Cable talk television shuts out liberal voices

March 18, 2003|By Bruce Kluger

NEW YORK - Earlier this month, executives at the MSNBC cable news network canceled Phil Donahue's 6-month-old talk show, a level-headed panel program that the pacifist host had hoped would "break through the noisy drums of war on cable."

In its place, the network simply tacked an extra hour onto its popular Countdown: Iraq, a nightly report that breathlessly awaits the first Baghdad bombings.

Once again, the lucrative business of war trumped the boring business of peace.

MSNBC's cancellation of Mr. Donahue - and the simultaneous ascendancy of the man he was hired to beat, Fox News Channel's dyspeptic, conservative talk show host Bill O'Reilly - points to a fever that has finally spiked on the cable news dial. Hard facts and incisive commentary have ceded ground to partisan punditry and rancorous roundtables, and suddenly the once-sacred institution of broadcast news is looking like an episode of Survivor. A bad one.

Although in his final weeks Mr. Donahue trailed Mr. O'Reilly and CNN's Connie Chung in the 8 p.m. time slot, his was still the highest-rated program on MSNBC, surpassing even the popular Hardball with Chris Matthews. Despite that feat, however, the one quality Mr. Donahue apparently lacked was the very thing his employer needed from him most: a hard-line, heartfelt belief in the Bush administration's conservative agenda.

That concession Mr. Donahue could not give his bosses. In the end, Mr. O'Reilly's calls for desert carnage captured the imagination of American viewers in ways that Mr. Donahue's arguments for measured diplomacy couldn't, and now he's out of a job. There goes the last standing true liberal in cable news.

Then again, most industry watchers were not surprised by Mr. Donahue's termination; MSNBC had been readying his noose for months. Staggered by the success of The O'Reilly Factor - whose cantankerous host reigns as the most watched performer on cable TV news - NBC News didn't like being shoved to the bottom of the cable ratings chart.

Consequently, according to writer Rick Ellis of AllYourTV.com, executives quietly commissioned a study to help MSNBC rethink its programming. While the subsequent report did not forecast the rosiest of futures for the struggling network, Mr. Donahue's grades were particularly grim. Describing the veteran white-maned host as "out of touch with the current marketplace," the study said Mr. Donahue presented a "difficult public face" for the network in a time of war.

"He seems to delight in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration's motives," cautioned the report, which then delivered its final, ominous warning: that the show could become "a home for the liberal anti-war agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity."

In other words, missiles sell, and MSNBC desperately needed to restock its armory.

Although this disturbing game of broadcast musical chairs supports the conventional wisdom that cable viewers skew to a more conservative ilk, avowed lefties aren't giving up just yet.

Since January, two separate organizations have announced plans to bring the ideological battle to the radio front.

Democracy Radio Inc., a nonprofit formed by seasoned Washington Beltway Democrats, hopes to create liberal programming that would give the lords of conservative talk - such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity - a run for their money. And two wealthy venture capitalists (and former donors to Bill Clinton and Al Gore) from Chicago, Sheldon and Anita Drobny, plan to launch a liberal radio network with professional smart aleck Al Franken as a potential headliner.

Meantime, MSNBC marches on in a decidedly eyes-right formation. In the same breath that it unceremoniously dumped Mr. Donahue, the network proudly announced forthcoming shows to be hosted by a phalanx of O'Reilly imitators, including M-|ber-conservative Mike Savage, former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey and former Minnesota Gov. (and ex-pro wrestler) Jesse Ventura.

Not only do all three share philosophies that unambiguously tilt to the right (or in Mr. Ventura's case, veer wildly across the board), but all dabble in the kind of high-octane, low-brow discourse that would undoubtedly make their pernicious poobah and soon-to-be rival - Mr. O'Reilly - secretly beam with pride.

Mr. Savage has commented that Hispanics "breed like rabbits" and women "should have been denied the vote"; Mr. Armey has referred to gay congressman Barney Frank as "Barney Fag"; and Mr. Ventura once asked the Dalai Lama whether he'd ever seen Caddyshack.

Welcome to "America's News Channel."

Bruce Kluger is a free-lance writer who appears on National Public Radio. He lives in New York City.

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