Friday, November 14, 2008

why i like morning joe

I blogged some time ago about my appreciation for some aspects of the Don Imus morning show on MSNBC. I liked the political conversation, and the soundtrack (background music), but could live without the vulgar banter. In time this would indeed become the downfall of Imus, and his show disappeared, and deservedly so. Imus was succeeded by Morning Joe, which has become an unlikely favorite in our household. It turns out that "Morning Joe" is Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman from Pensacola, Florida, and the co-hosts are Mika Brezezinski and television's own Willie Geist. Morning Joe airs from 6-9 a.m. (e.s.t.), but we usually begin watching at about 6:45, using dvr to pass through the abundant commercials (which, in post-modern, post-capitalist America, have to do primarily with pharmaceutical companies and oil companies attempting to convince us that they care about the uninsured and the environment, even as they search for ways to spend exorbitant profits)

I was not a fan of Joe Scarborough's former program, Scarborough Country, but I do like Morning Joe. It retains some of the best features of Imus, particularly sharp political commentary, ranging from David Remnick of The New Yorker to Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal. Regulars include Mike Barnacle, formerly of the Boston Globe, Patrick Buchanan, former Presidential candidate, Jonathan Capehart of the Washington Post and pollster Chuck Todd.

The appeal of Morning Joe is one-part content, one-part quirkiness of the regulars, and one-part predictable routine. The content is whatever captures the lead in the day's political spin cycle: an unguarded comment by a political candidate, or the stock market bailout (termed by the MJ regulars as a "money party"), or speculation about the future administration. Much of the content derives from the substance of the major morning newspapers (NYT, WP, WSJ), and in this sense there must be something positive about people reading and being encouraged to read newspapers. And so the voices of Maureen Dowd and Tom Friedman, Eugene Robinson and David Brooks, Paul Krugman and Roger Cohen are heard almost every day, and this is all to the good. I do not know if the ratings are healthy, but MJ appeals to a sufficient audience to draw chief figures from each political party.

The quirkiness requires investing time in paying attention to the flow of the program and listening to the off-hand remarks. Joe steps on the comments of the others (he is not a good listener), and occasionally the others push back. At times guests are invited on, and they can sit for minutes before being acknowledged---it is as they are spectators. Mika is bright but at times defers to Joe, and this can be irritating---but then she can also be forceful. She is clearly a more liberal counter-balance, but again this is not entirely predictable; she has been fairly positive about Sarah Palin, and this has won her the criticism of many. Willie is off-beat, slightly cynical and at times even goofy. Chuck Todd, who must be the heir apparent to Tim Russert, is called "Chucky T" by all of the regulars, even though it is obvious that he hates this designation. For this reason, the nickname is employed at every possible opportunity. The morning includes financial reporting from London and New York, very brief sports coverage (which my wife also passes through) and a feature entitled "News You Can't Use", which is like "News of the Wierd". At the conclusion of the morning, there is a closing comment around the question "What I Learned Today", and each regular chimes in. I am usually out of the house by now, but I often tape it. It is a nod, I think, to the idea that politics is serious, and yet these people do not take themselves that seriously, in the end.

Joe is a complex individual, and this shapes the show to some degree. He is a southerner, a conservative, a former congressman (for a time a little bell chimed in the upper left hand corner each time he alluded to his tenure in this office, which was the regular's way of poking fun at his hubris). His identity is clearly in Pensacola, and yet he is at home in upscale New York and D.C. At times he seems to be playing to the home folks, at other times he seems to honestly critique the limitations of his (and my own) background and culture, and at times he rightly names the constructive qualities of small-town America. His lapse in conversation last week (saying the four letter word beginning with "f" on the air) was an honest mistake; it also revealed that Joe is a complext participant in both popular piety and the entertainment/political culture in which he is immersed. His personality is balanced by the other regulars, especially Mike, Mike Barnacle and Willie; each seems to appreciate him, while also pushing him when his bluster is not quite defensible.

You can learn a lot by watching Morning Joe. Are we a center-right or center-left country? Should we now bail out the automobile industry? Is there a gathering consensus, in both parties, about going green? Is Sarah Palin the future of the Republican party, and if so, is that good? Along the way you hear the arguments not only of the regulars, but of the major editorial writers in our country, and even if we are in the midst of the demise of many U.S. newspapers (this would be true of the Charlotte Observer), we are blessed with remarkably eloquent editorialists, who, in a few words, get to the heart of the matter. And along the way, you have fun. It is not a bad way to begin the day.

So, Morning Joe, 6-9 a.m., on MSNBC. As a friend puts it, "I just did you are real favor".


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