Joe Scarborough says he met with Trump, but not at party

© The Associated Press FILE - In this April 11, 2012 file photograph taken by AP Images for The Hollywood Reporter, 'Morning Joe' host Joe Scarborough arrives at The Hollywood Reporter 35 Most Powerful People in Media event in New York.

Joe Scarborough says he was with Trump, but not to party

NEW YORK — Joe Scarborough's year-end meet-up with Donald Trump has unleashed criticism of the MSNBC commentator for being too cozy with a high elected figure. But Scarborough says he's just doing his job as a journalist, and suggests he was targeted only because the politician was Trump.

Eyebrows were raised Sunday by a New York Times report including Scarborough and his "Morning Joe" co-host, Mika Brzezinski, among those on hand for Trump's lavish New Year's Eve party at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida.

But on Tuesday's "Morning Joe" edition, Scarborough denied he and Brzezinski were there to party. Instead, he said, they were summoned for a private meeting with Trump to discuss a possible future interview.

After being admitted to the compound at about 7:15 p.m. Saturday, he and Brzezinski skirted the festivities. "We walked upstairs and hid, because we were underdressed." The two spoke with Trump for about 20 minutes, and were gone by 7:50, he said.

"People say, 'Why do you meet on New York's Eve?'" Scarborough said, swiftly offering the answer: "You go to meet the president-elect when the staff SAYS you come meet the president-elect."

Scarborough said he had been staying with friends in the area when called to the meeting. An NBC publicist declined to explain how Brzezinski happened to be available. She was not on Tuesday's "Morning Joe."

Over the weekend, Scarborough took heat on Twitter.

"This sure looks like an ideal location to have a journalistic meeting about an interview on NYE," tweeted Sopan Deb, a CBS News correspondent who will soon move to The New York Times, referencing a photo that shows Scarborough standing with Trump near revelers.

Another tweet, from "Meet the Press" moderator (and fellow NBC employee) Chuck Todd said, "It really stinks to watch others continue help ruin the reputation of your industry. But fighting each other about only hurts the democracy."

Aly Colon, Knight Chair in Media Ethics at Washington and Lee University, sizes up this backlash.

"It benefits journalists to maintain as much distance as they can from the personal world these people inhabit," he says, if only to avoid a misperception. "Often, perception can trump reality."

Scarborough, a former Republican congressman, has enjoyed perhaps a warmer on-air relationship with Trump than many of his TV counterparts, often receiving Trump's phone calls during the show.

But on one occasion in December 2015, things got contentious when, 10 minutes into the interview, he essentially threw Trump off the air for talking over interviewers.

"Donald, Donald, Donald, Donald, Donald," he said. "You're not going to keep talking. We will cut to a break if you keep talking." And he did. After the commercial, Trump stayed on the air for nearly 30 more minutes.

Last August, things struck another sour note when Trump tweeted that "Morning Joe" is "unwatchable!" He said Brzezinski was "off the wall, a neurotic and not very bright mess!" and slammed both co-hosts as "two clowns."

On Tuesday's show, Scarborough said, "Mika and I have known and have been friends with Donald Trump for a decade," though conceding that "things got obviously very rough during the campaign."

He said that, though criticized for being too close with Trump, he and Brzezinski actually spent more time with President Barack Obama "in the Oval Office one-on-one than we ever did with Donald Trump — 90 minutes, talking politics, all off-the-record."

He noted that journalists routinely meet and socialize with the government bigwigs they cover, and have done so going back decades.

Frank Sesno agrees.

"Anybody who suggests that prominent journalists and talk-show hosts haven't, for a long time, gone out of their way to meet candidates in social environments so they can make nice and get them on their shows — anyone who doesn't think that's a fixture is operating in another universe," says Sesno, Director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University.

During President Barack Obama's eight years in office, for example, journalists — including Associated Press reporters and editors — attended state dinners and other social gatherings at the White House as guests.

"Different people play the game in different ways and Scarborough, as he's made plain himself, is a talk-show host," Sesno said. "He's not a straight journalist. That's a big difference and it needs to be acknowledged."

Joe Scarborough defends schmoozing with Trump as ‘the Washington way’

It started, as so many things do these days, with a tweet.

The New York Times political reporter Maggie Haberman, covering Donald Trump’s New Year’s Eve festivities, observed Saturday night that Joe Scarborough and his MSNBC co-host Mika Brzezinski were among the president-elect’s Mar-a-Lago revelers.

Indeed, they were there. Haberman wasn’t making a judgment, just reporting. The former CBS reporter Sopan Deb (soon to join the Times) took it further, describing them as “partying” with Trump.

Scarborough, a former Republican congressman from Florida, wasn’t having any of it. He shot back at Deb, charging “fake news.”

Under Deb’s questioning, Scarborough explained that his and Brzezinski’s purpose was professional, not social. The morning-talk duo was just trying to line up an interview with Trump. They were not partying, and, Scarborough later stressed, they were “dramatically underdressed,” and he was headed home soon to a quiet night with his kids.

A few accusations and counter-accusations later, Scarborough delivered a scathing piece to The Washington Post’s online opinion section, PostPartisan.

It may not prove much about why he and Brzezinski were there on New Year’s Eve. He says that Brzezinski was unable to attend Scarborough’s prior dinner with the president-elect — “so Trump asked that she come by the next night for a few minutes before his annual New Year’s Eve party.”

Since when does an interview request require this much discussion? But then again, they talk a lot. Scarborough told Politico last month that he speaks to Trump several times a week, conversations in which he makes the same observations as he does on the air.

The Post piece proves a couple of other points. One, that Scarborough is almost as thin-skinned as Trump himself.

Scarborough’s opinion piece — he writes regularly for The Post — may have been headlined “The media’s hypocrisy and hyperventilating in the age of Trump,” but it was in part a convoluted defense of his interactions with the man, complete with language like this: “This past week, I met twice with President-elect Donald Trump attempting to secure an interview for inauguration week.”

Second, he has an extraordinarily high opinion of himself and his place in the political firmament. Pointing to past relationships between American politicians and journalists, he invoked some of the greats, indirectly comparing himself to Edward R. Murrow, Ben Bradlee and Walter Lippmann. He sarcastically advised those who criticize him not to “bother yourself with boring details of history that show how Washington Post legend Ben Bradlee was extraordinarily close with JFK . . . . And forget the fact that Walter Lippmann constantly offered JFK advice.” (All the references were from decades ago, and they involve contact now considered inappropriate and unwise. They also happened at a time when such elbow-rubbing made few blink but nowadays would be considered well over the line of ethical acceptability.)
Despite all the silliness that’s piling up here — and it is getting almost as tall as Trump Tower — there is a serious principle at hand. It’s this: There should be some distance between journalists and elected officials. If that doesn’t exist, independence and impartiality are sure to be questioned. And rightly so.

In a phone interview, Scarborough told me that friendships between politicians and journalists are the norm in Washington — “that has been the Washington way for a very long time.” He suggested that it was naive to think there is anything wrong with it, and that it is possible to “do two things at once.”

He can be friends with Trump, he said, and be plenty tough on him, as he was at times during the campaign, when he vowed he would not vote for him. As for the meetings with Trump, scoring a major interview requires “a comfort level” on the part of the elected official, and that’s what he and Brzezinski were striving for.

In other words: Nothing to see here. Move along.

What’s more, Scarborough said, he doesn’t really view himself as a journalist — he prefers the label “news analyst.” (In the piece, though, he does call himself a “Republican reporter.” When I asked him about that, he scoffed at those who hide behind a “veneer of objectivity.”)

I see it differently. Granted: News people don’t constantly have to be dukes-up adversarial with the elected officials they cover. And the old “he said/she said” style of objectivity is increasingly useless.
But if newspeople intend to serve the public interest, they do need to maintain professional distance. Call it independence or impartiality.
And there are plenty — yes, in Washington, and many other places — who maintain those standards, who would never see it as their job to advise politicians or befriend them.

Maybe that’s not what Scarborough calls “the Washington way.” But it’s the right way.

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