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The Sexism of 'Morning Joe'

The pathetic gender dynamics of MSNBC's hit show.

One Monday morning in November, according to the admittedly rough transcript provided by the Federal News Service, “Morning Joe,” anchor Joe Scarborough spoke 3,213 words; his co-anchor Mika Brzezinski spoke just 644. Most of her words seemed merely to remind the audience that she was still awake: Yeah. Okay. Yes. No. Maybe. Right. Terrific. Scarborough dominated the meaty segments; Brzezinski piped up mainly during the transitions. She asked guest Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, only one thing: “Terrific, eh?” she chimed, referring to our poor diplomatic relationship with Afghanistan.

On one level, the disparity is not surprising. Scarborough is the show’s headliner; it makes sense that he would speak more than his co-host. The show is not called “Morning Mika.” The third host, Willie Geist, spoke even less that Monday morning, only 145 words. Geist’s silence, however, is less problematic than Brzezinski’s, who, while not the titular star of the show, is billed as something close to a partner. The shot that starts each segment frames Brzezinski and Scarborough (and, of course, their Starbucks beverages), with Willie off to the side. Black-and-white glamour shots of Brzezinski and Scarborough punctuate every commercial break, but I’ve never seen a close-up of Geist. When the show goes on the road, it is usually Brzezinski and Scarborough who are sent to Washington or elsewhere, while Geist is left behind to hold down the abandoned fort. With a platform of his own—“Way Too Early with Willie Geist,” which airs just before “Morning Joe”—Geist seems like an afterthought to the Scarborough-Brzezinski team.

But if Brzezinski is the true second pillar of the show, why is she so quiet? Maybe the better question is, why is Scarborough so loud? And why does MSNBC, supposedly leading the liberal charge against conservative cable news, stand for such a dispiriting and old-fashioned gender dynamic? Anyone for a little sexism with their morning joe?

The TV anchor marriage is of course nothing new. One can trace the trajectory that made the man-and-woman news-anchor partnership a TV trope: Jim Hartz and Barbara Walters (“Today,” 1974-1976), Tom Brokaw and Jane Pauley (“Today,” 1976-1982), David Hartman and Joan Lunden (“Good Morning America,” 1980-1987), Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric (“Today,” 1991-1997), and Charlie Gibson and Diane Sawyer (“Good Morning America,” 1999-2005). Nightly news imitated the format less often, but incorporated it with Barbara Walters and Harry Reasoner on ABC’s evening news in the late ’70s, Dan Rather and Connie Chung on CBS’s evening newsin the mid-’90s, and Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff on ABC’s “World News Tonight” in the ’00s. When cable was born, it also used the convention. CNN’s very first newscast in 1980 was delivered by journalists Lois Hart and David Walker, a real-life married couple. Current variations on the theme include John Roberts and Kiran Chetry on CNN’s “American Morning,” and Chuck Todd and Savannah Guthrie on MSNBC’s “The Daily Rundown.” In the latest addition to TV news matrimony, CNN recently debuted “Parker Spitzer,” anchored by Kathleen Parker and Eliot Spitzer.

It is important to acknowledge that, at one point, such partnerships represented progressive development in the world of TV news. When Barbara Walters became the first woman to co-host the “Today Show” in 1974, she ended an era in which women were, according to Walters’s memoir,“tea pourers”—actresses, singers or beauty pageant winners—who “could ad-lib with the other cast members and look pretty.” Walters certainly changed this, but thirty-plus years later,it seems that her achievement—and the accomplishments of those who followed in her footsteps, like Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric—is eroding. Traditional gender roles are alive and well in cable television.

Perhaps the most egregious example from “Morning Joe” was on display in January of 2008, the morning that John McCain won the Florida primary. Referring to Charlie Crist’s endorsement of McCain, Scarborough said: “I don’t endorse anybody because as you know [pause], I’m a journalist.” Brzezinski giggled—presumably because, although he was a newspaper editor for a brief period, the authority of Scarborough’s punditry stems more from his experience as a congressman than his journalistic chops. Brzezinski, by comparison, has worked in television for almost 20 years and had a long career at CBS News, where she was, among other things, an anchor of the weekend edition of the evening news, a contributor to “60 Minutes,” and CBS’s lead reporter on the September 11th attacks.

His ego apparently bruised, Scarborough barked: “Mika, don’t make me backhand you.” To which, Brzezinski shook her head and dismissed the comment with an off-handed “Oh Lord.” The clip went viral when Media Matters, a progressive, not-for-profit research center, posted it on their website. Domestic violence jokes may be amusing to some with a taste for gallows-type humor. Personally, when watching a political news show on a progressive cable network that bears the slogan “lean forward,” I’d rather not see the anchor joke about hitting his female co-host.

In addition to such retrograde verbal jousting, and the hosts’ vastly unequal oratorical contributions, the show permits a type of patronization that should not be tolerated by journalists of Brzezinski’s caliber. One particularly nauseating segment aired in December of 2008 when Brzezinski was mugged outside her hotel on her way to a taping. Scarborough opened the show that morning with a three-minute rant about the mugging.

“I am furious,” bellowed Scarborough, ignoring Brzezinski’s pleas to leave it alone. “We always give her five dollars in case something like that happens,” he said. Then, Pat Buchanan, the morning’s guest, voiced his grandfatherly pity for poor Mika: “It’s outrageous, they ought to have a doorman or something, or have people walk you to the car.” For three minutes, Brzezinski squirmed in her chair, periodically protesting that she was just fine.

There’s nothing wrong with expressing sympathy for someone who endured a mugging. But Scarborough’s tirade, while seemingly sincere, was also condescending and inconsiderate in its dismissal of Brzezinski’s requests that the matter not be discussed on-air. It’s hard to imagine the same scenario playing out between Scarborough and female journalists who have established independent careers, like Christiane Amanpour, Diane Sawyer, or magazine editor Tina Brown. If any of these women had been mugged, and had decided to discuss the attack on air, it seems probable that they would have told the story and expressed their own outrage.

Scarborough should not shoulder all the blame for this dynamic. Brzezinski seems to have settled into a deferential role in which her primary responsibility is to keep order. Like Vanna White, turning over the letters on “Wheel of Fortune,” she keeps things moving, announcing the segment transitions and welcoming viewers back from commercial breaks with niceties like “Pretty shot of New York City!” Her most substantial speeches occur when she reads aloud from the headline stories. During interviews, she rarely asks questions and mainly speaks up to tell the guests good-bye or thank-you.

Brzezinski seems aware of the dynamic, but combats it with little more than eye-rolling. When confronted about Scarborough’s sexism on “The View,” she squirmed in her chair and jokingly called “Morning Joe” contributor Mike Barnicle “my misogynist” in the sing-song way that a teenager would refer to her dreamboat boyfriend. On her personal website, a picture of Brzezinski’s red high heels is captioned: “I click my heels three times to get a word in edgewise with Joe.” Just what every seasoned female journalist needs to keep up with her male colleagues: red high heels. Mika, we’re not in Kansas anymore.

Such sexism is particularly grating because of MSNBC’s purportedly liberal leanings, but the dynamic occurs elsewhere on cable news, like on CNN’s “Parker Spitzer.” I won’t give the show full treatment here, but the similar dynamic deserves consideration, especially since Parker, it seems, no longer has the stomach for it. (Full disclosure: Kathleen Parker is a family friend.)

“Parker Spitzer,” like “Morning Joe,” has the word-count problem, with Spitzer speaking, on average, twice as much as Parker. (Spitzer generally doesn’t speak many more times than Parker, but his monologues often run twice as long.) This is an improvement on Joe’s quintupled blathering, but, unlike Brzezinski, Parker is actually the show’s lead headliner. Spitzer’s inability to cede air-time to Kathleen is even more noticeable when the two discuss topics that she clearly knows more about. In a November 5 segment titled “Is Masculinity Dead?” comedian Adam Carolla brought up his distaste for gender-neutral toys. “I gave my son a doll,” Parker offered. Spitzer, who was sitting between Parker and Carolla, interrupted: “No, you didn’t,” “Yes, I did,” Parker said, looking annoyed and picking up the pace of her speech. Spitzer interrupted her five times in the 23 seconds that followed this exchange, finally raising his voice to stammer his way into the conversation.

Seemingly wise to the problem, the producers recently started allowing Parker and Spitzer to interview guests alone—a development that could improve the show. Or, possibly, save it. A recent New York Post article revealed some animosity between the co-hosts. Quoting anonymous insiders, the Post reported that Parker “stormed” off the set during pre-taping a few weeks ago because she was angry about Spitzer’s dominance.

Though I find Spitzer and Scarborough insufferable, they are not entirely to blame for bulldozing their co-hosts. In allowing and seemingly condoning such behavior, the networks commit the greater sin. Whether liberal-leaning (MSNBC) or politically neutral (CNN), news networks owe their viewers something better. This daily dose of sexism is insidious—a setback for feminism and awfully annoying to watch.

Eliza Gray is a reporter-researcher for The New Republic.

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