MSNBC's Great Right Hope

Unabashedly one-sided, gleefully dishonest, slick as a mound of gravel, "Scarborough Country," MSNBC's latest crack at prime-time newzertainment, has something for everyone.

For conservatives hungry for completely uninhibited ideological sodomy, it serves up hardcore man-on-POTUS action on a regular basis. For liberals who think that all Republicans are credulous goons who will swallow pure elephant dung as long as it's swathed in Old Glory and tied with a ribbon of Susan Sarandon's scalp, it delivers frequent proof of that suspicion. For connoisseurs of relentless eyebrow overacting, it's the land of milk and honey: Host Joe Scarborough has never met a recycled O'Reillyism he can't amp up with some emphatic forehead gymnastics.

Despite all that it has going for it, "Scarborough Country" is off to a slow start. Viewers have been flocking to cable news because of the war, but in its first 12 airings, "Scarborough Country" attracted an average of only 568,000 viewers, for a Nielsen rating of 0.5. Of course, ratings aren't necessarily MSNBC's only objective here: "Scarborough Country" also exists simply as a repudiation of MSNBC's brief flirtation with Phil Donahue's out-of-the-closet liberalism.

Indeed, in the wake of Donahue's February axing after seven months on the air, an article detailing an internal MSNBC report appeared at the website AllYourTV.com. According to Rick Ellis, the article's author, the report stated that Donahue was a "difficult public face for NBC in a time of war . . . He seems to delight in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration's motives." Left unchecked, the report theorized, Donahue's sneaky lack of allegiance to the Bush party line could turn MSNBC into "a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity."

In a pre-emptive strike designed to prevent the potential destruction of thousands of innocent advertising dollars, MSNBC liberated Donahue's show and started gang-hiring conservatives: Dick Armey, Michael Savage, Jesse Ventura, and Joe Scarborough. While the latter hasn't received as much media attention as his fellow new hires, he has actually emerged as MSNBC's Great Right Hope, with a three-year contract and a favorable 7 p.m. airtime that positions "Scarborough Country" as foreplay to Fox News' "The O'Reilly Factor" rather than a direct competitor.

A loyal Republican who represented Florida in Congress from 1994 through 2001, Scarborough is a 40-year-old attorney with close ties to the Bush family. According to a recent New York Observer profile, Scarborough made "hundreds of TV appearances as a spokesman for George W. Bush" during the 2000 elections. A wannabe rock star, Scarborough even performed "Shout" and other songs with his band Regular Joe at the Republican convention in July 2000.

Still, it wasn't until the post-election recount controversy that Scarborough really started raising a ruckus. Enraged by the Florida Supreme Court's decision to allow hand recounts to continue, Scarborough derided the Court as "seven radical Democratic lawyers" and, according to the Pensacola News Journal, "organized a rally in downtown Pensacola of thousands of people angry over the rejection of certain overseas military ballots."

After Bush was declared the winner of the election, Scarborough boasted that "the 110,000 votes that came out of my district for George Bush elected him president and they know that."

(Perhaps pre-occupied by the Bush election, Scarborough apparently failed to file his own campaign financing report on time, resulting in a $5000 fine from the Federal Election Committee.)

In May 2001, Scarborough resigned from Congress, reportedly to spend more time with his two sons. But he didn't completely sever his ties with President Bush. In April 2002, Bush appointed him to the President's Council on the 21st Century Workforce, an advisory board chartered with studying contemporary workforce issues. According to Bush's execu tive order mandating the Council, there's no compensation for the position, but "travel expenses, including per diem in lieu of subsistence" are provided.

As conflicts of interest go, Scarborough's is a fairly modest one, but MSNBC proudly publicizes Scarborough's ties to the president nonetheless. With in-house dissidents like Ashleigh Banfield openly criticizing MSNBC for covering the war in Iraq in a way "that had a lot of people watching and a lot of advertisers excited about cable news," it's important for the network to show how it really feels. And Scarborough is the anti-Banfield, the anti-Donahue -- pro-war, pro-Bush, an avid supporter of the administration's motives, and more than willing to show flag at every opportunity.

In his tenure so far, Scarborough has featured clips of Bush on several occasions. Invariably, they render him almost speechless -- instead of offering any commentary about Bush's statements and decisions, Scarborough simply beams with the same kind of devotion that Monica Lewinsky once displayed in Washington, D.C., reception lines while waiting to shake hands with President Clinton.

Alas, Scarborough doesn't respond so sweetly to everyone. Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, feminists, media elites, Hollywood actorvists, PETA, Democrats, Amnesty International, and various others all get the one-dimensional liberal boogeyman treatment they receive elsewhere in the vast conservative mediascape.

Two weeks ago, Scarborough inexplicably used video clips of Jimmy Carter to illustrate a piece about how Rep. Terry Everett, a Republican from Alabama whom Scarborough never identified by name or political party, requested and received over $200,000 from Congress to help fund the National Peanut Festival. Last week, Scarborough carefully explained that Hillary Clinton was to blame for Enron, Global Crossing, and numerous other corporate scandals.

Cartoonish GOP-oganda like that is highly marketable, of course, but it's also an increasingly abundant commodity. If "Scarborough Country" were as committed to in-depth investigative reporting as, say, Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," or if it were as funny as, say, ABC's "World News Tonight With Peter Jennings," it would stand a better chance of survival in today's tough media market.

In the meantime, "Scarborough Country" is not completely without merit. Because of its extremely low ratings, budget-conscious advertisers like the National Collector's Mint and fitness personality John Basedow (creator of "Six-Pack Abs" and other exercise videos) can afford to buy plenty of air-time on the show. For once a Republican populist is actually helping out the little guy instead of the upper echelons of the Fortune 500, and for this Joe Scarborough deserves praise.

G. Beato is the editor of Soundbitten.com.

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