," he said, before relenting on the issue. "I don't think he's a pure ideologue . . . he really is the sort of centrist, idealistic, optimistic American. (The prime time hosts) all have what I like to call "news plus' - they bring a lot of themselves to the programs they host."

Steve Rendall, an analyst with the liberal media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, said Scarborough's approach actually falls closer to another unabashedly right-wing Fox personality: Sean Hannity.

"They both recite the GOP line of the day. . . . I'm sure the GOP doesn't find O'Reilly as reliable as Scarborough," said Rendall, who has appeared on both Scarborough Country and The O'Reilly Factor. "Scarborough is the only person who rivals Sean Hannity as someone . . . who is able to just talk and fill up space and really be aggressive, without coming across as a total bully."

Rendall sees the hiring of Scarborough on the heels of Donahue's departure as another example of political discourse on cable news veering rightward - providing air time for conservatives such as Scarborough, former Republican congressional leader Dick Armey, firebrand radio talk show host Michael Savage and onetime presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, while failing to feature similarly extreme liberal voices.

"Think of the message it sends where an outright bigot is considered safe to air, but someone who responsibly dissents from official policy is considered dangerous," he said, noting Savage's penchant for referring to "Turd World nations" on his radio show.

Conservative media analyst Tim Graham of the Media Research Center, based in Washington, said right-leaning viewers probably have a simpler question regarding Scarborough: How long can he last?

"Everything on MSNBC, they tend to try it for a couple of months and then shuffle things," Graham said. "MSNBC has always been incredibly uncertain of its mission, and I don't think they're a particularly good judge of talent. I could ask, "Why Joe Scarborough?' I'm not saying he's doing a bad job, but why give him a show? He's a host who doesn't have a big history as a TV host or even as a radio host. He doesn't have the "big mo.' "

Scarborough's response: Just give him a chance.

"Somebody once said that, if O'Reilly and Hannity or any of those (Fox News) guys got judged on what they did in their first six months, they'd be selling hot dogs on a street corner," he said. "It took Fox a long time to develop. . . . Right now, we're flying under the radar, and we'll be judged by what we do over six months or a year - not what's happening right now."

Answering the trick question

Scarborough remembered his response last year when MSNBC's Griffin - jazzed by Scarborough's appearance as a guest on Hardball and aware of his work as a guest host on Crossfire and Hannity and Colmes - asked if he wanted his own show.

"Is this a trick question?" he remembered thinking. That's because, in many ways, he'd been preparing for this job his entire career.

An Atlanta native, Scarborough moved to Pensacola as a young insurance lawyer - parlaying constant appearances on a cable access channel called BLAB-TV into a come-from-nowhere win in 1994 as the first Republican elected to the House of Representatives from Florida's First district.

"(When Scarborough) decided to run for Congress, I said, "Number one, you're too young and number two, who knows you?' " said Pensacola lawyer Fred Levin, one of the nation's most successful plaintiffs' attorneys and a friend. "But he had done all these shows and would rerun them at 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. Here comes a guy that nobody knew anything about, and in his first go-round, he becomes a Congressman."

Levin, a Democrat who hired Scarborough when he decided to leave the House in 2001, keeps him on the firm's payroll - while admitting the association with such a conservative show has cost them some clients in the Democratic-leaning world of civil litigation.

But Levin sees value in the connection. "(Scarborough's) got good sense . . . he doesn't just follow the party line," he added. "And I'm sure there are a ton of law firms out there happy to associate with us, because we have a talking head."

In Congress, Scarborough's outspokenness and ease with a sound bite made him a favorite of TV producers who once might have turned to powerful leaders for comments, said U.S. Rep. Mark Foley (R-West Palm Beach).

"TV has a great way of creating a persona that's larger than life. . . . (Constituents) see you as part of the Congressional leadership because you're on TV," added Foley, who was elected to Congress in 1994 on the same pro-Republican wave that helped Scarborough. "In Joe's district, he was hugely famous. . . . People would say, "Did you see our Jo-jo on TV last night?' For an area like that, they may not be used to ever seeing a member of Congress from their area on TV. . . . That was a big deal for them."

Scarborough left Congress in September 2001, saying he wanted to spend more time with his sons Joey, 15, and Andrew, 12 (wife Susan is expecting a baby girl); even then, he was also hoping to land a TV show. (He had already faced tragedy that July, when 28-year-old aide Lori Klausutis was found dead in his Fort Walton Beach office; a medical examiner said she struck her head on a desk corner after fainting from a heart ailment.)

Now, he has worked out a three-year deal with MSNBC that allows him to broadcast from a studio near his Pensacola home, in the same way Ventura and Savage will head shows near their homes in Minnesota and California.

And with studies showing that a huge percentage of cable news viewers identify themselves as conservatives, Scarborough sees the "experiment" he's conducting in cable TV spreading to the broadcast news world.

"At some point, one of the networks . . . is going to figure out that the old broadcast news format is a thing of the past (and) they'll go to a faster-paced, more conservative format," Scarborough said. "It's a revolution . . . and it's just going to keep going."

Levin said he wouldn't be surprised if his friend considered another run at national office, buoyed on one end by the conservative fans he has gained through TV and, on the other end, by the Democratic-leaning lawyers associated with his firm.

"He'll have name recognition, and he's good on a lot of issues," Levin said. "Maybe Joe's a helluva lot smarter than we all realize."

- Material from Times staff writer Bill Adair and Times wires was used in this report.

[Last modified June 13, 2003, 09:24:01]


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