MSNBC has the least viewers of any major broadcast or cable network covering the Democratic national convention in Denver -- but that's bound to change if MSNBC hosts keep tearing one another's throats out on the air.
The network's token conservative, Joe Scarborough, has been getting hammered by his colleagues and is hammering right back. So far, things haven't quite reached the Chernobylesque temperatures of ABC's coverage of the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, when Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley exchanged words like "Nazi" and "queer" during their on-screen colloquies, but take heart — we've still got two more days to go.
The first exchange of fire came Monday night, when Scarborough was reporting from the convention floor that Barack Obama's advisers are now saying that a newly aggressive McCain campaign will give them more of a contest than they expected. Apparently unaware that his microphone was live, the leftiest of MSNBC's hosts, Keith Olbermann, muttered: "Jesus, Joe, why don't you get a shovel?" Scarborough, along with two million or so viewers, heard it. Watch it here.
"A shovel?" he said. "Did somebody just ask --"
"I did," Olbermann retorted. "I mean, seriously, Joe... The man just lost seven points in the serious voter poll."
A long and acrimonious wrangle over polling numbers followed, climaxed by MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews plaintively asking, "Are we done yet?"
Ugly as it was, the Scarborough/Olbermann faceoff seemed downright kissy-face compared to the meltdown between Scarborough and NBC reporter David Shuster Tuesday. Scarborough was talking about Iraq when Shuster snapped at him that "your party, the Republican party" mocks anybody who proposes a troop withdrawal.
"What about your party?" demanded Scarborough. "What's your party, David Shuster? David, what's your party?"
"I have no party," replied Shuster. "I'm a complete independent."
"Oh, I feel so comforted by the fact that you're an independent," scoffed Scarborough. "I bet everyone at MSNBC has 'independent' on their voting cards. 'Oh, we're down the middle now.' "
"Are you done yet?" wondered Shuster.
"No, I'm not done, when the fact is that I'm about as down-the-middle as anybody on television on any network, and you come in with a cheap shot, calling up 'your party,'" Scarborough continued, his eyes narrowing. From there he ripped into Shuster for oversleeping and goofing off: "You didn't show up three times in a row! Three times you slept through your alarm and didn't come on this show." Watch here.
Anybody want to lay odds on who'll go after Scarborough next? As MSNBC increasingly brands itself as the lefty alternative in cable news -- the net just hired Air American vet Rachel Maddow to host a 9 p.m. show following Olberman's Countdown -- Scarborough looks out of place. Unless you think of him as a pinata.
Glenn Garvin is The Miami Herald's television critic. You can read his Changing Channels blog at http://miamiherald.typepad.com/changing_channels/