All-time great comedian Harry Shearer, the man who brought us voices from The Simpsons and cucumber-hoarding bass player Derek Smalls in This Is Spinal Tap, has broken an embarrassing story about us journalists.
In his Le Show podcast, he released audio of off-camera dialogue between Donald Trump and ostensible news figures Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski of the MSNBC program Morning Joe. The tape covers breaks in a town hall segment the trio filmed in South Carolina last week.
The embarrassing part starts when Brzezinski compliments Trump on his campaign stagecraft. She comments that it was a "wow" moment when Trump invited onstage two meatheads who tossed a protester from one of his South Carolina events.
A side note: The vigorous physical expulsion of loser-protesters has become a predictable scene at Trump events. Every time I've seen it in person, it's freaked me out — it's like a window into some future WWE-style dissident-beheading ritual — but Mika apparently thought the video of the South Carolina incident was inspiring.
"You know what I thought was kind of a wow moment, was the guy you brought up on stage," Mika says.
"We played it several times this morning!" adds a breathless Scarborough.
An approving Trump here verbally extends his ring to be kissed. "I watched your show this morning," he says. "You have me almost as a legendary figure, I like that."
If any politician ever said that to me, I would eat a cyanide capsule on the spot. Mika and Joe both seemed undisturbed.
Joe went on to apologize to Trump for having called the South Carolina debate wrong (he thought Trump lost). Next, Brzezinski thanked Trump for being on the show. Trump jokingly replied that he gets nothing out of their relationship, while she will get "great ratings and a raise."
Trump goes on to say, "Just make us all look good."
"Exactly," says Scarborough.
In another moment, someone in studio suggests a question to ask Trump through Scarborough's earpiece. "That's a great question," Scarborough says.
"What, the China?" Trump says. Trump had just been talking about China, so naturally he assumed that when Scarborough used the word "great," he was referring to something he'd said.
"No, they're telling me what to ask you," Scarborough explains. He then pretends that the prospect of a tough question scares The Donald.
"Look at you. I see, he's shaking," Joe says.
"Yeah. Whatever," Trump answers, with humorously obvious sincerity.
Scarborough, being playful, goes on to ask his mystery question: "When was the last time you golfed?"
Trump doesn't get that Scarborough is play-asking him a "tough" question and instead gives a serious answer right out of a textbook on Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
Trump explains that he played four days ago, but had to bow out of his outing with gorgeous 20-year-old pro Lexi Thompson because he was thinking too much about the whole running-for-president thing. "I played nine holes, I didn't even want to play anymore," he says sadly.
So I was playing nine holes with a famous golfer who is also a bikini model, but I had to cut it short because being the most talked-about (and soon most powerful) man on earth is so tiring…
Scarborough takes in this ridiculous story without comment. The only surprise is that he doesn't ask Trump for putting tips.
But the worst exchange is about the questions in the segment. Brzezinski at one point tries to check with Scarborough if it's OK to ask a tough question.
"Do you not want me to do, the um, the ones with, um, deportation?" she says.
Scarborough's answer is hilarious. "We really do have to go to some questions," he says. Though it's audio only, you can almost hear his brow furrowing with concern.
Trump at this point interjects. "Nothing too hard, Mika," he says.
"OK," she replies.
It goes without saying that there were no questions about deportation or immigration at the town hall.
Nobody who's covered the Trump run could fail to notice the increasingly hot-and-sweaty ménage a trois between the candidate and Mika and Joe. After hearing Trump give the duo chummy shout-outs at multiple campaign-trail events, I wrote about them in an upcoming piece for Rolling Stone. (Ed. note: Here it is.) My idea is that they would be the royal media under the upcoming Trump monarchy/dictatorship. It's easy to imagine Joe in an official state journalist uniform, with epaulettes and a flying Trump-mane insignia.
Even their on-air performance at the town hall last Wednesday was such a craven display of bumlicking and softballing that media critics all over the country denounced them for it.
Erik Wemple of the Washington Post ripped Scarborough and Brzezinski for letting Trump squirm out of fact-checking problems (like his completely un-sourced, unconfirmed claim that he was against the Iraq invasion before 2003). He also blasted them for not asking him any questions about Trump's myriad crazy comments about women, minorities and the disabled.
To this, Mika and Joe responded that they had "humiliated" their competitors and that their critics were being hysterical. Scarborough's first defiant take recalled Bill Clinton's whiny observation that if you took Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein into an alley and "slit his throat," the rabble would still call you soft on Wall Street.
Said Scarborough of Trump: "If you don't stand on top of him with your knees on his chest and stab him in the side of the neck until he bleeds out, it's never going to be enough."
He added later that the rest of the press corps was just jealous that his show was the first to take Trump seriously. "You're really angry because we called this first," he said. "You're humiliated because this is your job."
Actually, guessing that Trump's campaign had a chance at success and shoving your tongue a foot and a half up Trump's backside are two completely different journalistic acts. For the record, a lot of media people guessed early on that Trump's campaign was for real, and that group included many reporters who wouldn't sit within ten feet of Trump without a HazMat suit. (Even I put money on him to win the nomination way back in August).
But Scarborough isn't really saying that he was the first pundit to call Trump a serious contender. What he's really bragging about is that he was the first media figure smart enough to strap on his kneepads in exchange for access once he saw that the Trump campaign was going places. He seems genuinely to think the rest of us are just jealous that we didn't think to do that first.
The reality, of course, is that Scarborough currently is winning the access battle with Trump because Donald Trump, like the Chinese emperors of yore who surrounded themselves with eunuchs as palace guards, refuses to interact with anyone who threatens him in any way.
Thus Trump's regular media contacts are exclusively a gang of supplicating ratings-whores like Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, and especially Scarborough, who appears to be Trump's favorite lapdog. Trump seems to get a kick out of the fact that he now has an ex-congressman carrying his skirts for him in public, and he tosses Scarborough's name around at events like a war trophy.
Which, again, would normally be another reason to eat a cyanide capsule, but Joe seems pretty far from this.
Obviously Scarborough and Brzezinski aren't the only ostensibly neutral media figures to go in the tank for a candidate. They're not even the only ones at MSNBC.
Chris Matthews at Hardball seems to have become Hillary Clinton's unofficial campaign spokesman. The phenomenon is conspicuous enough that outlets on both the left and the right have chalked up Matthews' on-air prostrations to the fact that his wife Kathleen, who is running for Congress in Maryland, shares many campaign donors with Hillary.
The excuse parade for people like Scarborough is going to include the observation that he's not really a journalist but more like an entertainer or an "analyst." Even Callum Borchers of the Washington Post, in an otherwise critical article about the leaked audio, concluded that Scarborough and Brzezinski "shouldn't be held to the same standard of total neutrality" as straight-news reporters.
Maybe that's true, who knows. But even assuming that it's OK for someone like Scarborough to be something less than neutral, being an advocate is different from being a slobbering yes man.
There was a time in the journalism business when it was considered at least somewhat embarrassing to be caught openly shilling for a politician. Believe it or not, it was also once considered inappropriate to admit to being about nothing except ratings. Not that everyone has to be Seymour Hersh, but Jesus, have some pride.
Watching Mika and Joe cheerfully allow themselves to be walked on by a thin-skinned billionaire jackass like Trump gives me the same feeling Red Sox fans are having this week watching Pablo Sandoval show up to Spring Training with his gut hanging two feet over his waist. As in: You get paid to do a job, remember? At least pretend to care.Watch highlights from Donald Trump's presidential campaign thus far.