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Hugh Hewitt Book Club and Joe Scarborough, Again

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Yesterday I had editor John Harris as my guest to discuss that website’s lurch to the left. (A post from last night has the background and the links to the transcripts.) One of the subjects we covered was the choice by Politico to name MSNBC anchor Joe Scarborough as its leading, front-page “conservative” columnist. Harris defended the choice, though it is simply laughable to assert that Joe is a fair choice for the conservative movement’s voice on a website aiming to be objective and fair.

If Politico cannot objectively evaluate the wisdom and impact of naming Joe Scarborough as its lead conservative voice, there is a very good chance that neither can it objectively evaluate the bias that has invaded its entire web site.
If it is blind to the former, it is almost certainly blind to the latter.

But don’t trust me, or Fred Barnes who also joined me yesterday to discuss Politico’s lurch left. Take Joe Scarborough’s new column from this morning as the best evidence of why Politico is shredding its brand via its tie-in with Joe and MSNBC. Today Joe attacks not just Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck but all of the leading the potential GOP nominees for 2012.

Fine. Not very interesting, and certainly no new information or perspective, but celebrity columnists whose perch did not develop because of a career in reporting and writing often produce such meaningless froth cobbled together from cliches dominating the newsroom at any given time. Joe’s a newsreader and an affable, nice-guy host, not a public intellectual or an ideas guy. The bar is low. He isn’t the worst columnist working on a major news portal by any stretch of the imagination. Perfectly acceptable if meaningless column inches.

Unless you are a Politico editor or owner. Then you care a lot about your brand. Two weeks in a row your conservative columnist has gone Full Frum, turning his space into an engine of criticism against all sorts of conservatives at a crucial moment in a debate over political media when consumers of political news are reading closely for attacks and defenses of what they deeply believe. Whatever your sympathies for Joe’s “point of view” and his abilities, you get a sinking feeling that conservatives are either disappointed or angry with Joe’s absurd arguments and sneering tone, or laughing and laughing at the juxtaposition of Joe’s lame attacks today and John Harris’ defense of Politico’s objectivity yesterday.

It is hard to build brand. Easy to destroy it. Politico may have made a business choice to go left just as MSNBC did –first gradually and then with abandon, and Joe provides defensible “cover,” or, much more likely, there’s a deal of some sort between Politico and NBC to cross-support each other’s platforms. Such a deal represents a huge misjudgment on Politico’s part about the toxicity of the cable channel and its impact not just on readers but also on its talent like Joe and his ability to persevere there as a genuine center-right opinion leader.

If Politico really did aim for credibility and readership across the political spectrum and thus a unique and valuable niche among news portals, today’s “contribution” to the effort from Joe was not what the branding doctors ordered. Two columns in a row full of incoherent arguments and cliches aimed at conservatives during a high-profile and important debate is the last chance Joe and Politico will get from many, many readers.

What would a serious news organization do right now? Cut the ties with MSNBC or, at a minimum, demote Joe and bury his contracted-for brand-breakers and bring on a new voice, much like the Washington Post had to do when it zipped through a couple of misfires before inking Jennifer Rubin.

Because the front page at Politico as it now stands with Joe’s name on it might as well carry a banner “Anti-conservative when it counts. Pretending when it doesn’t.”



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